While in Best Buy the other day I was dumbfounded to see an AM/FM cassette player for the not-very-low price of $27.99. It got me thinking about the days of lugging around boxes of cassettes during the 80's and even 90's (if you dated during that era, chances are you either made or received a "mix tape" containing such tunes as Modern English's "I Melt With You" or The Cure's "Love Song.")
We've come a long way since then - those of us who have chosen to move, at least. My music library has been a 50/50 combination of MP3s and CDs. While I use MP3s on my devices while traveling or exercising, I had a biased preference for CDs in the car. Some of these were home-brewed compilations of different songs by different artists and it was easy to pop discs in and out of the stereo so I didn't see the need to evolve. I've hooked up my Android smartphone to my car speaker using a standard auxiliary cable but tapping away to manually shuttle between songs is neither easy nor safe when you're piloting a vehicle at 60+ miles per hour. On the flip side, burning CDs is such a downer.
Enter Google Play Music, which is rendering those CDs obsolete in my world. It allows you to upload and centrally manage your music, access it across many devices, work with playlists, mixes and, best of all, responds to voice commands (if applicable on your device) to allow you to play songs by artist or album just by requesting them.
There are a few stipulations you should know. Currently, Google Play has a limit of 1,000 tracks per playlist. You can add 20,000 songs (300 Mb/song) of your own stuff to your Google Play account, but songs you buy from the Google Play Store don't count against this quota. You can link ten devices plus your computer to your Google Play Music account, but you can only play music on one device at a time. Music is stored online and played on your device via an internet link; if you want to listen to music offline you have to download the music to your device. You can only download a song from your library twice unless you use the Music Manager application, which is designed for uploading/downloading of music. It works on both Android and iOS but this article will focus on the use of the service on an Android.
Setting up the account and apps
I got started by accessing the Google Play Music section online and uploading my Led Zeppelin collection from my computer to my account.
I was then given the option to choose the "Standard" free account or the "All Access" paid account for 30 days at no charge and then $9.99 per month:
I chose to "Start with Standard." I was then prompted to install the Music Manager.
You can skip this if you just want to upload files manually, but I chose to go for it by clicking "Download Music Manager." I ran the installer and it downloaded the full package then kicked off the setup process.
I had to sign in with my Google Account:
I was then prompted with the following screen:
I left "Upload songs to Google Play" highlighted and clicked Next.
What's handy about this option is you can upload music from a number of programs or sources. In my case my Led Zeppelin files were under my "My Music" folder so I selected that option and clicked Next.
The application found my music, so I clicked Next again. I was then given the option to set up the automatic upload function:
I clicked "Yes." The installation wizard then showed me the new Music Manager icon which would appear on my system tray:
Once I clicked Next my music began to upload. I right-clicked the Music Manager icon in my system tray to see which controls it provided:
Clicking "Options" showed me these features:
As you can see, the "Music" folder is set for automatic uploads. I checked the "Download" tab:
The option to "Download my library" is presented here. The "Advanced" tab shows the following:
I clicked "Go to music player" which opened My Library in Google Play via the browser at https://play.google.com/music/listen#.
Notice how the service groups your music by "Artists," "Albums," "Songs" and "Genres." The application does the same on my Android and provides similar options for each which I'll get into in a bit.
I accessed the "Led Zeppelin" link and saw the albums (part of a four-disc set I received for Christmas many years ago) I had uploaded.
Clicking any one of my albums showed me the contents, such as in the case of "Led Zeppelin [Disc 1]":
If I wanted to play songs from my browser I could do so using the horizontal toolbar along the bottom of the screen, which presents play, pause, previous, next, repeat and shuffle controls.
Checking my associated devices
I elected to check my settings to make sure my Droid and my computer both showed as registered devices (the Google Play Music app was already present on my Samsung Android). I clicked the familiar gear icon in the upper right.
Clicking "Settings" brought up the following window:
Both my Samsung and my computer were shown here, so I was ready to proceed.
Working with playlists
It was time to create a playlist. I went to "My Library" using the link in the upper left then chose "All My Songs."
Creating a playlist was as simple as clicking the "+" icon to the right of "Playlists" in the vertical toolbar on the left.
I decided to call my playlist "Rocking Led Zep."
Then I clicked "Create Playlist." I was taken back to the "All my songs" view and the new Playlist appeared in the vertical toolbar. From there it was just a matter of clicking the triple dot icon to the right of each song as shown below:
I could then select "Add to playlist" followed by my "Rocking Led Zep" playlist.
Keep that triple dot icon in mind - it serves as a menu for many objects in this interface and applies to songs, albums, playlists and so forth.
Accessing music on my Android
One of the things that made me reluctant to try playlists until now was that I didn't want to have to mess around with different playlists on different devices, or the hassle of manually creating these over and over or dealing with exports/imports. Google Play Music makes this easy by copying your playlists to all your devices for you. I accessed Google Play Music on my Android from my Apps list:
After stepping through setup screens similar to the ones I encountered in my browser, I observed this screen:
Scrolling down revealed all my content, and clicking the three horizontal bars to the left of the headphone icon at the top brought me to the following menu:
This menu is very similar to the one shown in the browser when you access your Google Play Music account. I chose "My Library" and saw the following:
Note the "Genres," "Artists," "Albums" and "Songs" designations once more. In my case I had a "Classic Rock" and "Rock" genre.
I went back to the main menu and tapped "Playlists":
There was my "Rocking Led Zep" playlist, which I could tap and start using immediately.
Tapping any song played it, but I found I had to select the vertical dots icon to the right of my playlist and select "Add to queue" to hear these songs played in the order in which they were arranged. I could rearrange the order of songs in the playlist by touching and holding the "handle" icon to the left of the song and dragging it to the desired position (you can also do this via your Google Play Music account in the browser). The "Play next" option seems to mark the song as next on deck in the queue.
The pushpin icon (shown just under the band in the above image) displays whether the song has been downloaded to the device; it is grey if not and orange if that is the case. You can tap it to perform the download.
The vertical dots icon to the right of that provides the menu shown in the screenshot above. I've found "Shuffle" to be a great way to kick off the various playlists I now use, including compilation playlists which have replaced the CDs I mentioned earlier in the article.
Selection the vertical dots icon to the right of a song showed me these options:
Another interesting feature is the ability to create quick and easy "thumbs up" playlists by opening a song and then tapping the "thumbs up" icon that appears:
Tapping the "thumbs down" icon, conversely, skips that song and takes it out of the play queue. Both icons tie into a feature in the "All Access" service which helps provide a customized listening experience (for instance, an "I'm feeling lucky" mix will appear in the main Google Music Play menu. The "All Access" account option provides other benefits such as unlimited songs and radio station access.
Of course, creating playlists on my Android works the other way; they'll show up in your Google Play Music account where you can use, edit or delete them as needed.
Working with instant mixes
A cool option is "Start instant mix" which creates a mix of all the songs by an artist, in an album/genre or by song. If I access My Library, then Artists, I can tap the vertical dots icon next to "Led Zeppelin" to bring up this menu:
In the screenshot above selecting "Start instant mix" would kick off a mix of Zeppelin tunes.
You can also access the "Instant Mixes" function from the main Google Play Music options menu:
Tapping "Instant Mixes" brings up this screen where you can search for music:
In my case I only had the one artist to search for, but I could search for artist, song, album or genre. What was interesting was that I could create and start an instant mix based on a single song (which seemed to me to hint the song would just play over and over), but clicking the "next song" icon would cycle through other songs by the same artist.
Any instant mixes you create will be kept on the Instant Mixes screen for future reference.
How about Voice commands?
When I first started this endeavor I envisioned being able to verbally command my music library by getting in the car, hooking my Android into my speakers, and telling it "Play Rocking Led Zep Playlist." Things aren't quite this evolved yet; my Droid didn't interpret this command. However, I found something even better. I can tell my Droid to play specific songs, albums or music by artists by stating "Listen to" or "Play" followed by the details. For instance, I said "Play Led Zeppelin Kashmir" and it obediently brought up an option for me to buy the song or play it via Google Play.
I chose the latter option and the correct song started playing. I canceled and ran through the process again and was pleased to see it remembered my choice - I didn't have to do anything else. Stating "Play Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven" worked fine. It should be noted some people have reported issues with certain album/artist/song names not being recognized, so if you try this feature you might have to use trial and error to see which ones work properly.
Now, while driving if I wanted to hear a multitude of different songs, I'd have to tap the Google Search microphone icon each time, so it's probably better to choose albums instead, but I'm hoping to see an always-listening voice command feature as well as the ability to recognize a request for a playlist soon.
Enjoy the Music
There are other features in the Google Play Music such as the ability to share songs and shop the Google Play store, but this provides an introduction to what you can do with this service. I'm excited about the possibilities and plan to equip my Droid with enough storage space to hold my music library and start taking advantage of my media-free opportunities. Hopefully you'll find this service and the app useful as well.
One thing I'll have to watch out for is using the voice command feature when riding in the car with my kids. Their different musical tastes and the desire to "one-up" each other might make my poor Droid explode from exhaustion after trying to process "Play One Direction What Makes You Beautiful," "Play the Frozen soundtrack," "Play The Simpsons Testify" and so on and so forth.
Click here for more help on how to use Google Play Music.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.