A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Music Setup and Playing

Bakari Chavanu 08-10-2012

If you’re a music lover with boxes and shelves of music CDs, or if you have managed to burn or download digital music to your Mac or PC, this beginner’s guide to digital music setup and playing is written specifically for you. As a jazz enthusiast, I copied my entire CD collection to iTunes when it was released in 2001, and I haven’t looked back since. Digital music rekindled my interests in jazz and rap, and it has made it possible for me to get more out of the music experience.


While this guide is in no way comprehensive, it should be useful to music lovers who haven’t had the time to learn about the different music related websites, software and other resources that can be used without spending too much money. In fact, if you have a good computer, Internet connection, and a nice size CD or MP3 download collection, you’re ready to get started.

Going digital depends largely on three things: (1) how much time you listen to music, (2) where you mostly listen to music, and (3) what types of music you listen to.

Building a Library

The first step to going digital is to get albums and tracks into your computer. If you’re running a Mac, you will probably want to use iTunes (here’s How to Set Up iTunes Match for the First Time: The Definitive Guide Our definitive guide to what iTunes Match is and how to upgrade all your matched songs to high-quality versions. Read More how to get set up), and if on a PC, you would probably want to use  Windows Media Player. I’m an iTunes user, but much of my suggestions can be used on Windows Media Player as well.

digital music

To build your digital music library, import your CDs into your music player. If you have a large collection (say 1,000 or more CDs), you probably should house your library on an external drive, because you will need space to grow the collection.


I’ve never bothered with searching for “illegal” downloads of music, but this article 7 Sites Where You Can Download Free Music (Legally!) If you're the type of person who loves tending to a vast music collection, there are still ways to get free music. Here are seven websites to get you started... Read More  presents several sites for free legal downloads. You might also try hitting up your local libraries to help build your collection, where you can borrow and import CDs to your digital library.

Access Streaming Music

Before you go and start buying digital songs and albums, I suggest you join a music streaming site, especially if you have good Internet access. Subscribing to a site like Spotify Music-Streaming Service Spotify Finally Arrives in the US [News] Today, all the social networks are buzzed about the arrival of the European-based popular music-streaming service, Spotify, to the U.S. market. Similar to other streaming music sites like Pandora, Spotify delivers up a huge music... Read More , Rdio [Broken URL Removed], Pandora, or MOG, enables you to listen to entire albums of songs for free (with commercial ads) for as little as $5 a month.

guide to digital music

You can never own songs streamed from these sites, but you get access to a huge music catalog with no limits to how many times you play the songs and albums. This means you ultimately only purchase songs you want to keep on your computer or mobile device. These sites are also social networks, where you can follow other music listeners, who essentially become your personal DJs for new and heavy rotation music. Actually, if you’d rather not bother with buying, downloading, managing, and backing up music files, streaming music sites are your best bet. Read here The Pros And Cons Of Streaming vs Downloading MP3s I've been a long-time user of streaming music services – from Pandora, to the now defunct online music locker, and now as a monthly subscriber to If you have a computer and a... Read More for the pros and cons of streaming vs downloading MP3s.


If you want to have access to your music library from any Internet source, Google Play allows you to copy up 20,000 songs from your existing music library to your Google account, and then stream your music via Wi-Fi, or from a mobile app for Google Play.

guide to digital music

Where to Purchase Music

There are many sites to purchase and download music. The two biggest are the iTunes Music Store and Amazon MP3. What makes these two stores practical is that digital music content can be downloaded directly into your respective music players, including mobile players (iPhone, iPad, Android.) But both of these sites have account restrictions that I discuss below.

iTunes Music Store

In the iTunes player, you simply click on iTunes Store to access its vast library. You can browse the top songs, or click on All Categories and select a genre you prefer. Each category of music in the iTunes Store provides you a wealth of recommendations, from new releases to “best of” tracks and albums. Categories are also broken down into musical periods, styles, and top downloads.


guide to digital music

Note also that you can save selected songs and albums to your Wish List (in both the iTunes Store and Amazon MP3) and thus budget your money for musical downloads.

With iTunes, all your musical purchases are instantly backed up to your account, and thus can be re-downloaded if need be. Downloads are DRM-free, meaning you own the songs you purchase. But with iTunes there’s a caveat: your purchased songs can only be played on up to 5 authorized computers. Those authorizations must be based on your iTunes account. This is one reservation that keeps me from shopping at iTunes (note – be sure to purchase all your songs under one Apple/iTunes account address. If you purchase under different accounts, you may run into problems playing purchased songs later when you switch to a new computer.)

Amazon MP3

The browsing features for music in the Amazon Store are a little more time consuming to navigate than in the iTunes Store, but Amazon’s MP3 and CD stores do break down selections into a wide range of musical genres and sub-categories.


digital music guide

Categories also exist for new releases, best sellers, and bargains–the latter of which you find a lot less in the iTunes Store. All Amazon MP3 purchases can be downloaded through Amazon’s Downloader which imports music content into your iTunes or Windows Media Player. Your purchase content can also be played in the Amazon Cloud Player, which is optimized for the iPhone, Android, and Kindle Fire. You can also play songs via a web browser.

Like iTunes, MP3s are also DRM-free, but you can only play purchased songs on up to 10 authorized computers. So if you plan on burning songs on CDs as gifts, this can be a drawback for Amazon as well.

I prefer purchasing songs on and because there are no computer authorization limitations. The songs you buy, you own them completely. With you pay a monthly subscription, ranging from $6.49 to $79.99 per month. There are also quarterly and yearly options.

digital music guide

Emusic songs and albums are on average cheaper (especially for older tracks) than iTunes and Amazon, and the monthly subscription can help you keep within a spending budget. I keep my eMusic “Saved for Later” collection updated so that each month I review the list for possible subscription downloads.

As you will readily see, digital songs are much cheaper than CDs and you can purchase individual songs instead of entire albums, though some songs are only sold as part of an entire album purchase.

Manage Your Library Collection

To get the most our of your digital music experience, keep your music library organized within music genres, and categories, timelines, and playlists. Smart playlists in iTunes and Auto Playlists in Windows Player are the best and most efficient ways to organize and get the most our of your music collection. Windows Player will automatically create playlists when you import an album. Also, typically, iTunes and Windows Player will add all the metadata (song titles, artists, dates, and release dates) automatically to your imported CDs and downloads.

digital music guide

These type of playlists are based on the rules you set for them. For example, you will want to set up a smart playlist to display all your recently imported songs. Another list can update all your five star favorites; and a similar list can update the songs you listen to most or least. The more you listen to and rate songs in your library, the more fun you can have with creating smart collections.

Smart playlist

Personally, I like to keep my iTunes library open on a second monitor with content displayed in album, grid view, and then make selections from there. Other times, I allow iTunes DJ and iTunes Genius Use iTunes Genius Mixes As Your Personal Music DJ Read More to select songs for me. Invariably, iTunes DJ will deliver songs I hadn’t played in a while and really like.

A Beginner's Guide to Digital Music Setup and Playing itunes

Create another smart playlist of songs you have yet to play more than once. This is a good way to make sure you’re not buying more music than you’re actually listing to.

Smart playlist

Finally, I think it’s wise to copy as much of your favorite music to a portable MP3 player. I still keep and maintain my entire library on a 5th Generation iPod Classic (I explain why here The iPod Classic: Still The Best MP3 Player For Music Lovers [Opinion] Back in 2001, the release of Apple's iTunes brought me back to listening to jazz, and a little of rap and R&B music. A few years before then, I was reluctant to shell out $15... Read More ), which I use in my car. It’s also extremely important to have a backup system, (such as Time Machine for Mac) for your music library–preferably one that automatically performs the task for you.


Music Apps

There are many mobile music apps for iOS and Android devices–too many to list here. But a few good ones include Shazam or SoundHound–both useful for identifying music you hear on the radio and for keeping up with your favorite artists.

digital music

Look for apps that are specific to the music genres you like. For example I keep Jazz Radio and Jazz.FM91 on my iPhone for when I want to hear cuts not in my music library. Rdio, Spotify Spotify: The Best Way To Listen To Music On Your iPhone With Spotify making it onto the MakeUseOf Best iPhone Apps list, we're taking a closer look at what you can get out of using Spotify on your iPhone. You can select between the free or... Read More , and MOG also have mobile apps, but it will cost you extra to listen to entire songs and albums on them. If you’re an iPhone user, here are four other music apps 4 Alternative Apps to the iPhone Music App I'm not a big fan of the Music app for the iPhone. The user interface feels too linear and lacking in features. But where Apple may come up short in its mobile music player, there... Read More  you might consider.

I hope this basic guide is useful, but let me know what questions you have about getting started. If you’re an experienced digital music listener, please share you own ideas and resources.

Related topics: Google Music, iTunes, Media Player, Music Album.

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  1. Jim Spencer
    December 19, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Pretty good post, even for us more seasoned AudioPhiles. Keep up the great posts.

  2. Marlon
    November 15, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Thanks for this. Let me know when you have a solution for all the duplicates I have in my library. drives me wild!!

    • Darryl Montgomery
      November 20, 2012 at 2:45 am

      there are several articles on this site on how to do that. Do a search!.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      November 21, 2012 at 4:31 am

      Marlon, look that one up on the internet. There are several solutions. I believe TuneUp for the Mac might be useful. Have you tried File>Display Duplicates in iTunes? Select your top level Library and then Display Duplicates.

  3. Lane Fujii
    November 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    I ripped some albums and when I played it only on song came out at a time. Can you please give me instructions as to how I can play the whole album at a time. Please give me step by step instructions as I am a beginner. I have a MacBook Pro laptop. Thanks!

    • Bakari Chavanu
      November 21, 2012 at 4:29 am

      Not sure quite sure what you mean? Did you import all the tracks into iTunes?

  4. One and a Half
    October 27, 2012 at 5:32 am

    Worth mentioning is to backup your licenses (music) on another drive, last thing you want is to invest thousands of dollars and hours, and be blown away in a microsecond. iTunes, Winamp, WMP manage their library very differently, and this could be a subject on its own.

    While MP3 may be widely distributed, it irks me to pay for music that I know you can get for a CD for roughly the same price but 100 times better quality. You can always dumb down CD or higher resolution music to MP3 for portable use, but not going the other way, too much information is discarded.

    There are quite a few lossless file formats mostly royalty free these days, that can reduce the size of CD files to about half, but retain 100% of the information on playback. There's no excuse not to use lossless formats, it's MP3 that's entrenched in people's minds as the only way to download music, mainly due to the early days of low speed internet, and sadly that needs to go. There is a parallel where music quality does exist without too much effort.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 29, 2012 at 7:02 pm

      Hey thanks for this. I still need to investigate more the entire MP3 vs CD quality. I'm not a audiophile, so I don't expect much in the way of digital downloads. But perhaps when I start hearing better quality sound it could make a difference. Like the difference between Apple earphones and Bose headphones.

  5. Brent
    October 16, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Actually if you can either stream music (in which the recorder applet in Windows will capture anything you stream and want to keep including long Pandora sessions you can later pick from with easy editing tools) or find a song on YouTube (in which case MP3 converter can capture the song for you) you can build your library. That is, the articles comment that you cannot keep what you stream is incorrect.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 17, 2012 at 11:24 pm

      True, Brent. But I've done that twice and seriously it just wasn't worth my time. Plus, the subscription for the streaming music is so affordable, I figure it's the least I can do. I've been keeping to a pretty strict budget when it comes to buying music on Rdio and Emusic. But hey, that's just how I do it. This article is intended for beginners—providing them some relatively easy suggestions for getting started with digital music. Thanks for your feedback.

  6. John Pavelko
    October 16, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    What am I missing? What is the difference between downloading songs off an internet site w/o paying any royalties and "...hitting up your local libraries to help build your collection, where you can borrow and import CDs to your digital library.?" You do not pay royalties in either case.

    • Brent
      October 16, 2012 at 11:20 pm

      I agree.

    • Brent
      October 16, 2012 at 11:22 pm

      Or listening on the radio. The only difference is convenience. Like TV. Why do I have to watch a show at 9pm when I get home at 9:10 and want to watch it and a couple other shows aired earlier.

      • Bakari Chavanu
        October 17, 2012 at 11:20 pm

        Lol, true! I think I hit up my local library for like 15 or so CDs. But since then I've purchased more music than I get for free. I don't listen to radio music that much, because they tend to play the same stuff over and over. But your point is well taken.

  7. Elaine
    October 12, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    MUOF is a fantastic help to me. however I am easily confused. where can store all your advice for easy access? drop box / file manager. anyway I love all the advice and need all the advice I can absorb. I have recently purchased all Apple technology. love the I pad even though it does not love me !!!!!!!!!One could call me a senior lady 68. Thanks ej

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm

      Elaine, you might try a bookmarking site like Diigo, Delicious, or Annotary. These sites allow you to bookmark, tag, and organize you bookmark. You could also just create a bookmark folder in Safari and save your favorite MUO bookmarks to that folder. Hope that helps. If not, email me. Thanks for your readership.

  8. Zeev
    October 11, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Another recommended site for buying music is

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 11, 2012 at 10:15 pm

      Hey, Zeev, I'll definitely check it out. Thanks for letting us know.

  9. Damon Osborne
    October 11, 2012 at 7:36 am

    I really hate the way the record companies ("Music Industry") has ripped us and the musicians off since Abraham. Amazon, iPlayer and all streamers you mentioned are aiding and abetting. DRM is abhorrent. I am happy to pay the artists for their music but not the greedy sods on tin pan alley.
    Check out

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 11, 2012 at 10:14 pm

      Thanks for the link, Damon. I'll check it out. There was a recent article about how much artists got paid by Pandora. But I'm sure most artists don't get their due.

  10. Debbie Strandberg
    October 10, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    This is a great article. I wish this information had been available when I started my music library years ago. It is still very relevant now and gives me more options then just iTunes. Thank you. I appreciate receiving this great info.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 11, 2012 at 10:10 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, Debbie. Appreciate it.

  11. mishasin
    October 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Thanks for the tip.
    Best regards

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 10, 2012 at 8:02 pm

      You're welcome, mishasin.

  12. Dennis
    October 10, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    I think there is a word missing from the following sentence where the ??? are located: In fact, if you ??? a good computer, internet connection, and a nice sized CD or MP3 download collection, you’re ready to get started"

    If you 'need' a good computer?
    If you 'bought' a good computer?
    If you 'have' a good computer?
    If you 'stole' a good computer?

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 10, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      Dennis, thanks for pointing the mistakes. I read back over the article, and we did miss a few mistakes. I'll see I can get my busy editor to update those changes.

  13. Edward Bellair
    October 10, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I am mailing this to a newb. Big into music but lost to the tech part.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 10, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      Edward, thanks for letting us know it might useful. I know several people who still haven't converted to digital music because they find the task daunting.

  14. Tony Aldrich
    October 10, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Are you saying a CD made from your itunes dowload, won't neccessarily play on a CD player? Also I have always assumed the quallity from itunes (m4a) should be superior to MP3.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 10, 2012 at 7:59 pm

      iTunes songs burned to CDs on iTunes will play, but the computer will need to be authorized for iTunes. As for m4a vs. MP3, I'm not the expert I would like to be. So I won't attempt to answer that question. Hopefully another one of readers can.

  15. Gerald Anderson
    October 10, 2012 at 1:43 am

    Do you guys ever consider persons running Linux Ubuntu ?

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 10, 2012 at 7:56 pm

      Alright other MUO writers, here's a article idea. I'm not a Linux or Ubuntu user, but I agree we should include more articles about these platforms.

  16. David C
    October 9, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    This should be more appropriately entitled Using Windows and iTunes to Build Your Music Library. Not everybody wants or even uses Windows and/or iTunes...

    Just because someone may be a beginner to building a music library doesn't mean they are beginners to other things too. ;)

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 10, 2012 at 7:54 pm

      Good point, David. I guess I was trying to focus on apps and programs that may be more accessible for beginners. But perhaps a follow-up could be written about alternatives.

  17. Carolina Cavazos
    October 9, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Good article!
    I found out the hard way with Itunes, when my laptop crashed, I lost some of my purchased Itunes library permanently because I did not back it up before the crash. The Itunes team was able to get some of it back for me, though not all.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 9, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      Carolina, you know I've wondered about this. How long does Apple maintain your purchased iTunes items? My iTunes song purchases are very limited, but there are several songs that I did buy that don't show up in my Purchased folder on iTunes. Did Apple tell you why they couldn't recover all your purchased songs, especially if they were all purchased under one account?

  18. Paige
    October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    I liked the idea behind this article but i ABHOR both windows media player - its terrible and I really don't like the sound quality. My issue with ITUNES is that it always seems to make my computer lag or anyone else's who does not own a mac. (Its a better option than window media player but I still don't suggest either to anyone)

    I like winamp its easy to use and sort. Sure you may not get the same picture set up but you can choose what format you like and play around with the sound and I can still use it to load music onto my ipod

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      Cool, Paige, I'll check Winamp. I honestly never heard of it, but it's the second time being mentioned in the comment section. I haven't experienced major problems with iTunes, and it's what I've used ever since it was released. But I'm sure by now there are better options.

  19. Ray
    October 9, 2012 at 2:46 am

    Hi Bakari,

    Good article. However you have not mentioned anything about ripping cds to MP3s or converting your analog/CDs to digital files. I would think that would be key in your digital music setup.

    Also, the windows PC ecosystem is not restricted to Windows Media player . There are lots of decent and capable music applications which offer great features and flexibility as opposed to Itunes. Personally, I have been using Winamp for 10 years and it still is my favorite music player.


    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      Hey Ray, thanks for your input. Yes, I only mention importing CDs into a player under the "Building Your Library" section. I should of linked to a how-to article about how to do that. Also, thanks for the other music application recommendation. This really could be a two-part article.

  20. Mac Witty
    October 8, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    I do agree about iTunes restrictions but you can have more than one account in your iTunes application. Even if it is hand with only one account some of "need" an account in another countries iTunes store as some content are country restricted. The only time you need to switch "log out-log in" is when you buy/download/update - otherwise it is fine to play everything you have in your application

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 9, 2012 at 12:47 am

      Well, when I recently got a new computer, I ran into problems with playing some of my older iTunes songs that were purchased on an account that is like 6+ years old. I couldn't remember the password, and thus had a difficult time getting my new Mac authorized for those songs. And then another time, I made a CD for my daughter and she couldn't listen to some of iTunes songs that I purchased a while back. She couldn't authorizing them on her Mac laptop. It's just too frustrating.

      • Mac Witty
        October 15, 2012 at 2:18 pm

        A good password app is the clue ;) Would never be able to remember neither the username nor the password

        You are right about the problem of playing iTunes music on "others" computers. Anyhow, dual account is something we, who not live in U.S. or "priority" countries, had to learn to live with if we want to listen and look at things

  21. Davin Peterson
    October 8, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    You don't need Apple for music needs. What about Google Play and use a Android device? Apple unfairly dominates the market and iTunes is locked down, so you can't use non-Apple devices. iTune sucks, so ditch it. Media Monkey is a great music manager.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 8, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      Davin, I agree. I point out Google Play in the article. I'm not an Android user, so thanks for pointing out that option as well. I agree, iTunes can be a hassle if switch accounts, if you want to make a CD of music and send to someone who doesn't have an iTunes account. I rarely use it, other than for playing music and buying apps. I try avoid buying music on iTunes anymore.

    • Mac Witty
      October 8, 2012 at 9:31 pm

      One problem with Google Play is that it is not available in all countries

      • Bakari Chavanu
        October 9, 2012 at 12:43 am

        Hmm, I wonder why that is? Is it DRM issue or something. Why would it be a problem for Google to make that feature accessible around the world?

        • Chris Hoffman
          October 9, 2012 at 3:40 am

          Licensing. Google Music is US-only, as far as I know. In Canada, I use Rdio -- other streaming services and music purchasing services like Amazon MP3, Google Play, Spotify, etc all don't work up here.

          In Canada, it seems to be Rdio or buying from iTunes. Rdio's great, though.

        • Claude
          January 10, 2013 at 10:58 pm


          Please tell me: Is streaming heavy on a low bandwidth plan?


  22. Garey Boone
    October 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks on the info on the individual store availability.I've been eyeballing Amazon MP3 for a while now but I think I'm going to start with eMusic.It looks like the lowest priced plan on emusic starts at $11.99 and up totally worth it to get away from DRM and other restrictions

    • Bakari Chavanu
      October 8, 2012 at 9:16 pm

      Yeah, Emusic seems to be best deal for me, though you can't download content until your subscription refreshes every month. If you really need to purchase songs before that date, you can buy what are Booster Packs from $5-$50. But I constantly see the Emusic prices as cheaper than other sites.