What is Apple Music? The streaming music service fully explained

Should you press play or skip on Apple Music? Here's what you need to know

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When it comes to streaming music services, Spotify is still the biggest, at least on a worldwide basis. But here in the U.S., it’s a different story. Apple Music enjoys the highest number of paying subscribers — a big accomplishment when you consider that, unlike Spotify, it has no free tier, and is thus dependent on a three-month free trial to attract users.

So why is Apple Music proving so popular, what are its key differentiating features, and how can you jump on the Apple Music bandwagon if you decide it’s right for you? Read on to find out.

The basics

Like Spotify, Apple Music offers millions of streaming songs — 50 million in fact —  on demand. It also blends your personal music catalog with on-demand streaming and live radio, all in one place. At the moment, Apple offers a three-month free trial, though signs are beginning to emerge that the company is thinking of scaling this back to just one month. After the trial period, the service will cost you $10 per month, or $15 per month for a family plan that accommodates up to six members. There’s also a lesser-known annual plan for $99, which will save you $21 a year.

To help lock you in, Apple music boasts hand-curated playlists, 24/7 live radio stations, and even an adapted version of iTunes Match, which lets you store as many as 25,000 songs in the cloud. It’s also home to a number of not-so-hi-res lossy AAC tracks — which aren’t quite as clear and vibrant as the lossless recordings stocked by hi-res streaming pioneers Deezer and Tidal  — that are cataloged under the name Apple Digital Masters (or up until August 2019, Mastered for iTunes). If you don’t sign up for Apple Music, you can still access limited playlists, as well as music stored on your device.

Getting started

There are two ways to get signed up for Apple Music. Assuming you’re running a version of iOS newer than 8.4, you can just open the Music app. Android users can download Apple Music for Android. If you aren’t automatically prompted to sign up, tap on the For You tab at the bottom of the app, and you should see the option to join. The other way is via the separate iTunes Store app. At the very bottom of the Music tab, you’ll see a section called Music Quick Links. The first link is usually a trial offer for Apple Music.

Regardless of which way you do it, follow the instructions to set up a family or individual account. If you want to share your music from iTunes on your PC or Mac, you’ll also need to make sure your version of iTunes is 12.2 or later. If you’re running Mac OS Catalina, make sure that you have the new Music app installed on your machine.

On iOS or tvOS devices, you’ll use the Music app to access Apple Music streaming.

Before you dig in too deep, we recommend turning off the auto-renewal following the trial period.

If you have no interest in an Apple Music subscription, you can simply go to Settings, then Music, and click Don’t Show Apple Music — you’ll still get to listen to Apple Music’s Pandora-style radio stations, with up to six skips. The music loaded on your device will also show up in your Library section.

Five ways to play

Apple Music’s original format proved a bit too confusing for some users, and some of the features available at launch have since been removed (like Connect, a place for artists to share directly with fans). The result is a much cleaner and easier to navigate experience.

The Music app has five individual sections: Library, For You, Browse, Radio, and Search. At the bottom of the app, the Now Playing window is always be visible, so you’re never more than a tap away from skipping tracks, or sharing a song. Each section lets you access your music and that of the Apple Music service in a different way. Here’s how they work:

Library

As the name suggests, this is your content. It’s the music you ripped from CDs and added to your device via iTunes, the music you purchased from the iTunes store, and any playlists you’ve created.  But it’s also the repository for any Apple Music content that you’ve chosen to add to your library (just look for the + ADD button beside albums and tracks). Adding tracks from Apple Music requires that iCloud Music Library be enabled. iCloud Music Library is the cloud-based storage that Apple uses to house the synchronized music offered by both Apple Music and iTunes Match. Though that is bound to confuse a lot of people, the important thing to remember is that if you are subscribed to Apple Music, you don’t need to also pay for iTunes Match — it’s effectively included in Apple Music.

As with services like Spotify, once you add a track or album to your library from Apple Music, you’ll see a cloud-plus-down-arrow icon that lets you download them for offline listening (as long as you maintain your Apple Music subscription). Want to avoid any music that requires streaming, perhaps to save on your mobile data usage? The Downloaded Music section of the Library will show you just the tunes that are physically stored on your device.

Both the music you add from Apple Music, as well as the tunes you’ve synced, will generate Apple Music suggestions as you navigate the Library. When you select an album, artist, or song and then choose to “see more,” the Music app will show you all of the relevant matches found in Apple Music. From there, you can add more albums or tracks to your library, making it easier to find your favorites later.

One odd aspect of the Library is that although it categorizes your music by playlist, song, artist, and album, it doesn’t show music videos as a category, even though these can be added and downloaded from Apple Music too.

For You

what is apple music  7“For You” offers music suggestions based on your likes and your listening habits. When you first enter, you’ll be presented with a bunch of pretty pink bubbles that help you designate your musical tastes, starting with genre bubbles like Rock, Classic Rock, Jazz, and Hip-hop. Double-tapping a bubble makes it bigger, and therefore more important, and triple-tapping deselects it. Artists come next, and so on. Nothing you do here is permanent; you can change it any time.

The result is a series of customized suggestions that aim to surface music from Apple’s collection that you might like. These suggestions range from albums from genres you’ve listened to, to playlists that are themed around the time of day. We checked out the For You tab around 3:30 PM and were greeted by a series of upbeat playlists under the general heading of “Got Off Early?”

Browse

what is apple music  3This section of the Music app is like a magazine. It’s an editorially curated collection of sections, like Trending, Music by Mood, Daily Top 100, Just Updated, etc. Unlike traditional browse sections in music streaming apps, which focus exclusively on letting you drill down into the content via categories like artist or genre, Apple Music’s browse is more reminiscent of the homepage of the company’s App Store — hand-picked suggestions which help you discover something new from amongst that massive 50 million-track music vault. You can still browse by traditional categories if you like, it’s just that the Music app buries these options further down in the browse section.

What gets highlighted will partially depend on your listening habits and likes, but much like the For You section, it has a time-of-day component too. Around the noon hour, we were offered up a collection of playlists under the heading “Hit the Gym.” We’d probably have preferred one called “Making Lunch,” but then again, the gym inspiration is probably healthier.

You will start to notice that Apple Music tends to double-up on the names that it likes. For instance, within the Hit the Gym playlist group, we found a 50-song playlist called Pop Workout. And yet, that’s also the name of an Apple Music radio station, which features much of the same content.

Speaking of radio…

Radio

what is apple music  5Included with your Apple Music subscription is access to Beats 1, the company’s live streaming radio station staffed by expert music DJs. Much like live streaming TV, the Beats 1 schedule is a collection of shows that run 24/7 which you can listen to live, or on-demand after they air. The available archive of Beats 1 content, like interviews, shows, and special segments is now incredibly deep. Some of these shows feel like podcasts, while others follow more traditional formats.

The Radio section of the Music app is where this live streaming and on-demand Beats 1 content can be found, but it’s also home to Apple Music’s selection of genre-based radio stations like Pop Workout, which we mentioned earlier.

These genre radio stations are a lot like terrestrial radio, inasmuch as the music keeps playing as long as you keep listening, but of course, there are no ads and no live DJs. They’re just like endless playlists.

Search

what is apple music  15This one is easy: Simply type anything you want into the search field, be it a song, artist, album, or even just a few lines from some lyrics you heard when you were out with friends. If there’s a match in your own collection or the Apple Music vault (including radio content), it will show up here. If you’re curious what other Apple Music users are looking for, this tab will show a Twitter-like trending list, but without the hashtags.

But for a really rewarding search experience, try using Siri. You can ask for a variety of Apple Music-related things, like “Play Niki Minaj,” or simply “play me something upbeat,” and the Music app will dutifully respond with customized playlists based on your request.

Now playing

what is apple music  6The Now Playing window lets you control the playback of the current track, but it’s much more than play/pause and skip forward and back. Bringing up the full-screen version of the window shows you the relevant album cover for the track, but the real magic is in the three-dot contextual menu below the volume slider. Tapping those three dots gives you a wealth of additional options such as:

  • Add to library: Adds the track to your Library tab
  • Add to a playlist: Lets you add the track to an existing playlist or create a new one
  • Create Station: Triggers the creation of a custom radio station based on the track’s genre and artist. This new station appears in the For You tab for access later.
  • Share Song: Shares the info for the track via iOS’s normal share options like Messages and Mail.
  • Share Station: Same idea as Share Song, but customized to create a radio station.
  • Lyrics: Displays the lyrics for the song in a new window, but there’s no karaoke-style active highlighting of the lyrics in time with the song as you get in an app like there is on apps like Shazam.
  • Love and Dislike: Tells Apple Music a bit more about your tastes in music so it can make better guesses in the future for suggested listening options.

Follow your friends

what is apple music friendsA slightly hidden option within Apple Music is the ability to check in on the music your friends are listening to. Before you can do this, you need to activate your Apple Music profile by tapping on the person silhouette at the top of the For You screen. After assigning yourself a user name and a public name, the Music app will take a look at your iOS contacts and figure which of your friends are also on Apple Music. Those who have offered to let anyone follow them will show up first — and you can tap the follow button next to each of these — but you’ll also see your Apple Music friends who have not offered an open-follow option. For these contacts, you can tap an invite button, which then sends an encouragement link to them via the usual sharing options. It’s not a very personal message — just an Apple Music URL — so you’ll have to make it a true invite yourself, otherwise, it will likely be ignored.

Once this is all set up, you can choose to be notified if and when your friends follow you, or when there are artist or live show events that Apple Music thinks you might be interested in.

So there you have it — Apple Music in a nutshell. It’s similar to services like Spotify and Pandora, but with plenty of unique features to help it stand out from the streaming crowd. Is it right for you? Only one way to find out, so grab the three-month free trial while you still can.

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