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Best free music services in 2020: Drowning out the pandemic with streaming tunes

You don't have to spend any of your money to get your music.

Free music services: Drown out the pandemic with your favorite tunes
20:50

With many of us stuck in our home offices during the pandemic, the silence gets pretty boring. You may require tunes to work -- or maybe you need to drown out the distractions. Either way, while there are numerous music streaming services well worth paying for, there's also plenty of stuff that you can access for free.

Also: Check out the Jason Squared podcast on ZDNet

Most of the paid services also offer free trials. We've listed services here with completely free tiers, though you can upgrade to a higher level of service to remove ads, increase the size of the music library, allow more skips, or improve stream quality in bitrate.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review.

Streaming platforms

A streaming platform is a cloud-based service that has a catalog of music typically sorted by genre or artist. These contain playlists of albums or other thematic ways of sorting (such as by decades, style, or mood) so that the music can be randomly accessed. They either have apps or websites and can be integrated with a smart speaker device (Amazon Echo, Google Home, Sonos), but some (such as YouTube or Deezer) require paying for the premium tiers.

Amazon Prime Music / (Free for Prime customers)

It's good to be a Prime customer

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  • Quality: N/A 
  • Files: N/A 
  • Library size: 50 million+ 
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, desktop app, web player, connected speaker support, cars

The free tier for Prime users features more than two million songs and more than 2,000 playlists and stations -- all ad-free, with unlimited skips and available for offline playback.

View Now at Amazon

Spotify Free

The world's most popular streaming service, in a free version

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  • Quality: 160kbps, 96Kbps for mobile device users 
  • Files: MP3, M4P, MP4 
  • Library size: 45 million+ 
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, desktop app, web player, smart TV apps, connected speaker support, and cars

Some folks, like my Jason Squared podcast colleague Jason Cipriani, find the native application interface confusing. Following an artist is not the same as adding the artist to your library. However, the service doesn't require the native interface, as the free version can be easily integrated into streaming devices such as Sonos, which uses its own native UX. But there's a lot of content here to enjoy, and focused genres for rock, pop, indie, moods, new releases, throwbacks, and charts.

View Now at Spotify

YouTube Music

Google your tunes

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  • Quality: 128kbps 
  • Files: AAC 
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps

The search giant has a wide variety of music, with good mobile apps, but it's heavily ad-supported. It has excellent search features too, with lots of live music recordings.

View Now at Google

Pandora

One of the oldest is still one of the best

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  • Quality: 64kbps 
  • Files: N/A
  • Library size: 30 million+ 
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, Web UX, smart device integration

With Pandora, music is created "thematically." You chose a bunch of artists, and it figures out what tastes you have, and it gives you music based on that music style. Ads are frequent.

View Now at Pandora

Slacker Radio / LiveXLive

It's live!

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  • Quality: 128kbps, 16-bit 
  • Files: N/A 
  • Library size: 13 million 
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, Web UX, smart device integration, connected cars

This is a live music platform for concerts and festivals, audio stations, original shows, and podcasts.

View Now at LiveXLive

Deezer

Vive le France!

deezer.jpg
  • Quality: 128kbps, 16-bit 
  • Files: MP3, FLAC 
  • Library size: 56 million 
  • Platforms: OS and Android apps, Web UX

This is a Paris-based company that has been in business for over 13 years with a very large music library. There's periodic audio ads between songs, only 128 kbps MP3 audio quality, and five song skips per hour.

View Now at Deezer

Streaming radio networks

Streaming radio networks can be differentiated from the streaming platforms. They're primarily composed of live broadcasting radio stations that have queued music combined with programming. Many are actual radio broadcast stations that have created a "feed" of what is happening on their networks live. 

While some are internet-exclusive stations, most radio stations are local properties. They have DJs with regular programs and play locally popular styles of music and artists (such as ska and reggae in parts of the Caribbean and the UK). The live content includes local commercials that cannot be skipped over. Some radio networks have channels with a thematic nature with similar categorization as the streaming services, like by decades, genres, and moods.

Sonos Radio

Embrace the weird

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  • Quality: 128kbps, 16-bit  
  • Platforms: iOS, Android and desktop apps, smart integration with Sonos devices

With Sonos Radio, there are no skips, and it has a 128k bitrate. But there is a lot of interesting stuff and channels. It requires the Sonos app for iOS/Android/desktop to play on Sonos hardware only. The streaming radio network is included for free with every Sonos system and was recently re-launched with a lot of new content, including many types of genres and featured local radio. Band network streams (Disney, ESPN, BBC, etc) and two specialty stations ("Sound System" and "In the Absence Thereof" curated by none other than Radiohead's Thom Yorke) are also included.

View Now at SONOS

iHeartRadio

Radio blended with themed music selections

iheartradio.jpg
  • Quality: 128kbps, 16-bit 
  • Files: MP3, FLAC 
  • Library size: 20 million 
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, smart device integration, Web UX

iHeartRadio is something of a hybrid between a streaming platform and a radio service, as it has over 20 million songs in its inventory that are classified and searchable by artist. It has over 1,500 browsable radio stations. Stations/Channels can be chosen based on the performing artist (i.e., The Rolling Stones), and music is determined based on that artist's music style -- not necessarily the artist itself, similar to Pandora.

View Now at iHeartRadio

TuneIn

Tune out from the pandemic in high-quality sound

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  • Quality: 320kbps, 32-bit  
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, smart device integration, Web UX

Although TuneIn seems to be very similar to iHeartRadio, there are some key differences. TuneIn has only radio stations (over 100,000 to choose from) and podcasts (5.7 million), and it distinguishes itself by having up to a 320Kbps bitrate, which delivers outstanding sound quality.

View Now at TuneIn

Accuradio

Genres galore

accuradio.jpg
  • Quality: 128kbps, 16-bit  
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, smart device integration, Web UX

This is similar to Pandora, with personalized playlists. The streaming stations are structured by many types of themes and genres. AccuRadio is an independent, multichannel internet radio property founded in 2000, and it's based in Chicago.

View Now at AccuRadio

MixCloud

If you like DJs who mix it up

mixcloud.jpg
  • Quality: 128kbps, 16-bit  
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, smart device integration, Web UX

Mixcloud has thousands of stations with online DJs who make their own mashups and mixtapes, all of which are online radio stations playing specialized international music of many types.

View Now at MixCloud

Global Player

Anarchy in the UK

globalplayer.jpg
  • Quality: 128kbps, 16-bit  
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, smart device integration, Web UX

Global (also known as Global Media and Entertainment) is a British media company formed in 2007. It is the owner of the largest commercial radio company in Europe. Global owns and operates seven core radio brands, all employing a national network strategy. The service features are completely free but ad-supported content. You get. dozens of local British radio stations, a lot of channels, and hemes (decades, chill, relax, etc) via curated playlists.

View Now at Global Player

Hit Network

Rockin' Matilda

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  • Quality: 128kbps, 16-bit  
  • Platforms: iOS and Android apps, smart device integration, Web UX

This is like Global Player, but all the content is from Australia! You get dozens of contemporary hit radio stations run by Southern Cross Austereo in Australia using local DJ talent, plus comedy programming. 

View Now at Hit Network