How to Visualize Your Music in iTunes

Continuing with my series of occasional articles that expose readers to hidden system gems integrated into each and every Mac, let’s take a look at a way to visualize the complexities and nuances of our iTunes music and iTunes Radio.

An example on-screen visualizer running in OS X

One of the many squillions of iTunes visualizers that you can easily generate

This article talks of a feature that can be considered pure and unabashed “eye-candy” - the iTunes Visualizer. Arguably, it’s of little practical use, but it sure looks far-out, as we used to say in the seventies.

The Atari Video Music system

The first major commercial music visualizer system was the Atari Video Music in 1976

Actually, Music Visualization has been around since the seventies, and has been available both in hardware-based audio components and in software. These systems generate animated imagery based on the sound being processed. This imagery is generated and rendered in real-time and is visually synchronized with the sound - the music - as it’s being played. In more elaborate visualization systems, variations in the loudness and frequency spectrum are among the properties used as input to the visualization process.

The first electronic music visualizer was the Atari Video Music system introduced in 1976. It was designed by Robert Brown, the creator of the home version of Pong. Who remembers Pong? It gave us visions of the future and Star Trek back in the day!

The game screen from the original Pong game from the seventies.

How many old-timers are embarrassed to admit they remember Pong, the first commercial computer arcade game?

The iTunes Visualizer has been available to Mac users since the very first version of iTunes in 2001. 

The “master switch” that toggles the iTunes Visualizer on and off is found in View > Show/Hide Visualizer - or via the Command-T keyboard shortcut. For maximum effect, enter full screen via the View menu or the Control-Command-F keyboard shortcut.

The View menu in iTunes

The View menu in iTunes will lead you to the Visualizer controls

Within the main iTunes Visualizer, there are several individual modules or visualizers installed. These can be seen listed as choices in View > Visualizer. Each of the individual visualizers produce their own particular style of motion graphics, and you should check out each one to explore all the available options.

An example of an on-screen visualizer running

One of the other squillions of iTunes visualizers that you can create.

Once a visualizer is enabled, there are endless visual possibilities with respect to colors, modes, movements, intensity, and more. Here’s the thing though… within each visualizer, all the variations available are activated via keyboard shortcut keys only - some of them undocumented.

The help screen in Visualizer

Pressing the [?(/)] key will bring up the help menu in Visualizer

Shortcut Keys (used while Visualizer is active on-screen)

  • The [?(/)] key will bring up a partial list of the Visualizer shortcut keys available to you. 
  • The [M] key cycles through the various visualizer Modes built into each of the visualizers available.
  • The [P] key cycles through a Palette of colors that can be assigned to each of the visualizer effects. Look carefully; the changes can be very subtle.
  • The [I] key will bring up the currently playing music Track Information for a few seconds.
  • The [C] key toggles the Auto-Cycle Mode. By default, once an individual visualizer is enabled, it will automatically cycle through all modes.
  • The [F] key toggles the Freeze Mode, where the visualizer’s dynamic motion is suspended. Rotation is unaffected.
  • The [L] key toggles the Camera Lock. This will lock the camera position relative to the visualizer activity. No rotation, but dynamic motion continues.
  • The [N] key toggles the Nebula Mode. This one’s a bit elusive because nebula clouds are visible only in certain Modes. Toggling this mode on greatly accentuates any nebula clouds that may be present, making them very easy to see. Related to Nebula Mode, see the [E] key below.

An example on-screen visualizer with a nebula cloud visible and enhanced

This visualizer has Nebula Mode enabled. The nebula cloud was enhanced by repeatedly pressing the [E] key.

Undocumented Shortcut Keys (Apple, why do you continue to include undocumented features? Huh? Why?)

  • The [E] key. Once you are in Nebula Mode and nebula clouds are indeed visible, pressing this key multiple times will Enhance the nebula clouds.
  • The [+] and [-] keys allow you to progressively Increase or Decrease the intensity of the particles.
  • The [A] and [S] keys let you Add or Subtract particles to the visualizer you are currently viewing. You can thus set the visualizer to any level of complexity you wish.
  • The [R] key will Reset the intensity and particle count to their default values.

So, there you have it… you can clearly see that there are endless possibilities on how to configure and zone-out to your iTunes Visualizer. You can create different effects based on your changing moods, as well as levels of angst and stress that you wish to assuage. 

Visualizer Plugins

iTunes Visualizer does support the addition of effects via third-party plugins that can be obtained from developers online. Plugins developed with Quartz graphics technology - part of the OS X Core Graphics framework - can be identified by the .qtz file extension. These plugin files are located inside the root-level System Library (/Library/Compositions). There is little development in this area these days, and many of the older 32-bit plugins will not work. However, doing a Google Search on “iTunes Visualizer plugins” will reveal a number of sources that you can research.

Finally, I wish there were an easy way to isolate the iTunes Visualizer from other visual stimuli that occupy our space. However, setting up your favorite visualizer in a darkened room, along with using a good pair of headphones while chilling out with your favorite music… all this goes a long way towards obtaining a good deal of outstanding relaxation therapy.