Throughout my life and work, I’ve found that ratings are subjective. You can use quantitative methods to make the methodology more objective, but often these are based on qualitative assessments as well. Of course, if you are looking at something very mechanical, like quality control for widget production, then there’s little to argue about. But for most other areas of life, where a human touch is involved, things are subjective.
Which brings us to a subject that’s one of my all-time favourites (and probably yours as well): Music.
Being a music lover, I listen to a lot of genres. As my collection has grown to over 8,000 tracks, I keep it organised by rating and sorting songs into manual playlists. I also have Smart Playlists which automatically add, remove or re-order songs based on certain criteria. So accurate ratings are needed to keep everything in check.
Using iTunes, songs can be rated from 1 to 5 stars (or unrated, which is 0 stars). Initially, we may rate things quite subjectively. On a day that we’re tired of hearing songs by a certain artist or genre, we may rate those songs more poorly. We may also feel obliged to rate certain songs more highly simply because they’re at the top of the charts - even if we don’t like the music as much, ourselves. But after a while, we start to figure out what we really want out of this.
Occasionally, I even find myself ‘moderating’ my own ratings - just like how some wine aficionados re-rate a certain vintage as time goes by and tastes have matured. From what I’ve gathered of my own practices, this is how I rate music:
0 stars (35% of my collection) - Neutral or Not Rated for some reason or other. These could be audio recordings I’ve made, podcast files, sermons, speeches, lectures, audiobooks, computer game music - all of which are not inherently ‘bad’ - I simply don’t have an opinion of them, nor do I want them added to any Smart playlist. I also generally avoid rating Gospel & Religious music because I have a different reason for listening to it. If songs were people: This would be the majority of people I may have met but have not really formed a strong impression of, positive or otherwise
1 stars (<0.1%) - Yuck! Why did I buy this in the first place? Probably because it was part of an album. A 1-star song might be deleted from my hard drive because I’d never want to listen to it again. For this reason I don’t have many 1 star songs. People I wouldn’t want to see again
2 stars (about 5%) - Below average songwriting and/or performance. Most likely will be unchecked in iTunes so it won’t go into my iPod/iPhone. This includes a few bad apples by some of my favourite artistes. So, no holds are barred. People on the periphery of my radar - may interact occasionally with them but may not really want to forge a stronger relationship with them
3 stars (about 30%) - Not bad. May include some smash hits that other people may have loved but which I find just OK. Could be pleasant-sounding but boring. Periodically, some 3 star songs may be moved up to 4 stars if I was too hasty in my earlier judgment, if my tastes have matured, or if the song grew on me over time. Decent people whom I’d stay in touch with. As I get to know them better, I will learn more about them and revise my opinions about them.
4 stars (about 28%) - Stuff I like and would be proud to put on any playlist and play at a party. May or may not be a smash hit, but good in my books. The tunes must be fairly catchy, have a nice modulation or something else unusual to help them stand out. Again, some songs may be reviewed over time and bumped up or down a star. People I would call friends, not acquaintances. These include colleagues (current and past) who I get along well with
5 stars (<1.5%) - Music that gives me a high whenever I hear it. Songs I cannot do without, and can listen to anytime. Hard to get tired of. I probably know many of these song lyrics by heart - or almost. I can probably play them by ear, too. Many are old favourites while others are fairly new additions but are instantly likeable and endearing (as with friends and wine). Very occasionally, some 5 star songs will be taken down a notch if I’ve grown tired of them. My closest group of friends, from different walks of life. Mostly those I’ve met a while ago, but I’m open to adding new people.
In summary, when rating songs (or appraising anything else, for that matter), especially if you want a coherent system:
- Be true to yourself. This is especially if your tastes aren’t mainstream. Other people will have a different idea about things, but don’t get affected by this. It’s your stuff. You can always create a playlist that’s popular with mainstream folks, to please the crowds at parties.
- Be consistent. As human beings, we can never be 100% consistent at any point in time. But we can review and fine-tune what we’ve done before, so that a certain standard is established across the board.
- Allow some flexibility. Times change. Tastes change. After several years, you may find yourself relooking a certain artiste or genre. Do it some justice by reviewing the ratings. Again, apply 1) and 2): Make the system adapt to your new tastes, and keep reviewing what you’ve done before.
Note: Points 2) and 3) are not contradictory but complementary. Act consistently on a flexible framework.
Ultimately, as with many things in life, such as good friends and wine, the test of attrition - being exposed to the subject over a period of time - will help you decide if something is worth keeping or reviewing.