What Is Streaming Music?

Streaming music delivers songs to your computer or mobile device instantly.

Photo of a woman and a man listening to streaming music
© Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

Streaming music, or more accurately streaming audio, is a way of delivering sound—including music—without requiring you to download files from the internet. Music services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music use this method to provide songs that can be enjoyed on all types of devices.

Streaming Audio Delivery

In the past, if you wanted to listen to music or any other type of audio, you downloaded an audio file in a format such as MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG, or FLAC.

However, when you use a streaming delivery method, there's no need to download a file. You can start listening to the song almost immediately.

Streaming differs from downloads in that no copy of the music is saved to your hard drive. If you want to hear it again, you can easily stream it again, although some paid streaming music services allow you the option to do both—stream and download.

The way the streaming process works is that the audio file is delivered in small packets so the data is buffered on your computer and played pretty much straight away. As long as there is a steady stream of packets delivered to your computer, you'll hear the sound without any interruptions.

Requirements for Streaming Music to Computers

On a computer, in addition to obvious needs like a sound card, speakers, and an internet connection, you might also need the right software. Even though web browsers play some streaming music formats,  software media players installed on your computer might come in handy.

Popular software media players include Windows 10 Bread Music Player, Winamp, and RealPlayer. Because there are many streaming audio formats, you may need to install a few of these players to be able to play all streaming music from various sources on the internet.

Paid Streaming Music Subscriptions

Streaming music subscriptions have made enormous gains in popularity.

Apple Music, which is available on Windows PCs and Mac computers, is a streaming music subscription with more than 40 million songs you can stream to your computer. 

Amazon Music and Google Play Music offer similar subscriptions. All of these paid programs offer free trials that allow you to evaluate their services. Some services such as SpotifyDeezer, and Pandora provide free tiers of advertising-supported music with the option of paid premium tiers.

Streaming to Mobile Devices

On your smartphone or tablet, the apps provided by streaming music providers are the best and usually the only way to enjoy their streaming music. However, every music service offers an app, so you just need to download it from the Apple App Store or Google Play to add streaming music to your smartphone or tablet.