How iTunes Handles Albums, EPs, and Singles

The album is an artificial construct, yet it is the main unit of organization for music. As its name suggests, it was originally a collection of separate records, in a sort of book that was similar to a photo album. (Doug Adams and I discussed the creation of the album in the very first episode of our podcast The Next Track.) For at least 70 years, the Album has dominated music sales and listening.


At the same time, the single has long been the gateway medium for discovering new artists, or for getting the latest songs by your favorite artist. This size of this record – 7 inches – was a sign of the more limited content it contained. But it also played faster, in part to fill up the record; a 7" record at 33 rpm would look half empty if it contained just one song per side. The single wasn’t only a 7" record: in Jamaica, 10" singles were common starting in the 1960s, and 12" singles started being released in the US in the early 1970s. (There were also double singles in gatefold sleeves; I recall a live set by The Cure that contained four songs on two 7" discs.)


In the 1950s and 1960s, many pop bands released multiple singles, then collected them on albums; which were similar to the original record album, which simply gathered disparate tracks. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the concept of the album as a continuous musical program was born (at least for pop music; classical and jazz had used albums for either entire works, or for live sets, for some time).

And in between those two, you have the EP: shorter collections of tracks, perhaps four or six, for a time released on 10" vinyl to distinguish them from their big brothers that were "full" albums. EPs became common in the UK in the 1950s, and there was even an official chart for best-selling EPs in the country from 1960 to 1967. Some bands started releasing them in the 1980s, when Epic records "created" the Nu-Disk, initially for promotional purposes, but later for general release. I specifically recall The Clash’s Black Market Clash being a 10-inch EP.


With digital music, everything has changed. When you see a bit of text on a website or in iTunes, all you know is the name of the release and its artist. David Bowie’s Let’s Dance could be a single, an EP, or an Album. This is because the tags – the metadata that identifies music – don’t allow for this type of differentiation. iTunes uses a simplified version of the ID3 tagging system, which doesn’t offer a tag to identify what type of release a record is. (MusicBrainz does use a tag called Release Group, which can be used to distinguish between singles, albums, and EPs, but also broadcasts and "other.")

So how can you distinguish between these different formats in digital? The only way is if the record label has tagged the name of a release with the word "Single" or "EP." Here’s an example of music by David Bowie:


The first release is a single, just one track, but you can’t see that because the title is truncated. The two with the cover from "Heroes" are singles, but one has three tracks and one has two. No Plan says that it is an EP, and it contains four tracks. Who Can I Be Now? is a multi-disc collection, containing 104 tracks over nine "discs" in its digital form. And Sound and Vision 2013 is a two-track single.

Some people may want to indicate in their iTunes libraries which of their "albums" are not actual albums; which are singles or EPs. There is no way you can do this visually, or at least not without some trickery: you could reduce the size of the artwork and put it on a white background so it looks smaller. But that won’t help you when you’re browsing Apple Music or another streaming service.

What could iTunes do to indicate this difference? Perhaps a small overlay icon could show the number of tracks in a release? Or there could be a bit of text – say a bullet, or an emoji – before the title of anything that isn’t a proper album. It’s not that simple, however. Would you assume that any release with, say, only two or three tracks is a single? In that case, would a single-movement symphony that lasts 45 minutes count as a single and not an album? Or would you assume that the tracks have to be shorter than, say, five or six minutes to count as a single? That would leave out Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone (6:11) and Laurie Anderson’s Oh Superman (8:21).

Any such tagging would depend on the record labels; Apple can’t scan the music and determine what the cut-off timing is for a single, an EP, or an album. Some EPs may run a half hour, and many albums are shorter than that. I think it’s unlikely that there is any solution other than text for this. And, again, this depends on the record labels tagging recordings that aren’t albums. The David Bowie recordings above are tagged correctly, but you can’t always see that last word that says "Single" or "EP."

If you want to do this for your own music library, you might want to add a character at the beginning of the album name. On the Mac, you have access to all sorts of characters:


You could, for example, use ⦿ for singles and ◉ for EPs. Or, perhaps, these two squares, the first for singles and the latter for EPs: ◻︎ ◼︎. There are all sorts of stars and other symbols you could use ☆ ✪ ✹ ✫ ❂. If you really want to mark your music like this, it’s up to you.

7 thoughts on “How iTunes Handles Albums, EPs, and Singles

  1. Don’t blame Apple for this. They may be responsible for many of the worlds techno ills, but in this case the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of the developers of the digital music file. Typically, with no real vision for how we deal with music collections in the real world, they merely envisaged a single file for a single piece of music and as Kirk describes above, there’s more to it than that.

    Obviously the tagging systems have been improved with more tags, but from the point of view of database design, this is dreadful. Everything held within the same Table and having to contain often duplicated data. There needs to be a way to group individual pieces of music into a collection, be that an Album, EP or both sides of a single, with data that pertains to that collection held only once within the collection and not duplicated in every track/file. Album Artwork is a case in point. Duplicating relatively large graphical data on average 10 times for each album is wasteful. Also…

    There should be a way to share the same music within multiple ‘collections’ without having to actually duplicate the musical data and in each collection it would be associated with the album artwork appropriate for that collection.

    A digital music collection should allow us to do MORE than can be done with physical media, but instead at best it’s only just as good. What a missed opportunity.

    • Did you read the article? I’m not blaming Apple, I’m explaining why it happens. The impetus for this article came from a discussion on Twitter yesterday, where someone was asking why things worked like this in iTunes and Apple Music. I mention iTunes, because I generally write about iTunes, and it’s the only streaming service that lets you combine your library with streamed music, and lets you change tags.

  2. I understand the reason behind your post, some people might want to know if their music is from a single, EP, or an album. What I found with some artist is songs are repeated on some of their albums. I have artist in my iTunes Library who have produced over 100 albums in their life time. One that come to mind is an Australian Artist who sings country, Slim Dusty. What I like with downloading music is the fact I do not have to download an entire album if there is songs I do not like, or I already have. When I moved out of the 19th century into the modern world, by purchasing a computer in 1994, I wanted to get all my current music at that time onto a format that would make it portable to take anywhere. Mainly into the car. I was able to play my cassettes and CD’s in the car but that was it. I had accumulated by this time a lot of singles and albums. Could not play them in the car. So the internet search was on to find software that would allow me to record to computer, clean up as best as the software would allow the hiss, pop, and crackle. I also read some PC magazines, then made a decision to purchase the Nero software. I put all my singles into an album format, what a CD disk would hold approx 80 minutes. I made my own album CD’s creating artwork, and listed all the songs on the back. These CD albums are stored and not used, but are for a backup should iTunes do something silly. I do not use cloud. Loading these albums up to iTunes from disc saw iTunes first advise me it does not recognise the music and did not load any track details. All this had to be added manually. In the front of each album name I have placed a number starting at 1 through to 9999. I figured I never reach 9999 albums in my life time. Placing a number on the albums also allow me to keep albums grouped. so I started with 0001 for my Christmas albums. When loading to an iPod it is far easier finding some185 Christmas albums with numbers, rather than scattered all over the place due to the way iTunes lists the albums. The album numbers are in order I want to listen to the albums, not some play list that might do a jumble. So for me I do not care if it is a single, EP, or album. I just want to be able to listen to my music anywhere I want to go, without disturbing those around me.

  3. I wonder, as I am not at my iMac, if placing a deco at the beginning of the name, screws up alphabetical database storage. Under Apple+I, Sorting, there are several ways to alphabetize the file. Will adding a deco effect sorting?

    • It would affect sorting, but that might actually be useful. All albums with the same character would be grouped. For example, if you put a bullet, they’d be at the beginning of the list, so you might want to do that for singles, for example.

  4. I don’t want to use special characters in album titles, as this screws up scrobbling. Instead, i abuse the “grouping” field for tags, one being “album”, “EP”, “single”, others for soundtracks and scores, etc. And i have several smartlists that pick out these tags. (And since i don’t use Apple Music, i don’t run into any problems there.)

    I also abuse the “sort album” field in a similar fashion. I would use, say, “Boards of Canada 2002” for Geogaddi, and “Boards of Canada EP 1995” for their Twoism EP. Which means, all the EPs get sorted after their studio albums, and singles at the end. (And yes, i’m aware that this screws up “sort by album”. But this is something i had to do for early versions of iOS anyway, where the sort by album would not properly work otherwise.)

  5. I do realize this is not Apple’s fault, but even Spotify (and I know, I know – under the hood it’s a completely different thing) makes it a lot easier to browser an artist’s discography — there’s Albums, Singles and Compilations.

    For someone like me who is honestly trying to go back to iTunes and Apple Music (something I really miss on Spotify is having my own library, which I can’t with Spotify because of it’s song limits) this makes it really hard.

    I usually did with my own audio files on my library was removing the album artwork for singles (and also leaving the disc number empty). But well, no luck if I’m browsing Apple Music.

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