How to Transfer Songs from Your iPod to a Computer

iPod Image Gallery Apple built in iPod and iTunes features to discourage pirating. See more pictures of iPods.
iPod Image Gallery Apple built in iPod and iTunes features to discourage pirating. See more pictures of iPods.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In recent years, online music has been retooled and more tightly controlled in an attempt to ensure that people get their fair share of the music profits pie. Apple and its online megastore iTunes have led the pack. Because of its stature and booming sales, Apple must maintain a delicate relationship with its content providers to charge enough to keep everyone happy and, above all, protect against piracy.

Music and entertainment companies are loath to toss their content out like yesterday's bagels to be gobbled up by the voracious public. The mere mention of the now-revamped service "Napster" is enough to send a shiver up the spine of many a record executive. Likewise, pirated content on the Web is a major thorn in the side of today's entertainment industry. Legal efforts from the Recording Industry Association of America and the Federal Communications Commission have shut down major pirating Web sites. Then, the advent of the iPod in 2001 introduced a potential new way to illegally share music. Irresistibly portable with as much storage space as a three-car garage, iPods could conceivably make the war on pirating an impossible venture.


Steve Jobs and the other brains at Apple realized this. For the iPod and especially iTunes to succeed, the company had to reassure content providers that their property would be safe. There's a reason why every new iPod comes labeled with the commandment the stealing music is wrong. That's also why the road between iTunes and the iPod is (at least in theory) a one-way street. You can load up your iPod with new music from iTunes till the cows come home. But dumping the music from your iPod onto iTunes or a computer hard drive isn't as rote.

Despite what some record industry bigwigs may believe, not everyone is desperately seeking free music. And Apple realizes that accidents happen. Hard drives crash. Computers end up at the bottom of swimming pools, in the hands of thieves or in deserted hotel rooms thousands of miles from home. Indeed, there are plenty of law-abiding, upright reasons to want to retrieve music from your iPod.

In that glorious light of openness and honesty, HowStuffWorks -- with plenty of help from Apple -- offers a few avenues for transferring music that is rightfully, legally yours from an iPod onto your computer.


iTunes Music Settings

The newest versions of iTunes allow users to transfer purchased tracks to authorized computers.
The newest versions of iTunes allow users to transfer purchased tracks to authorized computers.
2009 HowStuffWorks

­Manipulating the iPod for something it isn't intended for -- transferring music to a computer -- is naturally a bit harder than finding your favorite Madonna album to jam to during­ a workout. For that reason, it's helpful to understand a few basic settings and functions before you start to hunt down music files within your iPod hard drive. Particularly if you're looking to refill an empty iTunes library, these tips can prevent you from losing your music.

There are three ways that iTunes can communicate with your iPod:


  • Automatic updates: iTunes automatically adds new downloads to the iPod whenever connected.
  • Auto update select playlists: iTunes automatically downloads new playlists to the iPod whenever connected.
  • Manually manage: You tell iTunes what and when to update the iPod.

­When recovering an iTunes library, only work in manual sync mode. In an auto sync library, iTunes will begin updating your iPod without prior warning. To stop the program from auto syncing, hold down SHIFT+CTRL (on Windows) or CMD+OPT (on a Mac) until the iPod icon appears in the source list [source: Hollington].

Apple tossed out a bone when it came out with the Transfer Purchase feature on iTunes 7. Beginning with that version of the program, users could automatically transfer songs they purchased from iTunes from their iPods to authorized computers. To play content that you buy through an iTunes account, you must authorize the computer with your iTunes username and password.

Another new feature is iTunes Plus. Downloads included in this program have no digital rights management (DRM) encryption. That means you can transfer them to as many iPods, computers and CDs you desire. 

But let's say you want to transfer purchases you bought on a Mac to a PC. Mac-formatted iPods aren't compatible with Windows operating systems. If you're working between systems with a classic, nano or mini device, it's helpful to know which one your iPod is formatted for. To find this, select About in the iPod's Settings menu. If you scroll to the bottom of a screen, you'll see either a list of serial numbers that denotes a Mac format or Format: Windows [source: Apple].

Now that we know a little more about how the iPod functions, it's time to learn how to use it to transport files.


Turning Your iPod Into an External Storage Device

To uncover song files in your iPod, first select to Enable Disk Use.
To uncover song files in your iPod, first select to Enable Disk Use.
2009 HowStuffWorks

If you search on the Apple Web site for information about transferring music from an iPod to a computer, you won't find a ton of direct answers. The company line follows that iTunes is meant to deliver music to the iPod, not vice versa. If you wish to secure your digital library, Apple recommends backing it up on CDs or portable drives.

Despite this tight control, Apple has left a few back doors open to the iPod. The key to transferring music from an iPod to a computer is understanding how the device can double as an external storage device (hard or ­flash depending on iPod model). Apple has no problem with people using their iPods to store and transfer nonmedia files, such as tax returns documents. After figuring that out, we're only a few more steps away from unlocking the door to moving around (for legal reasons) music (that you own legally).


­When you connect your iPod to iTunes, you can enable the device as an external storage device under the Settings tab. Here's how you do that:

  • Connect your iPod to your computer and open iTunes.
  • Click on the iPod device in the iTunes source list on the left side of the screen.
  • Click the Settings tab at the top of the screen.
  • Under Settings, check the box that says "Enable disk use."
  • Close iTunes.
  • Locate the iPod icon in the Finder on a Mac or Explorer on a Windows format.
  • Drag the desired files over that icon.
  • Disconnect the iPod from the computer.

­When you want to retrieve those files, perform the first four steps again. Once you've enabled the iPod as a disk and locate the icon, you should be able to open it and see your files.

A file that you won't notice when you open up that disk-enabled iPod is one with your music inside it. But where could your complete Hall and Oates discography be looming inside of that device? Apple designed gadgets purposely to hide its treasured media contents.

But just because you can't see your songs doesn't mean they aren't there.


Finding Hidden iPod Music Files

With a few mouse clicks and keystrokes, you can uncover the unseen files and locate your music. By enabling the disk mode on the iPod (see previous page), you can then search for the holy grail: a folder called ipod_control. The ipod_control folder is hidden when you open up the iPod as an external drive.

­Here's how to find it if you use Windows:


  • In Explorer, open the iPod icon in the Removable Disk drive.
  • Click Tools.
  • Scroll down and click Folder Options.
  • Click the View tab.
  • Under Hidden Files and Folders, select Show hidden files and folders.
  • Select Apply, then click OK.

Toggling back to the contents of the iPod disk drive, you should see the ipod_control folder. Open that, and behold the Music folder: it contains multiple folders with clusters of song files. The songs' filenames probably won't be recognizable. That's because they're derived from ID3 tags. Those mP3 tags embed information such as title, artist, last time skipped and other data -- not the original filename. Internally storing music files with ID3 tags allows iTunes to catalogue and cross-reference music more easily [source: Hollington]. On the flip side, the ID3 tags make it harder to retrieve specific songs or albums.

Accessing ipod_control in a Mac takes a little more work. Once you open the iPod icon on the desktop or from Finder, here's what to do on a Mac:

  • Open from the Applications folder.
  • When the Terminal text window appears, type: defaults write AppleShowAllFiles TRUE.
  • Press Enter.
  • Type: killall Finder.
  • Press Enter and leave the application open on the screen.

[source: Buskirk]

The ipod_control folder should then appear in the iPod disk contents. Once you've located ipod_control, create a folder on the Desktop to copy the Music folder contents. Then, import the music into iTunes using the Add Folder option.

Once you find and transfer your music, don't forget to disable the file-showing operation. On Windows, retrace your steps and deselect "Show hidden files and folders." For Macs, type FALSE instead of TRUE in the Terminal application.

To save yourself time and panic of losing your library, it's always a good idea to back up your music. Apple has made that a bit easier with iTunes 8. It includes a feature that allows you to up your entire library on CD. Then, all you have to do is remember where tucked away that disk.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Apple. "How to use your iPod to move your music to a new computer." Jan. 20, 2009. (March 4, 2009)
  • Apple. "iPod: Frequently Asked Questions." Sept. 6, 2007. (March 4, 2009)
  • Apple. "Using your iPod as a storage device." May 14, 2008. (March 4, 2009)
  • Breen, Christopher. "Moving music off the iPod." Macworld. Dec. 11, 2006. (March 4, 2009)
  • Buskirk, Eliot Van. "How to get songs off your Mac-based iPod." CNET. April 13, 2006. (March 4, 2009)
  • Buskirk, Eliot Van. "How to get songs off your Windows iPod." CNET. March 29, 2006. (March 4, 2009)
  • Gilbertson, Scott. "Rescue Your Stranded Tunes." Wired. Nov. 17, 2006. (March 4, 2009)
  • Hollington, Jesse David. "Copying Content from your iPod to your Computer -- The Definitive Guide." iLounge. May 14, 2008. (March 4, 2009)­