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What Does the Star on Apple Music Mean? All You Need to Know

Photo by Daniel Olah / Unsplash

If Apple Music is your streaming platform of choice, you might have noticed that some tracks have a star icon near them. What do stars next to songs on Apple Music mean? Are Apple Music stars the same as Favorites? Do these icons depend on user ratings?

Enough theory, let’s find out what an Apple Music star means and where it comes from.

What are the stars on Apple Music?

When you scroll through the dedicated page of a certain album, you can see small gray star icons near some of the tracks. In the recent redesign of Apple Music’s interface, they look like small gray dots.

Apple Music screenshot of the AM by Arctic Monkeys album page with the star icon (that is redesigned to look like a dot) highlighted in red, and the red arrow points at it
Don’t you think that the anti-skeumorphic design trend has gone a bit too far, by the way?

The truth is, a star on Apple Music (let’s call it a star, okay?) tags the most popular songs on the album. These are usually hit singles released prior to the full-length record, most promoted songs that have music videos, or the songs that go viral on TikTok at some point. For example, in Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, three tracks have a star on Apple Music. One of them, “Dreams”, got viral on TikTok in 2020. Another one, “The Chain”, had its short fame on the platform as well.

Apple Music screenshot of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac album page with the star icons on three songs: The Chain, Go Your Own Way, and Dreams

Both Fleetwood Mac and Arctic Monkeys are relatively big bands, though. Do smaller artists get stars next to songs on Apple Music? Yes — don’t be deceived by the word “popular”. The thing is, Apple Music stars only appear on album pages, so the popularity is only calculated within the album, not globally. For example, Haunted Horses are relatively niche, they have around 600 monthly listeners on Spotify. And yet, they have star icons on Apple Music.

Apple Music screenshot of Watcher Redux by Haunted Horses album page with the star icons on two songs: Goetia and The Void
Fun fact: the band’s official website address is “spooky ponies”. No relation to the topic, we just find it amusing.

So, even if your album has only 100 listens total, at least one song will get a bit more attention than others — and it will get a star on Apple Music.

Is a star next to a song on Apple Music useful for artists?

Star icons don’t even count as a vanity metric. They just show that some of your tracks on a certain release had more listens than others. So, can you benefit from an Apple Music star if you’re a small artist?

Here’s how you can use this information after you released an album or an EP:

  • Assess the efficiency of your marketing efforts. For example, if you implemented some extra promotion like pre-saves or Instagram Reels clips for one track from the album, you can use the star to prudently assume that these measures worked. Or, if you used all these measures and didn’t see the desired star, your marketing strategy may or may not need a makeover.
  • Decide what to do next. Think of making a music video but can’t choose a song? Since star icons show that people like certain tracks a bit more, use them as a choice criterion. If you create a music video for a more popular song, you’ll get more attention to the video and a higher ROI at the end.
  • Improve your songwriting. This is more relevant to the artists who aim at writing catchy pop hits, getting on radio and Billboard, and becoming “big”. If you’re one of them, use Apple Music stars to reflect upon why people are more into this song compared to others on the album. Maybe it’s a particularly catchy melody, maybe it’s relatable lyrics — think of these things and figure out the anatomy of a perfect pop song that resonates with your audience.

Of course, a star on Apple Music should not be the only metric you’re using. To draw more realistic conclusions, you need to double check all your theories via actual numbers on Apple Music for Artists and promotional campaign metrics. However, star icons can point at an interesting direction of analytics that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Are Apple Music stars and Favorites the same thing?

The iOS 17.1 update that was released in 2023 brought a confusing element to the UI design of Apple Music. Reddit users started asking about red stars (actual star icons this time) next to songs, albums, and playlists. Here’s an example from one of the posts.

Apple Music screenshot of the DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar album page, there’s a red star icon near the album name
Source: Reddit

And here’s what it looks like in a playlist of songs:

Apple Music playlist screenshot, one of the songs has a red star icon near a small album art
Source: Reddit

These Apple Music stars are different — they appear because you marked a song, an album, or a playlist as your Favorite, which replaces the Loved feature. Spotify has a similar functionality but it shows a green heart icon. Unlike star icons on album pages, these stars are only visible to you, and the number of listens has nothing to do with them.

When you tag a song, an album or a playlist as your Favorite, Apple creates a separate playlist of everything you’ve “starred” so it doesn’t get lost. Depending on your settings, Favorites can be also automatically added to your library. By default, they are, but if you want your Favorites as a separate “entity”, you can change that. Favorites also affect what the streaming platform’s algorithms recommend you. For example, if you favorited the entire DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar, you can expect to hear more hip-hop with a similar sound or from the same time period in “Made For You”.

Apple Music stars and user ratings — any connection?

Some might remember that Apple Music allows users to rate songs via the 5-star rating system. Are stars next to songs on Apple Music assigned based on these ratings as well?

Although some sources claim otherwise, the answer is no. A star next to a song on Apple Music appears based on the general number of listens, not the user ratings. As we mentioned before, the absolute number is not even important — to get a star icon, a song just needs to be the most listened on the album.

It also has no connection to how often you listen to the song in question. For example, maybe your favorite track on Rumours is “You Make Loving Fun”, and you listen to it more often than other songs on the album. However, you’ll still see an Apple Music star near “Dreams”.

How to rate a song on Apple Music?

As we mentioned, Apple Music has a feature that allows you to rate songs using a 5-star rating system. These ratings don’t affect the recommendation algorithm — however, some users may consider them a convenient way to sort the music library. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Turn on the feature. You won’t be able to rate songs on Apple Music if this feature is not enabled in your settings. To enable it, go to Music in your iPhone settings, and turn on Show Star Ratings.
iPhone Apple Music settings with the Show Star Ratings feature turned on and highlighted in red
Source: iDownload Blog

2. Start rating songs. To rate a song, touch and hold a song in your library, and choose Rate Song in the popup menu. Now, you can assign it a 1 to 5 star rating.

Song menu on Apple Music with a Rate Song feature highlighted, and a screenshot with the Star Rating popup
Source: iDownload Blog

Wrapping up

What is the star on Apple Music? It’s simply an indicator that this song is more popular on the album than others. It doesn’t depend on user star ratings or Favorites, which is a separate feature. It also has nothing to do with your listening history — everyone sees gray stars near the same songs. These gray star icons are assigned to songs based on the relative listening frequency within the album or the EP.

However, you can use this information in different ways. For example, if you’re a regular Apple Music subscriber, you can start listening to the album from the most popular songs and decide if you want to listen to the whole thing. And if you’re an artist, you can look at Apple Music stars next to your tracks as a way to assess your marketing strategy and ease your future promotional decisions.