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UPDATE: June 21st, 2010. iOS 4 on the iPhone does away with the iPod app’s On The Go Playlist (last item on your playlist) and has replaced it with Add Playlist … (now the first item in your playlist) — which functions similarly.

  • Run the iPod app on your iPhone.
  • Click on Add Playlist … (first item in your playlist).
  • Create a new playlist by giving it a temporary name (e.g. oldName+, to remind yourself what to rename it to, later in iTunes), then Save it.
  • Navigate to your playlists view (top left) if need be — you don’t want o add individual songs but copy whole playlists.
  • Select the playlist you want to copy and then from the top of that playlist you’ll find the magic option Add All Songs — the songs in that list will grey out.
  • Finally follow that by Done (upper right).
  • You’ll now be looking at your new playlist, check to see that it has all your songs listed in it.
  • Your new playlist will appear at the bottom of your old playlists, not in alphabetical order.
  • Rinse and repeat to copy old playlists into new playlists.
  • Sync to iTunes.
  • Rename the new playlists on iTunes, back to their old names.
  • Sync again.

 
Please read through the entire conversation which follows to better understand the process, precautions, limitations and user experiences …


The iTunes application has a gaping UI problem, it’s far too easy to delete a playlist and, once deleted, it can’t be undone! I’m not talking about having deleted the original song files, just the playlists you assemble — which point to songs in your music library. We all invest hours in selecting and sequencing our music into playlists. To lose a playlist can be pretty tough!

While working in a playlist you can have two different things selected — the playlist name and one or more songs in that playlist. So which will it trash when you hit the delete key? The selected songs or the whole playlist? It depends on which of the two was most recently selected and, therefore, the darkest of the two different selections. Madness. So with just a modicum of inattentive clumsiness you can easily kill off a whole playlist when you really mean to remove only a single track from it — and there’s no Edit>Undo safety net behind this function.

If you’re actually paying attention to the delete confirmation messages you’ll be warned whether your selection will delete playlists or songs, but we easily glaze over long, repetitive warnings.

In the images which follow, the playlist will be trashed if you hit delete while the selection in the first image is showing and the selected songs if the selection in the second image is showing — it’s but a matter of shading or remembering which you last selected. The red arrows are mine, for emphasis.

itunes-playlist-selected
itunes-songs-selected

 
Do you have a recent backup? This isn’t to shame you, but as you’ll read in the appended comments, one reader remembered that he had Time Machine going on his Mac and was able to recover his playlist from it. If not, read on.

If you have the missing playlists still synced to your iPod do not sync your iPod yet, not until you have read through the following procedure …

I’m going to show you how to recover playlists from your iPod. There is no need for any special utilities here, we’re not recovering the music tracks themselves, just the playlist information which points to songs already in your music library.

On you iPod you have, as your very last playlist a system created list called “On-The-Go”. It’s a means to create a playlist on the fly, on your iPod, which will synch back to your iTunes. When your On-The-Go playlist is empty, it instructs you “When a song is selected, press and hold the center button to add it to the On-The-Go playlist. Press and hold on a playlist, artist, or album to add all of its songs to the On-The-Go playlist.” (the emphasis is mine). There appears to be a firmware limit in the iPod which maxes out On-The-Go playlists to 1,000 songs — so this won’t work if you’re trying to recover playlists larger than that, sorry.

Select the first of your missing playlists, hold down the center button on your iPod until the selection flashes — then go down to your On-The-Go playlist to check that all the tracks of that playlist have been copied into On-The-Go. If you only have the one playlist to recover, that’s pretty much it with your iPod, skip the next paragraph.

If you have more than one playlist to recover then we have to save your current On-The-Go playlist into a new list of its own: To do that, enter your On-The-Go playlist, scroll down the songs in it to the bottom two command lines. One is “Clear Playlist” and the other is “Save Playlist”. You’ll want to click on “Save Playlist” and then again on the next “Save Playlist” to confirm. Back out of your playlists and you’ll see a “New Playlist 1″ has been added to your existing playlists and your On-The-Go list has been cleared out, ready to start afresh. Repeat this for each of the playlists you need to recover from your iPod.

Time to synch: This only works if your iPod is set to sync automatically (you will not be able to see nor sync your On-The-Go playlists if you sync manually). If you have created new playlists on your iPod and/or if your On-The-Go playlist contains song names then they will be synched back to your iTunes. Once again, not the files, just the names in your new playlists.

In iTunes you’ll find playlist names like “On-The-Go” and “New Playlist 1″ etc.: Simply rename these recovered, fully functional, playlists to whatever they were called before you accidentally deleted them. After another synch with your iPod your playlist universe will be restored.

FOLLOW UP: How I got myself banned from MacRumor Formus: After trying to find a solution to my own problem in various forums last night, I went back to post my solution to two similar unresolved questions I had come across in MacRumor Forums. For my troubles they banned me outright as a spammer for a synopsis and a link back to this post.

I wrote to MacRumor’s Arn Kim to reconsider the banning …

Wed 12th November 12.35am

Banned for helping, really?

Arn: Why did I deserve an outright/immediate/permanent ban for posting a couple of helpful answers to a question I struggled with last night? How to recover accidentally deleted iTunes playlists from an iPod (not the music files, just the playlist’s song names). After not finding answers in your forums and others I came back to post a solution that worked for me. I didn’t try to sell anything, no utilities were required nor referenced. Just plain sharing of information in a spirit of community. My banning was a very heavy handed and unwarranted response. Please review and reconsider. Thanks, Harry

My username in your forums is slapphappe, the step-by-step solution I linked to is at http://slapphappe.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/how-to-recover-an-itunes-playlist/

MacRumor Forum’s Doctor Q wrote back “Since the moderators can’t determine intent in a precise way, they look for patterns they have learned to recognize. Among the signs are posting the same message in more than one thread, posting links to the same website in every single post, and posting in threads that do not contain active discussions. All three signs applied to the posts you made, which is why the moderators judged your purpose in posting to be self-promotion.”

I appealed to be reinstated on the basis that bringing closure to old unresolved forum questions is important because they show up in current search results. Doctor Q wrote back “Your explanation makes sense. Having well-meaning people sometimes fit a ‘problem profile’ is a risk we live with, so we apologize and have reactivated your account”.

 

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36 Comments

  1. This was very helpful – Thank you!
    I do have a question: it appears that I can only create 5 New play lists…. is this correct? I’m bummed if this is true since I have 9 other playlists I was trying to avoid losing. Do you have any other suggestions on how I might save these other playlists?

    I lost my hard drive on my old windows PC and have since bought a MAC and I’ve gotten all my music transfered, but I can’t transfer my playlists. WHen I import the iTunes Music Library from my external backup drive from my old system, only the standard play lists are imported, none of my personal playlists. So that is why I was trying the method you posted.

  2. @anniebk: I’m not sure about the limit of on-the-go playlists you can create but if you’ve tried this and it stops at five then I think you’re probably right! If you find a better way, be sure to come back and share with us, thanks …

  3. Many Many Thanks from Brussels, Belgium, to Harry Brindley’s undiciplined mind …
    Harry: you saved my day :-)
    Recovery of a lot of work took less than 5 minutes :-)
    Your explanations are very clear, thank you.
    Good evening,
    Michael

    • You’re very welcome mick1030 and thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Much appreciated.

  4. Harry,
    Thank you for this great tip. It worked very well for me in creating over 100 on-the-go playlists on my iPod but I don’t see how to synch these new playlists to iTunes. I use Windows XP and when I connect my iPod to iTunes the only synch options in the MUSIC tab are the playlists that are in my iTunes not the new ones in my iPod. Does this tip only work for Macs — or am I missing something?

    • Hey albybest: I’m Mac user so I can’t speak to the Windows XP experience, but I think you may be syncing your iPod to iTunes manually, not automatically. According to this note on Apple’s support site on-the-go play lists do not sync back to iTunes in manual mode. Hope this helps …

      You choose to manually sync your iPod: iTunes does not save On-The-Go playlists from your iPod as new iTunes playlists. You can’t see the On-The-Go playlists on your iPod in the source list and iTunes doesn’t sync them for you. “

  5. Thank you so much for all the great info. Yes — I did have my iTunes set for manual sync. Thanks again for all your help!

  6. Thanks very much. This is a really clever fix, and it saved my butt. The only problem is, for the two playlists I have that are over roughly 900 songs, holding the center button doesn’t seem to work. The selected playlists never flash, no matter how long I hold down the button. These large ones are the main reason I’m trying to hard to avoid a manual recovery in the first place. Any suggestions?

  7. Hey Harry,

    All this information is very helpful, but I just have one question. I have Windows XP but I think you’ll be able to help. I was reorganizing my files on my computer and somehow deleted the files for indexing iTunes files, but not the music. My music folder still contained all the music files, but everything was erased from iTunes, (the music wasn’t in iTunes anymore but still in the Music\iTunes folder). I’d like to recover my playlists from my iPod.

    I understand the whole process of saving current playlists in my iPod as On-the-Go playlists, but I fear that everything on my iPod will be wiped out when I plug in my iPod. I dragged the music from its folder into iTunes to put the music back in. All the songs on my iTunes and iPod are the same, the only difference is that the playlists are only on the iPod. Will my iTunes recognize that all of the music is the same, not wipe out my iPod, and download the On-the-Go playlists to iTunes? (My sync is set to automatic.)

    In other words, I just want to make sure that since the music files got erased from iTunes, iTunes will not erase my iPod before syncing the new playlists since all the music is the same.

    Sorry for the essay, I just wanted to make sure I was as clear as possible.

    Let me know what you think.
    Thanks,
    Bobby

    • Bobby: Your story sounds similar to the situation I found myself in. However, I did not need to restore my iTunes music library as you have — by dragging the songs back into iTunes. I’m pretty confident that your on-the-go (OTG) playlists will sync back and link back to your restored music — but my circumstances were slightly different so I can’t be sure. Are you able to “clone” you iPod in the Windows world? If you you’ll have some insurance. Please report back how you solved this. We’d all appreciate it. Thanks, Harry

  8. I was deleting some music from my iTunes library and plugged my iPod into my Mac and there was no music on my iPOD, even my playlists on my iPOD had disappeared. Unfortunately, I did not have the playlists in iTunes, only on my iPOD. Is there anyway to recover the playlists on my iPOD. What happen?

    • Fortunately I’ve never had this happen to me. If you didn’t have those playlists in iTunes to start with how did you get them onto your iPod? If you deleted them from iTunes then you would expect that a sync would remove them from your iPod too. If I’m missing something here please provide more detail

  9. I deleted the playlists from the Mac
    I was able to create the On-The-Go file on the Ipod
    When I hook up the iPod to the Mac, I see the playlist with all the info in the Devices
    How do I get that playlist to the Mac
    Won’t copy

    • Hey gbpguy: You’re probably syncing your iPod to iTunes manually, not automatically. Only if syncing is set to automatic will it copy the OTG playlists on your iPod back to iTunes. Let me know if that works for you.

  10. Here’s the twist. Part of the reason the old playlist was deleted was that I had to reinstall Itunes. Now, when the iPod is switched to automatic, it is telling me that my iPod is synced to another iTunes library and asks if I want to erase the iPod and synce with this Itunes library.

    I don’t want to lose the music on the iPod

    Ideas?

    • If you had to reinstall iTunes how did you put all your music back — or are you hoping to pull that back for your iPod too? The method I describe here only pulls back the playlists (titles to play in a given order), not the music files themselves.

      Either way, you’re probably going to need a bi-directional sync tool like iPod.iTunes from http://www.crispsofties.com/iPod.iTunes.html — this one claims specific “Support for the iPod’s “On The Go” playlist.”. I haven’t used it, so I can’t vouch for it, but in trial mode it claims to sync up to 50% of your music — so perhaps you prove that it’ll work for you before buying it.

  11. Thank you!

    I was trying the iPod.iTunes but it would not run because I had changed library locations. I am confident that the program would work if I set up iTunes to the right location but … it dawned on me that I just needed to point iTunes to where I had backed up the music.

    Once I did that, all the playlists and songs were there.

    Feeling a little dense but maybe it will help others. Your response and insight were helpful and guided me to a solution. THanks!

    • gbpguy: I think you share too much of the credit with me but thank you for coming back to post your solution. It may help others who think they need to recover their playlists after an iTunes reinstall.

  12. Hmmm… just deleted a playlist by mistake, I just want to make sure I’m doing this right. My itunes is synced manually, I understand that it needs to be automatically synced for this to work, however when I plug the ipod in and try to change the setting to auto sync it is telling me “all existing content will be replaced with content from my itunes library”. Does this mean my OTG playlist will be wiped/replaced?? Just worried that I’m not doing it right and will lose it altogether, frustrating as I have spent hours putting this playlist together…

    Thanks

    • Don’t synch under those conditions! Changing from manual to auto synching should not by itself trigger “all existing content will be replaced”. Something else is wrong. I suspect that your computer doesn’t recognise your iPod as being the same one it last synched up with or that you want to do a restore.

  13. Thank you so much! <3

    • You’re welcome, glad it helped you too.

  14. Hi Harry,
    Wondering if you can help me. My old PC crashed, but I was able to recover much of my data. I have transferred it to my new system and imported my songs into iTunes. The playlists do not appear there, and I am planning to use your nifty trick to restore them if necessary. My question is: do the playlists live as data files somewhere? If so where, and if I transfer them to the appropriate spot will they magically appear in iTunes? Wondering if perhaps I did not transfer everything correctly…

    Thanks!
    Laura

    • Harry – never mind – I found the iTunes Music Library.xml file and imported it, and all is well…

  15. Thanks for the information, saved me some work.

    The funny thing though was that I had started to create On-The-Go playlists on my iPhone then I realised something.

    Mac OS 10.5+ has time machine. So I opened up time machine and restored a previous state of the Itunes folder | ~/Music/iTunes/

    And WOLLA! Every play list restored. All I need to do was restart iTunes.

    By the way if you’re going to try this beware, it will restore a previous state. So if it is an old back up, you’re better off doing the On-the-Go playlists.

    • Thanks jsaymmees, I’ll edit my article to ask the question: Do you have a recent backup in Time Machine?

  16. Hi

    I have a problem. I would like to explain my situation to determine if this is salvagable. All of my music is contained on an external drive. I recently had to move my my external drive to another laptop. Although I imported my library into Itunes it brought over all songs to include duplicates and my playlist (which is why i moved initially because i had a million duplicate songs). The only problem is that now, I do not see my playlist on my pod. I am able to see the names in Itunes of the playlist but the actual songs are not there. I would like to recover my songs as seamless as possible. Is there a problem with the xml or imf files? Why is it that Itunes shows the title of the playlist and not the songs? Is the playlist on my external drive or my Ipod or my old system? My ipod does not list any of the old playlist names though. HELP!

    Thanks!

    • Yikes! That’s beyond my first hand experience to answer authoritatively, sorry!

      I too have accumulated duplicates that I should deal with — but haven’t yet because I’m worried what will happen to my playlists that reference the duplicate tracks I’m likely to delete. And which track to keep? The DRMed version that wouldn’t play on my Treo or the MP3 I converted it into — do I even care now that I have an iPhone?

      Also my music library has become extensive enough with all my old CDs ripped and many iTunes purchases later — such that it takes up quite a bit of space now and that much harder to keep copies, in whole or in part, on both my personal and my work Mac and also to share with my wife and daughter on their respective laptops. We need a centralised music server with bidirectional adds — when any of us purchase a new sons.

      When I figure this all out I’ll blog on what works for me.

      In the mean time, if you find a solution to your own question please come back with a link or a summary of your fix. Thanks!

  17. hi, you mentioned that itunes had to be on auto-sync for me to recover my playlist using on the go.. my itunes is not on auto sync and i cant seem to figure out how to reenable it to do so.. could you explain to me the steps? thanks!

    • Plug your iPod/iPhone in. It’ll show up under “Devices” in iTunes (left side navigation bar). Select the device. Now look in the main window under the “Summary” tab, skip down to the “Options” box. Uncheck the “Manually manage music and videos” option. You should now be good to go to auto-sync. Hit the “Sync” button on the lower right.

  18. Hi – I need help.

    Accidentally synced the ipod. Disconnected as fast as I could.

    Playlists were deleted (not the tracks). Playlist names are displayed in Itunes but not on Ipod.

    No Back-up, Ipod not synced with Itunes.

    How do I restore the playlists???

  19. I can’t say THANK YOU enough for this post and sharing your knowledge. I’ve already had to create all my playlists from scratch when my laptop crapped out and I bought a new one ….didn’t know how to recover old playlists or where they are saved in the Itunes folder….and I thought I was deleting a song today when it turned out to be the entire playlist that I worked hours on. YOU ROCK!!!! This “On the Go” trick on the Ipod and syncing TOTALLY WORKED….and the fact that Itunes HELP doesn’t have that in there -makes them ANNOYING.

    Thank you and may you be given many blessings that you deserve for this pay it forward!!!! You are a SAINT in my mind!!! CHEERS To YOU!!! :-)

  20. Tried this and it didn’t work. I could have used my ipod to know my playlists and manually rebuild them, but no. Now they are gone. Just know that this doesn’t always work, and maybe provide that warning.

    I can’t put into words how upset I am right now. Over 50 playlists, lost.

    • I’m sorry you had this bad experience. I’ve never seen nor heard it fail — until you commented. I’m assuming you were using an iPod (not the iPod app on the iPhone), right? That you used OTG playlists.

      Are you sure you heeded the italicised warning “This only works if your iPod is set to sync automatically (you will not be able to see nor sync your On-The-Go playlists if you sync manually)”?

  21. I think that I am all ready to synch back the playlists that you laid out how to save. I unchecked manually manage and clicked the sync in the bottom right. I get a box up that says “This ipod is synced to another itunes library. An ipod can be synced with only one itunes library at a time. What would you like to do?” 1) “Erase and sync” replaces the contents of this itunes library. 2) “Transfer purchases” copies itunes store purchases this computer is authorized to play from this ipod to this itunes library. I don’t think either of these will work for me. What do I do? I am hitting “Cancel” until I hear back from you. Up until this point it has been smooth sailing with your guidance. Thank you for that. Hopefully I will be able to finish this up and have my world restored. LOL


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  1. […] the directions here to create a new playlist on your iPhone that simply consists of all the songs on the playlist you […]

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