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.

52 thoughts on “In Praise of the iTunes Column Browser

  1. Very interesting post. I personally very rarely use the column browser so I’m not to worried that it’s going. I use album view on my 27″ iMac as I can view up to 60 albums. So I’m very surprised that you say that your friend can only view 15 albums on his 27′ iMac. My version of iTunes is 12.8.2.3

  2. The Album view is only effective with relatively small numbers of albums. With any serious collection of Music, a more concise method of browsing is essential. The great thing about The iTunes column browser is that it’s an option. All users get to decide what works best for them. Apple following the current trend in software development to wrest control of the user experience away from the user is unacceptable. A developer can NEVER know absolutely what works best for ANY user, let alone ALL users.

    A diminishing number of software developers recognise that software needs to include options that allow a user to configure the software to suit how they need it to work and not simply force the user into working the way the developer decides (incorrectly usually).

    Even if you don’t use it much, everyone MUST tell Apple to keep The column browser or next time, Apple will drop that feature that YOU absolutely must have.

  3. Good idea to submit feedback, have done so. Of course, the list of iTunes versions that you have to choose from doesn’t include the one I have installed (12.9.5) – the most recent version you can choose is 12.9.3. 🤦‍♀️

  4. Something I’m curious about for the Catalina Podcasts app – is the Classic (disclosure triangle) List from iTunes (and Mac OS in general) still available? It’s not there in the iOS version, which shares the behaviour of the modern (big artwork) list view in iTunes – whenever a podcast shifts hosts, the modern List creates a new entry for that show, so for some older shows, I’ll have one entry in Classic (disclosure triangle) List, with all the episodes in order, but in iOS / modern List there might be 5 or 6 entries for a show, with varying numbers of episodes split amongst them.

    It’s an absolute mess, unless you give up on local storage of shows, and just re-download every episode every time a show switches feed host (assuming they still make them available, and haven’t sold them to Stitcher etc).

      • glad I stumped up another 48gb of RAM for my classic Cheesegrater – think I’m going to be running a lot of legacy macOS installs in VMs, to keep access to a time when Apple wasn’t a sheltered workshop for secondrate UI/UX designers.

  5. I speculate that many decisions like this one are made by people who don’t actually use the software. A coder drops in thirty albums to test functionality, and then a manager/designer starts throwing away features, to make it ‘simpler’ and ‘more elegant’. The needs of anyone who uses the software in a frequent, active, or high-stakes way are ignored and deprecated. I’m remembering when Steve Jobs compared HyperCard to a Rolodex. He seemed to have no idea all the creative, diverse, and valuable tools and products that users had created with it.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Reminded of this again when recently using an Apple TV to play music. I want to select an artist and play all their albums – in chronological order. That’s how I got to know them and it makes the most sense to me. I cannot imagine any other album order making any sense at all. Anyway…

      If I select an artist, I see all their albums in the correct order (my tagging should ensure that). But if I choose to play all their music, the Apple TV plays all the artist’s tracks in alphabetical order and under no circumstances does that make any sense. It is to all intents and purposes no different from a random order, but there is already a ‘random’ button to do that. Why would anyone actually choose to play tracks in alphabetical order – or albums in fact. Alpha sorting has NO relevance whatsoever when playing music. It is only useful when searching through long lists.

      This has clearly not been thought through by anyone with an ounce of sense.

  6. This is a disaster. I blame the tech journalists who insisted on continuing to wave the “iTunes is bloated” flag. I’ve never understood what that was about. I have my device to consume media, be it my iPhone or iPad, that syncs to a software application that manages all the types of media that my device accommodates. All neatly sectioned off within the program making it easy to pick and choose what I’ll be syncing. How exactly is this inefficient? The column browser in iTunes is my absolute goto, regardless of which media type. Very disappointed. Will not be upgrading to Catalina until such time as the column browser is brought back or Mojave stops receiving security updates. I read your columns all the time, Kirk. Keep up the great work.

    • The tech journalist “iTunes is Bloated” meme, was about change for change’s sake – because change is something you can report on, create content about, discuss etc. “Apple got this right, and it’s staying the same” makes for poor headlines, and low click-throughs.

      As for why Apple won’t leave things alone – fill a company with people, tell them they’re there to change the world, and they’re not going to be happy maintaining good things the way they are.

      The Jobsian proverb of “make a dent in the universe” doesn’t seem to allow for whether that dent is good or not – hail makes a pretty sizeable dent in the universe of a car’s bonnet, doesn’t mean we celebrate it for that.

  7. I sent my feedback on this months ago. I appealed to a long-standing iTunes specific site to do some sort of campaign to get this back and nothing happened. Most of the interface changes to iTunes over the years still allowed me to restore my preferred view. As an example, it has become increasingly annoying that every playlist I make goes to the large View–As Playlist and I have to switch it to View–As Songs to get it back. With column view it was wonderful (particularly for large smart playlists) that it could be turned on for any playlist.

    Over the past decade, so many sites, services and apps have redesigned and removed views, features and information I found useful. I’ve often given feedback but it almost never results in the thing restored. Spotify stupefied the interface by removing information and presenting far less of it on even a giant display, Life360 took 3 years to return visibility of many roads due to a poor palette choice that could have been fixed by a 13 year-old in 5 minutes. My bank used to show me future balance after bill pays and still has the button for it that doesn’t work months later, but they reply to my email by postal mail with pacifying language that doesn’t address anything.

    I don’t want everyone forced into my preferences either. If people want the less info and more wasted space thing, give them the classic MacOS Launcher, but don’t take away my Finder! I’m glad I’m not alone on this one. Thanks for picking it up.

  8. A few months ago I switched to Roon which is a much more helpful app and evolving steadily. I recommend it to people with serious music collections. Perhaps you could review it at some stage, Kirk?

    The iTunes era is coming to a close. Nothing lasts forever.

    • I looked at Roon when it first launched and it was very problematic. I’m sure it has improved by now. But that’s only good for playing your music locally; if you want to use a combination of a Mac, and iOS device, Apple Music, and iCloud Music Library, you still need the Music app.

      The iTunes era isn’t coming to a close any time soon.

    • I had a look at Rune and very attractive it looks too. But as is typical these days, it overloads the screen with fancy imagery. Only had a quick look, but I could find no data intensive display, like the Column Browser that allows one to quickly sift and sort through thousands of albums.

      In any case, it costs $500. So that’s never going to make it onto my Macs.

  9. Yes, the news is mainly bad. I see from the screenshot that the one thing I really would like Apple to take away is here to stay: the horrible pink and purple candy hue of the icons. Okay, this is a matter of personal taste – perhaps even gender-related, guys! – but is this look really enjoyed by any majority out there? I will add my voice to the lobby to keep the column view, but not before trying out the new version myself.

  10. Losing the iTunes Column Browser would be just about catastrophic for me. The Music interface lack the drill down function which I need to take advantage of my huge library of classical and jazz.

    Fortunately the Swinsian music player for Mac (https://swinsian.com/) has a column browser format that does most of what Column Browser does and many cool things it doesn’t. It’s much faster than iTunes.

    It costs $24.95 with a free trial. I have a 9 year old Mac that still works fine, so I won’t be upgrading to Catalina and losing column browser isn’t an issue. But it’s worth it to me to buy Swinsian because it’s so much faster and in many ways better than iTunes.

    • I had a good look at Swinsian. I loved the fact that it would accept and use album artwork stored in the Album folder alongside the music files. Such a simple system and that works perfectly – compared to Apple’s ridiculously complex and impenetrable Album Artwork system, although not yet figured how that works in Catalina. I suspect it will be as humungous as iTunes.

      But (BIG ‘but’ for me), Swinsian makes NO use whatsoever of any SORT tags. These music apps are of course all basically databases and as a former database developer it staggers me that devs, like those of Swinsian can simply ignore fields that are there specifically to allow the user to achieve the sorting order they desire. Instead their app simply sorts all Artists and Albums alphabetically on their basic tags which is hopeless. Utterly hopeless. In this regard iTunes is unsurpassed. It gives the user the ability to control every aspect (and display) of their data.

      I also take issue with criticism of iTunes’ speed. Really? As far as I’m concerned, iTunes actually did a great job. I’ve had issues with its access to the file storage (and also its over complicated Artwork system) but it has provided THE very best and most flexible music database app I have ever come across. I keep trying others to see if they overcome any of iTunes real deficiencies, but they all come up WAY short. And speed? Sorry, but that has never even entered my thoughts as a problem with iTunes. It keeps rapid track of over 25K items in my library and displays everything faster than i can keep up with it. You want it to play the actual music faster?

      I do quite like the idea of splitting it up, but then a simple rename to something like iMedia would have sufficed. Apple have seemingly lost the ability to keep their nomenclature accurate, or sensible. iTunes covered more ‘non Tunes’ than actual tunes. Even in Catalina, the TV app also includes movies, but when dealing with video, those are 2 distinct categories and its music data defaults to ~/Music/Music/Music Media which surely could have been less repetitive.

      Having said that, the Music and TV apps can still be pointed anywhere for their content files and since they use the same folder names, can easily be both pointed at the same media folder as was used by iTunes. So no moving required of any of the large audio/video files, although they can now be stored in separate locations if desired.

      Audiobooks though, that’s a different matter.

      • There have been periods when iTunes was sluggish with large libraries, especially if you had lots of smart playlists that did live updating. But when they introduced a new library format with iTunes 11, things got a lot faster, and the library got smaller.

        This said, in the new Music app, with a library of about 40,000 tracks, tying into the filter bar to filter items in a view is laggy; I type faster than it updates. So there is some optimizing to be done.

  11. Phil’s comment above about the coloured icons… it wasn’t so long ago Apple removed the coloured icons in a previous version. Now they’re putting them back! I understand the splitting of iTunes into 4 separate apps but give us a ‘classic view’ option for music at least. I’ll be staying ‘High Sierra’. Didn’t like ‘Mojave’ much either!

  12. Hello, good to find out that I’m not the only one missing column view. Without it Music app will be totally useless for me (I always track down issues (e.g. misspelled album names) with this feature. Just filled 2 “reports” with apple on this issue. One using the feedback app for the Catalina Beta plus another one using the standard iTunes feedback form. Hope the option will come back (really it’s no rocket science, will harm nobody and “command b” really is just an option…).

  13. Another essential feature of the column browser I haven’t yet seen mentioned in any of the anguished screeds about its infuriating demise: how you can type the first letter and immediately jump to that location in the alphabetized column. I’ve been using that technique for 16 years to navigate my iTunes library, and I ain’t interested in giving it up. This is so deeply ingrained I’ll even consider whether it’s best to select the actual letter or the one after (example: if I’m seeking “Tyler Childers” it would behoove me to select ‘U’ instead of ‘T’ since he’s at the bottom of the T’s).

    • Yes, that’s what I would often do. In the Music app, there is a “filter bar,” which does the kind of search where the results narrow down as you type. Unfortunately, it’s quite slow, so it’s not that useful.

    • In Songs view where the column browser once was, I’m able to type to navigate through the names as of beta 11. I’ll update here if that’s not true in final when I have that installed later today.

  14. Without causing a riot, I should point out that iTunes is still available in all its column-browser glory on Windows 10. iPods that are formatted for Windows are compatible with both Macs and Windows PCs. Who knows how long this will be the case, but for now, there is still the option to keep iTunes the way it is. I have a pretty large collection of MP3’s in my iTunes library, but I run iTunes on my MacBook Pro and my Surface Laptop. I’m curious if it’s possible to download and install iTunes in Catalina, or if the new music app cancels it out.

      • It might also be possible to run Windows iTunes using VirtualBox (or Parallels or VMWare) or possibly even WineBottler for those desperate enough for the column browser. This should allow for sharing the audio files between iTunes Win and the Music app using a shared folder for the virtual machine.

        • Yes, the only thing I’m not sure about is whether you can use AirPlay within a VM. I haven’t tested that yet.

  15. My theory is that the column browser was removed because the iOS/iPadOS Music app doesn’t have it.

    • I can’t really see that as being the case. Apple have actually split iPadOS off from iOS specifically because they want to offer different features/functions tailored to each device. So dropping a feature from one device (Mac) just to be the same as other devices makes no sense.

      I think dropping the Column Browser is more to do with their general goal to ‘sex up’ the interface with fancy graphics everywhere, at the expense of pure functionality such as provided by the CB which is just not sexy enough. To be fair, it’s not just Apple suffering from this ‘form over function’itis. But they do have a bad case of it these days.

      Looking again at the new Music app and this ‘graphics everywhere’ interface is a serious drawback to navigating a large library. If you want the fundamental Artist/Album/Track drill down, it’s horrendously cumbersome. Finding an artist is not too bad, but then the list of their albums includes the full track listing of each and every album, which if you like that artist and have a lot of their albums means there’s a huge amount of scrolling to get to the bottom. This is a completely hopeless interface designed by those fundamentally ignorant of how to deal with and display data.

      The CB was purely functional and didn’t look pretty enough, so it had to go.

      • A well-placed source told me that not many people used the column browser; they undoubtedly have lots of usage information from the analytics people share. Also, I see it as something that really goes against the simplification of the Music app. This said, it is a shame that they couldn’t keep that tool for people with big libraries, even though we’re a small percentage of users.

        • The Mac has had less than 10% market share for most of its existence. So have some other major Apple products. Given that Apple has always insisted that its products are relevant and important, even when few people buy them, it’s a painful irony when the remove or cripple valuable features in their software and hardware products, with the justification that they are used only by a small percentage of users. Serious users are always a small percentage of the total, for any product. But they (we) are important.

        • When Apple keeps resetting preferences to their preferred view over the years and only more particular savvy users know to look through all the view options to get things back, I can see how less people would go back to find the column browser. Column Browser has been off by default for many years so now a lot of people have never seen it or knew it existed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the past it’s only been an annoyance to have to switch every newly created playlist from the stupid “playlist” view to the “songs” view but at least I can get it to how I want. I have multiple libraries with 10’s of thousands of tracks that I need to manage. Only the Songs view is acceptable to show all columns and the most information. Left with only sorting and filter as my tools makes it unusable for focusing in on what I want to work with. I won’t be moving my main Macs to Catalina until I’m forced to for other reasons. I’m still hoping enough people can request it back.

  16. I agree with dozens of you here that losing the Column Browser is an insane punch in the gut for folks who have large curated collections, BUT ALSO… another feature lost in the “iTunes killer” Music app, which has barely been mentioned yet in this thread:

    *Displaying “Fit to Screen” full-size album artwork*

    How to enable this feature on *iTunes*: Command-Click (while holding the Command button, click) on the tiny album artwork square up in the iTunes header. This pops up the album artwork medium-large and center on your screen. Then, right-click that, and choose “Fit to Screen”. Myself, I then drag this huge artwork window to become the right-hand half of my iMac’s screen, while the iTunes program main display occupies the left half of my iMac’s screen, where it has been set, unchanging, at the proper width to work like this, for many years.) The album artwork updates as you play different albums & artists, which really adds to the iTunes experience. (Why is Tim Cook not showing people that they can do THIS on their beautiful widescreen iMacs? That would sell it for me! Is looking at tiny artwork & bloated amounts of white space really more appealing?)

    Simply put, listening to Lossless audio while seeing a “slideshow” of full screen album artwork is a very fun way to use iTunes, and I will miss this terribly if it is gone forever from the new Music app. 🙁

    You see, I have manually inserted high-quality UNIQUE ARTWORK FOR EACH SONG, not just for each album. So for example, for The Rolling Stones/Beggars’ Banquet, I have 10 songs and each song has it’s own artwork (I can insert anything in there: different album cover versions, sleeve photos, scanned lyrics pages from the CD booklet, photos of the band, famous concert posters, etc). This way, playing an album on iTunes — with the full-height artwork up — is like a music & visual jukebox.

    Does anyone know:
    1.) How to do this in the new Music app?
    2.) If any of the alternative programs can display album artwork LARGE and UPDATING (when the album changes, or when the song changes if you have different artwork for each song) on the screen like this (preferably full-height of the screen)?? Swinsian, J River Media, Roon, Audirvana?

    • I don’t recall “fit to screen,” but if you click the artwork in the app header – the section with the artwork thumbnail and the play process bar – the MiniPlayer opens. If the artwork isn’t visible, drag from the top of the controller, then from a corner to expand it to its largest size.

      • Thanks for the reply, Kirk. Any words of support, encouragement, or even curiosity are helpful to me in my plight. I would LOVE to find a way to do this in the new Music app, or to instigate enough feedback to encourage Apple add it back in (I know, good luck with that. But when you’re desperate, you try…)

        From what I can tell, the MiniPlayer’s largest possible album artwork size on the screen is not very big — in my case when I drag it to it’s largest size, the artwork itself covers only about 1/16th the size of my iMac’s screen. iTunes Fit-To-Screen feature allowed the artwork to be fully the height of the screen- meaning the square artwork file covered more than 1/2 the size of my iMac’s screen. That’s at least 8X larger than the MiniPlayer method. And when you really like hi-res artwork, that’s a massive difference.

        I fear that the Fit-to-screen full size album artwork feature was clearly also lost due to the self-fulfilling mechanism: This feature was hidden/hard to find, and thus very few people were using this feature (but I used it daily!), and thus the Apple’s analytics indicated that this would be a great feature to kill.

        Alas, anyone with access to any version of iTunes from the past several years can try the steps I outlined above- to display full screen height album artwork.

  17. I’m probably not supposed to talk about the developer betas, but I suspect that folks here will be pleased with 10.15.2

      • Seriously. I only have Catalina on a virtual machine so far, so I have no qualms about keeping up with the bleeding-edge betas there. Column browser is restored in the Music app on the first developer beta of 10.15.2. Same keyboard shortcut and everything.

        • To be clear, I wasn’t suggesting that anyone actually install the beta. Rather, I meant that folks will be happy with 10.15.2 once it’s released.

            • Well you get a decent sized display of the artwork for the current track by clicking on the thumbnail to the left of the controls (which is at the top of the song list). And you can place the window wherever you like on the screen. It also keeps the controls and “up next” track list in view in this same window. So I’m happy with that.

          • What fantastic news! I had very little hope Apple would listen, I figured we were too much of a niche. I’ve not upgraded yet but was wondering how I’d manage when I do. Thanks so much for letting us know that column browser lives again!!

            • OkOk – no Talk on Beta Software. BUT – if I would use some of that stuff: I would report that the Column Browser is back. GREAT NEWS. At least for me: case solved. But again: I don’t know anything… 😉

  18. Responding to Philip above; threading only goes six levels.

    This is called the MiniPlayer, and has been in iTunes for a long time. You can also activate it by choosing Window > MiniPlayer.

  19. As I have a developer account, I respect the NDA that I have signed with Apple. However, once public betas come out, and features are well publicized, I don’t feel that I have to respect that silence any more. I’ve asked a contact at Apple if publishing an article about this would be frowned upon. I doubt they will say no, and, if so, I will publish something beyond these comments.

    • (1.) Re-introduce the “Column Browser”: check!!

      (2.) Re-introduce “Fit To Screen” maximum-size album artwork: Please!
      [How-To in iTunes: Command-click the artwork thumbnail at the top of the window. The medium-sized artwork pops up. Right-click that artwork, choose Fit To Screen. Maximum-size artwork displays.]

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