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.

22 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.

  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…).

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