Updated 9 Jan 2018
Want to listen to the latest and greatest hits without having to fork out for CDs or digital copies of music?
Whether you're a fan of the Bieber, the Bee Gees or The Beatles, here's a round-up of the best online music services that let you listen for free – there are plenty to choose from...
Music streaming top picks
What is online music streaming?
The internet is a great way to browse, discover and pay for music. The music streaming industry has exploded in the past few years – according to the British Phonographic Industry, over 68 billion songs were streamed in the UK in 2017, a 52% increase on 2016.
Before you start using any of these online music services though, it's important to understand how they work. Here are some streaming FAQs:
What's the difference between streaming and downloading?
There are two ways to listen to music online:
Downloading. The first is by downloading the songs you want to listen to. This can be costly if you're doing it legally, especially if you're downloading a whole album of songs. Once you've paid for a track or album, it's yours to keep and listen to for as long as you like.
Streaming. The other way is online streaming, where you don't actually save the track to your phone, tablet, computer or other device, you just play it while you're online and every time you listen you're effectively 're-downloading' the track (unless you're on a plan with 'offline listening'). You'll only have access while logged in to your profile with the service (though many are free to use).
How does streaming work?
Streaming lets you listen to your favourite tracks and albums instantly. Its main boon is you get instant access to huge catalogues of music, without having hundreds of CDs cluttering up your house or thousands of MP3s cluttering up the memory of your devices.
These services are legal and above board, but the music is interrupted every now and then with an advert you can't skip. It can also be difficult to find the exact songs you want to hear, so streaming isn't for everyone.
Watch out for download limits
Before you consider streaming, a word of warning: ensure your broadband and mobile data connection are fast enough and you've a generous download limit. While you're not actually downloading a track to keep, streaming will use up your monthly allowance. Otherwise you risk being hit with added costs and constant buffering.
As a general rule:
You need a high (or unlimited) download limit, or you could be slapped with gargantuan charges.
For example, if you're going to listen to about six hours of internet radio per week, and that is all you'll be doing, you'll need a monthly download allowance of at least 5GB.
If you're going to be streaming more music, or doing other data-heavy things, like streaming movies, it's worth considering a broadband package with unlimited downloads, so you'll not have the worry of exceeding your limit, and using Wi-Fi on your smartphone whenever possible. Full details in the How to get Cheap Broadband guide.
Is online music streaming legal?
There are plenty of online music-streaming services that are legal, though thousands more aren't. The Government and internet providers are cracking down on the illegal ones, while some services only work in certain countries due to music licensing restrictions.
All those included below are legal, and will work in the UK.
Always check any software you put on your computer is suitable. Ensure it's compatible with your existing set-up. No liability can be accepted for any problems caused from acting upon the info given.
Many music streaming companies do offer free versions of their services, often with ads and/or certain limitations (such as lacking the ability to play offline). If you're happy to put up with these, then by all means go free.
If you want an ad-free, fully fledged experience, though, you'll need to upgrade to a premium subscription or consider a paid-only provider. Plans typically go for £10/month, though the good news is there are ways to cut the cost...
Most of the big names offer some sort of family or shared subscription, which lets multiple listeners (usually up to six) use the service each with their own profile and playlists.
One monthly payment is due for the entire group – and at £15/month they work out cheaper per person than individual plans. Obviously the more there are of you, the better value they become.
These providers offer family plans (for comparison they're normally £10/month per person):
- Paid-for Spotify (£14.99/mth)
- Paid-for Deezer (£14.99/mth)
- Amazon Music Unlimited (£14.99/mth, or £149/year if you've Amazon Prime)
- Apple Music (£14.99/mth)
- Google Play Music (£14.99/mth)
A (smaller) number of streaming services also offer student discounts on their individual plans – usually 50%. Eligibility is determined via Unidays/NUS Extra.
Providers with UK student discounts include:
Here are a few music streaming providers with free versions worth considering, and remember there's no limit to the number you can use, so you could get thousands of hours' worth of music for absolutely nowt.
Over 30 million songs, packed with features
Probably the biggest name in online music, the Spotify streaming service works on a plethora of devices. It has over 140 million users globally and over 30 million available tracks.
It offers free music streaming on desktops, tablets and Android or iOS mobiles, though there are ads, you have to listen to tracks by adding them to a playlist and playing them on shuffle, you can only skip songs six times per hour and you must be online to listen. Alternatively you can pay to upgrade to its Premium service which offers ad-free, unrestricted streaming.
More info & features
Spotify offers an array of clever extra features to both free and Premium users, including the ability to follow what friends are listening to on social media. You can also find music already on your computer and add it to your Spotify library, so you can listen to it on other PCs just by logging in to your account.
Spotify's weekly personalised playlist based on the tracks you listen to most, a feature available to free users too, has also been lauded. Similarly Spotify Running, which plays music in time to the beat of your pace, is a nice touch.
Used Spotify? Tell us what you think in the forum.
- Free 30-day trial available for Premium newbies – you'll be charged £9.99/mth automatically at the end unless you cancel.
- Spotify no longer allows payments for Premium to be made via Apple's in-app payment system, as it charged customers extra – you'll need to register direct with Spotify
- The Spotify Family plan for sharing with up to five others (each with their own profile) costs £14.99/mth.
- The Student plan's available for £4.99/mth.
- Works on PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Android phones & tablets, Windows phones, PS3/PS4.
Over 43 million songs, though limited on mobile
On the scene since 2006, Deezer is one of the older music-streaming sites, with around 10 million users. It's a fully fledged free-streaming service supported by ads, though you only get access to its library on-demand on the web and tablet versions.
This means mobile users can only listen to 'flow and mixes' (automated personalised playlists), unless you're willing to fork out for the privilege.
More info & features
Much like Spotify, you won't be able to listen offline or without ads if you're on the free version. Upgrading to Deezer Premium+ will let you listen without ads and in higher quality, offline, and to your own playlists on a mobile.
The 'Hear This' feature creates a personalised music feed based on the music you most listen to or add to your favourites, as well as playlists created by other users with similar music tastes to you.
Deezer's App Studio carries over 100 apps for different ways to interact with music on the platform. One particularly useful one if you currently use Spotify is Spotizr, which lets you import your playlists into Deezer.
Used Deezer? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the forum.
- Free 30-day trial (15 days if you sign up via its app) available for Premium+ newbies – you'll be charged £9.99/mth automatically at the end unless you cancel.
- Deezer Family (£14.99/mth) lets up to six people access an account at once.
- No student discount unfortunately.
- Deezer Elite (£14.99/mth) allows those with a Sonos speaker or home studio system to listen in lossless (ie, very high) audio quality.
- Works on PCs, Macs and Android, iOS and Windows phones/tablets.
640 million songs, social networking 'radio'
Over 59 million people around the world stream music with Last FM. Like Rdio and other personalised 'radio station' services, Last FM creates a unique playlist for you when you search for something. Fancy a bit of Britpop? You'll be given tracks from Pulp, Blur and Ocean Colour Scene.
It keeps track of everything you listen to on your iTunes and recommends similar artists – all while introducing you to fellow users with similar tastes. It's great for finding new music or gig buddies.
More info & features
It also offers the Last FM Scrobbler desktop apps for Windows and Mac, which automatically sync and update your Last FM library with what you've been listening to and updates you on what your friends are listening to.
Used Last FM? We'd love to hear what you think of it. Share your thoughts in this forum thread.
- For £3/mth you can remove all banner ads from the website and mobile apps (no free trial or discounts unfortunately).
- Works through most browsers and its iOS and Android apps, though there are better-reviewed third-party apps.
175 million monthly listeners, great for new & smaller artists
It's nigh on impossible to estimate how many tracks there are on SoundCloud, simply because of the scale of the service and ease of use for uploaders. This is unsurprising given that it initially launched as a platform for sharing music between artists.
However its popularity with consumers quickly led it to develop into a full publishing tool for musicians to distribute their tracks to the public, and it now boasts 175 million listeners a month.
More info & features
Because of its focus on artists and getting new material published, SoundCloud is ideal for discovering new or smaller artists that you may not find elsewhere, and exploring trending music.
Since it introduced a paid option earlier this year, the free version now has ads and you must pay to listen offline. SoundCloud Go costs £9.99/month and removes the ads and lets you listen offline, plus a few other benefits.
Tried SoundCloud? Tell us about it in the forum.
- Free 30-day trial available for SoundCloud Go newbies – you'll be charged £9.99/mth automatically at the end unless you cancel.
- No family or student plan unfortunately.
- SoundCloud Pro, more for musicians/uploaders, costs £3.99/mth or £35/yr and gives three extra hours of upload time and stats on listeners of your tracks.
- Pro Unlimited costs £8/mth or £75/yr and gives unlimited upload time.
- There are apps for iOS and Android. It no longer supports its desktop apps, but you can use the web version through your browser.
200,000 songs, no registration required
Jango is another online radio service, a bit like Last FM. It's funded by ads and you can listen to anything on the service, and get recommendations for artists and songs you might like.
You don't have to register. Just type in an artist and your first 'station' will start playing right away. For example, type in 'Adele' and it will play all similar artists to Adele, such as Norah Jones and Sara Bareilles.
More info & features
If you just want instant access to music, Jango is a good starting point. It has similar social networking elements to Last FM; the site will tell you what 'like-minds' are listening to, and you can listen to others' virtual stations if you tire of yours.
The site also provides independent artists the opportunity to showcase their music by recommending their songs alongside those of similar popular artists.
If you use the service without creating an account, you'll get an audio ad after every full-length song. If you want fewer ads, connect your Jango account with your Facebook account and you'll only get one audio ad per day. It's also worth noting you can't repeat, fast forward or rewind tracks.
Used Jango? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the forum.
The following music streaming services don't have free options, but they do offer free trials. Perfect for sampling before deciding whether you want to stump up the cash.
40 million tracks – use Amazon Prime trick to slash the cost*
Amazon Music Unlimited – 1mth trial, £9.99/mth (£6.58/mth equiv via trick)
Launched November 2016 in the UK, Amazon Music Unlimited* is the online retail giant's answer to the likes of Spotify and Apple Music – a fully equipped music-streaming service. It hosts "today's most popular artists", is ad-free and lets you listen offline.
Anyone can get it on a free 30-day trial. After, the standard price is £9.99/mth, though you can choose between a few different plans – or use this trick to cut the cost
Trick to get it for £6.58/mth equiv. Amazon Prime subscribers can get it for £79/year. But even if you don't pay for Prime, you can do this. Simply sign up for a free 30-day Prime trial*, then pay for a year's Amazon Music Unlimited upfront – even if you then cancel Prime, you get to keep Amazon Music Unlimited for what works out at just £6.58/mth equiv.
Already had a Prime trial? Sign up for just one month to get it cheap. If you've already had a Prime trial and can't get another, you can sign up to a month of Prime for £7.99, then opt for the annual plan of Amazon Music Unlimited before cancelling. This takes the cost to £86.99 over a year (£7.25/mth equiv), so you still save – plus you get Prime for a month.
Share with the family and it works out even less per person. The Family Plan* gives access to up to six family members, each with their own profile. One person pays – it's £14.99/mth, or £149/yr if you've Prime (or a Prime trial...). Obviously the more of you there are, the better the value – based on £149/yr it would come to £6.21/mth equiv each if there are two of you (or £2.07/mth with six). But be warned – you'll have to set up a 'shared payment method', which can be used by any family member to make purchases on Amazon.
Remember, unless you cancel before your Amazon Music Unlimited annual subscription or trial is up, you'll be automatically charged to renew. As for Amazon Prime, it's an automatic £79/yr fee if you don't cancel your trial. For full help if you forget to cancel, see Reclaim Unwanted Amazon Prime.
More info & features
Amazon Unlimited Music is entirely separate to the pre-existing Prime Music service. Prime subscribers can still use Prime Music* – with a more limited library of just two million songs – free of charge. Songs not covered by your Prime membership have to be purchased.
One nice extra feature of Amazon Music Unlimited is its integration with the Echo home speaker. By speaking to it you can request songs by the lyrics they contain, or playlists according to your mood. As with other premium music-streaming services, the more you use it, the more personalised your recommendations will be.
Here's a summary of the pricing:
Amazon music-streaming plans
|Prime Music||Amazon Music Unlimited||Amazon Music Unlimited Family||Amazon Music Unlimited Echo|
|Track library||2 million||40 million||40 million||40 million|
|Supported devices||All||All||All||Amazon Echo/Dot only|
|Price for Prime custs||Included||£7.99/mth or £79/yr||£14.99/mth or £149/yr||£3.99/mth|
Tried Amazon Music Unlimited? Tell us how you got on with it in the forum.
- You'll automatically be charged at the end of the trial unless you cancel.
- The Family plan lets up to six listen for £14.99/mth (£149/yr with Prime).
- No student discount – though those with Student Prime can use the trick above.
- There's a £3.99/mth plan for use via an Amazon Echo/Echo Dot only – not any other devices.
- Prime membership gives one-day delivery on many items, streaming via Prime Video and a few other perks.
- There's an Amazon Music app for iOS, Android and Amazon's own 'Fire' products, though not Windows Phone.
Curated by musicians, with live radio stations*
Apple Music – 3mth trial, then £9.99/mth
Apple's launch into the music streaming world has been much-publicised and not without contention, particularly when it comes to its free trial and the number of users unwittingly signed up when it ended (see the Cancel Apple Music guide for more details).
All those new to Apple Music* can take it on a free three-month trial, activated through the pre-installed Music app on your iPhone/iPad, or iTunes on your Mac/PC. You'll get all the features of paid membership while the trial runs, including access to its library of 30 million songs.
More info & features
The most-touted features of Apple Music are its radio stations, including Beats 1, run by DJ Zane Lowe and a "hand-picked team" of renowned DJs, and Connect, a platform through which artists can share more content and interact with users on a "more personal" level.
As you'd expect from a paid-for service, you can save tracks and playlists for listening to offline. Also, any music you've purchased in the iTunes store in the past will also be synced to the app.
If you don't take the trial or pay for membership, you can listen to Beats 1, though frankly this is a very limited option – which is why it didn't make it into our list of free music services.
Used Apple Music? Tell us what you think in the forum.
- The trial automatically renews at the end – see the Cancel & Reclaim Apple Music guide for how to reclaim if you've been stung.
- The Family plan lets up to six listen for £14.99/mth.
- The Student plan costs £4.99/mth.
- You can pay for Apple Music using iTunes vouchers, which can often be found discounted.
- Works on devices running iOS 8.4 or later, Macs and PCs with iTunes, and now Android.
35 million tracks, plus cloud storage of your existing songs
Google Play Music – 2mth trial, then £9.99/mth
Google Play Music has been around since 2011. Unfortunately it's yet to launch a fully free, ad-supported version in the UK. But much like its rivals, it lets newbies try it for free (you need to have a Google account) – currently you can get a two-month trial instead of the usual one month before you have to pay.
Those on the trial will get the same as paying members – access to its library of music ad-free, offline listening and recommendations based on the tracks you most listen to.
Although there's no student discount available, you can get a family plan for up to six users, for £14.99/month.
More info & features
The feature that most sets Google Play Music apart for its competitors is the ability to store up to 50,000 tracks you already own in the cloud, for listening to anywhere you've got an internet connection. This makes it ideal for those who already have a significant collection of songs.
Interestingly, this feature is available to non-paying users, so by all means use it for this function alone if you want to back up your songs, and don't pay a penny.
Have you tried Google Play Music? Tell us about it in the forum.
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