In Praise of the iTunes Column Browser

I’ve been writing recently about “The App Formerly Known as iTunes,” and how the split into four apps (on macOS) will change the way people manage their media libraries. One big change is the demise of the column browser, a unique tool in iTunes that lets you quickly scan and browse your library, and pick music to play.

For those who aren’t familiar with this tool, the best way to use it is in Songs view, and with artwork displayed (that, too, is going away). Press Command-B to display the column browser. It displays at the top of the window.

Column browser

In the above, I’ve selected my Dead genre (all my music by the Grateful Dead and related bands), I’ve then selected Grateful Dead in the Artist column, and I can see a list of albums. I click one to view it in the bottom pane, and I can start playing it easily. I can use the arrow keys to move back and forth, similar to the way you can browse in Column View in the Finder.

What’s really useful is that I can see, at a glance, what albums I have. The list is compact and easy to parse. Note that I’ve shrunk the iTunes window a bit for this screenshot; usually, I see more columns horizontally in the bottom pane.

There are a number of options for displaying the column browser in the View menu. You can choose which columns to display, and you can group compilations and use album artists instead of artists in the Artists column.

Column browser view

Alas, this is going away, and the closest view I can use in the Catalina Music app is Albums view. With this, you can see up to 24 albums, because their artwork increases in size as the window size increases. (On my 13″ MacBook Pro, running Catalina, I see 15 albums, though the bottom row is cut off so I can’t see the titles and artists. On my 21″ iMac, using the current iTunes, I see 45 albums, but the bottom row is about half cut off.)

The screenshot below is from a friend who tried the Music app on a 27″ iMac. Look at that wasted space on the sides…

Music albums view big

While viewing the album artwork can be helpful, it’s not very efficient. In many cases, I want to see the names of albums, such as for my classical music, where I have the names of performers in the album title.

I’ll miss this tool, which dates back to the first version of iTunes. (For screenshots, see this review of iTunes 1.0 on ATPM. One interesting quote from the review: “It may be noteworthy that the iTunes library can only hold 32,000 songs, though that should be plenty of room for most uses.”)

I hope iTunes users will let Apple know how important the column browser is. Send an email on Apple’s feedback page.

Learn more about the new media apps that replace iTunes in macOS Catalina in my new book, Take Control of macOS Media Apps.