March 31, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Tomahawk Next-Generation Music Player: The Beginners’ Guide


Since the dawn of time — okay, since the dawn of digital music — software has generally separated not only fans from each other, but services from other services, too. This might seem like a subtle point, but it hurts the music business and music fans significantly. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Most of us maintain our own digital music libraries, the same way we did ten years ago. If we want to share music with someone — arguably the most natural thing one would want to do with music, besides listening to it — we also have to send them the music itself, infringing on the exclusive distribution right of the copyright holder. That sort of thing attracts the wrong sort of attention, especially when practiced on a mass scale (just ask Jammie Thomas).

But even if we join a “legal,” on-demand music service like Rhapsody or Spotify, we can only share playlists with other users of that service.

There’s a word for this: silo. Every music fan and music service exists in a proverbial silo, with no easy, reliable way to send music from one silo to the next, introducing friction into the system and making music subscription services — the big hope for a beleaguered industry — far less attractive to consumers.

In a December 2009 article, I argued that “one big database,” with a unique identifier for every song so that music services could start speaking the same language, would solve all sorts of problems for the music industry by reducing friction between competing music services, among other things. A translation mechanism could allow friends to share playlists across different services, or if you wanted to pick up and leave Spotify in favor of Rhapsody, you’d be able to do so without rebuilding your collection.

Tomahawk, a free, open-source music player that’s still at a fairly early version (0.0.2), takes a big step in this direction. First, it locates the music on all of your computers (i.e. home and work), and connects with your friends’ libraries as well, to create one big library. Then, it lets you build playlists from that music — playlists that can come from MOG, Rdio,,, YouTube, and a variety of other places.

At its core, Tomahawk is a tool for resolving a myriad of music sources against a local, shared, or even service-provided library. Yes, for advanced users, Tomahawk can make the iTunes charts a front-end for Spotify, Rdio’s new artist list play music from Skreemr, and so on. It’s sort of like a universal translator for music.

This is “portable” music in another sense of the word — as in portable between services, websites, people, and so on. Regardless of music’s source, the Tomahawk client acts as a centralized, iTunes-like software player to keep track of it all, unifying a wide variety of services in one simple dashboard.

Once you install Tomahawk, check out this (unofficial) guide to accomplishing some basic tasks with this groundbreaking open-source music player.

Note: Tomahawk is currently in beta. It crashes, and has some other quirks. For instance, we found that it does not yet work with external soundcards (including our beloved Glow Amp) so make sure your computer is set to use its own internal soundcard to output audio to your speakers or headphones before continuing (you can change those settings in Control Panel > Sound).

Import your music
In the Preferences menu (also the opening dialogue), choose the folder where you keep your music. (If you add music to your library and want Tomahawk to notice, click Music Player > Rescan Collection.)

tomahawk add songs to library

Connect Tomahawk to Twitter
Tomahawk’s social features are a big reason one would want to use it, and they can only be activated via Twitter or Jabber (below). Go to Tomahawk > Preferences > Twitter, add your Twitter name and password, “Allow” Tomahawk to access Twitter, and then paste in the authentication number that Twitter provides. (This part is way easier than it sounds.)

connect tomahawk to twitter

Connect with friends via Twitter
Tomahawk’s Playdar integration means that if you don’t have a particular song stored locally, Tomahawk will look for it elsewhere, including in your friends’ collections. The more people you’re connected to, the higher the percentage of playable songs in the playlists you create.

To make Tomahawk friends via Twitter, go to Tomahawk > Preferences > Twitter. There, you can send out a global blast that automatically adds all of your friends who have also added their Twitter information to Tomahawk — or you can send a specific friend a direct message:

Note: After utilizing the playlist creation techniques mentioned below, you can also drag and drop songs from anywhere in Tomahawk (i.e. from your library or your friends’ libraries) into your playlists. (Also, we show you where to find your playlists below, because it’s not immediately obvious.)

Connect with friends (and your home/work machine) via Jabber
Tomahawk also lets friends find you — and you them — using the Jabber open instant messaging standard. Do do this, go to Tomahawk > Preferences > Jabber and enter your credentials (for instance, your gmail address and password). If you have two computers running Tomahawk (say, one at home and one at work), you can access both by using the same Jabber log-in. In addition, activating Jabber allows your contacts to find you on Tomahawk:

tomahawk jabber

In addition, this enables you to add friends using their Jabber ID:

tomahawk jabber add friend

Create a playlist
Now that Tomahawk can see your own library and those of your friends, you can build playlists from them in a number of ways. This is the simplest one. Go to Playlist > Create New Playlist, title your playlist, and then add some keywords and genres, separated by spaces. In this case, I’ve chosen the keyword “moon”:

tomahawk create new playlist

When the list looks good, hit the Create Playlist button, and presto — playlist created. As you can see, in this case, many of the songs that came back for the keyword “moon” are not playable, so they’re grayed out. If I had more friends — or if I had set up Tomahawk to resolve music queries to Spotify or another service (see below) — that situation would improve:

tomahawk playlist created

Create an automatic playlist
To access this more powerful way to start off your playlist, go to Playlist > Create Automatic Playlist, then choose a name for your new playlist. Then, assign filters with a high degree of precision on all of the music collections you’re connected to in order to create highly precise playlists (Note: Tomahawk uses various APIs from The Echo Nest, which publishes, to create these filters.) To add a new filter, click the plus sign:

tomahawk advanced playlist

In the following example, I’m looking for songs by artists who have been described as “shoegaze” with above-average tempos, lots of buzz on the blogs (hotttnesss), a low degree of danceability, by artists who live in the northern hemisphere:

tomahawk advanced playlist filters

Once you’re satisfied with your filters, click the Generate button to make the playlist.

Import music from a website
Using the Tomahawklet “bookmarklet” — basically a browser bookmark that runs a program on the page your looking at, rather than taking you to another page — you can scrape playlists, albums, and music on artist pages from a variety of sites and save them as playlists within Tomahawk. Drag Tomahawklet to your bookmark toolbar, then go to any of the music sites listed here (you might try for starters). When you’re looking at a playlist, profile page, artist page, or other pages containing music, click the Tomahawklet. From there, one click connects the Tomahawklet to Tomahawk forever:

connect tomahawklet to tomahawk

Now that they’re connected, you can play the songs on those pages from your Tomahawk library, or save the whole list as a playlist:

tomahawklet send lastfm profile to tomahawk

View your playlists (or anyone else’s)
Regardless of how you create playlists, you can see them by clicking the little triangle next to your name. The same goes for playlists created by your friends:

tomahawk view playlistsIf you need to delete a playlist, the delete button won’t do it at this point; however, you can delete playlists by right-clicking (CTRL+click on a Mac) and choosing the delete option.

Scrobble to
Like many other music players, Tomahawk can add every track you listen to to your profile. To set this up, go to Tomahawk > Preferences > to enter your name and password:

tomahawk lastfm

(Another neat trick: surf to a friend’s profile page and use the Tomahawklet bookmark to hear what they’ve been hearing.)

Next-level maneuver: resolving to external music services
In addition to your local library and those of your friends, Tomahawk can play tracks from supported music services. If you’re a subscriber to Spotify Premium, for instance, you can connect Tomahawk to that. Essentially, all 10-million-plus songs on Spotify become part of your Tomahawk library, and can be used to play your playlists, regardless of where they come from.

  • Bob Ferris

    “Tomahawk’s social features are a big reason one would want to use it, and they can only be activated via Twitter” -> the “social features” can also be activated via jabber ;)
    AFAIK, the integration of further social (network) services are in the schedule.

  • Christian Muehlhaeuser

    Yeah, Eliot has corrected the article by now. Great work Eliot!

  • Christian Muehlhaeuser

    Oh wait sorry, you’re right Bob. That part he forgot to remove :-)

  • payres

    so how do I connect it to spotify?

  • Anh Pham

    just premium account :-(

  • Kai Oliver Taylor

    Call me old fashiolned, BUT HOW THE FUCK DO I IMPORT A CD?

  • Anonymous

    You’re old fashioned,