A Free Way to Harness Healing Power

One of the simplest ways to improve your health is also one of the most fun...

We're talking about listening to music.

Most health advice involves doing something active: exercising, preparing whole-food meals, going out to get some sunlight, etc.

But with little effort or money, music can:

  • Improve your mood,
  • Boost your immune system,
  • Reduce chronic and post-operative pain,
  • Improve spatial reasoning, test-taking, and concentration,
  • Improve heart recovery, and
  • Reduce stress.

In addition, listening to music keeps your brain sharp, helps you focus, and even releases one of my favorite chemicals – endorphins. (Endorphins are your natural pain relievers, and also boost your mood and create feelings of euphoria.) That's why we listed this activity as No. 10 on our annual list of the best ways to improve your health, which we publish in Retirement Millionaire.

The best part is that Internet and mobile technologies today let you listen to an almost limitless amount of music... and many of them are virtually free.

Already, you can choose from a long list of providers – known as music-streaming services – that will play music over your computer, tablet, or mobile smartphone. You don't have to purchase or download the music – the songs just play (or "stream") in real time over your device. Many of these services have a free version and a paid-subscription version that offers more features and flexibility.

Pandora and Spotify are two of the most popular services. (I have a paid Pandora account. My nephews and nieces all use Spotify.) But every day, more (and bigger) names are getting into the business.

For example, last month the video-sharing website YouTube launched a new paid-subscription service called YouTube Red. A $9.99 YouTube Red subscription includes access to Google's music-streaming service Play. Red promises its own music app soon.

YouTube unveiled Red on the heels of computer and electronics giant Apple launching its new music-streaming service, Apple Music. Apple Music allows you to play songs from both your iTunes account and the company's library of 30 million-plus songs. Like Red Apple Music will be a subscription service. Apple will offer a three-month free trial – after that, you will have to pay $9.99 per month to continue the service.

Initial reports show that about 42% of users have decided to pay for the service – not bad compared with Spotify's and Pandora's paid services. About 27% of Spotify users upgrade from the free service to the paid subscriptions. With Pandora, it's 5%.

We chatted with several music lovers in our office about popular services and test-drove many of them ourselves. We judged them based on ease of use, selection, and overall popularity. We also made sure to check that they included the most popular artists across genres. Here are our favorite free services, listed in order of the number of songs the service offers:

  Service Number of Songs
(in millions)
Number of Users
(in millions)
Play Songs on Demand
  Radio* 43 20 No
  Rdio 35 0.5 Yes
  Spotify 30 75 Yes
  Google Play 30 N/A No
  iHeartRadio 18 48 No
  Slacker 13 6 No
  Pandora 1.5 81.5 No
  TuneIn N/A 50 No
  Songza N/A 4.7 No
Data from Software Insider
*(formerly iTunes Radio)

Best Customized Radio: Although its collection of songs is smallest, Pandora has many of the best "radio" features. Pandora is designed to act like a radio, playing songs from a variety of artists that fit within some common style or genre. However, unlike your old AM/FM tuner, you set and refine the parameters to match your tastes. You create the channels based on a specific genre, artist, or song. Pandora then plays songs that it believes are similar. Liking and disliking each track tells Pandora to play or remove similar songs from the channel. You can add as many stations as you want. Pandora also has its own stations you can use.

Probably the best aspect is ease of use. It's not too cluttered, and finding and making a station is very easy. You can search for an artist without automatically switching to that artist's station – something we had trouble with on other sites. And we haven't experienced any dropouts or delays.

Best Record Collection: Spotify blows away the competition with its ability to find and play any song on demand. (Even though Radio has 43 million songs, which is more than Spotify's 30 million songs, it's not on demand and we found it cumbersome). It's like having a giant record collection at your fingertips. Spotify also features a radio function similar to Pandora's, but it's not as easy to navigate. If you value cultivating your own playlists and finding tons of albums for your favorite artists, Spotify can't be beat.

We found one downside: lag issues on our computers with the desktop app. And because of the play-on-demand model, some songs aren't available due to rights agreements. For example, you can only access one obscure album from the Beatles.

Best Broadcast Radio: We enjoyed TuneIn for the clear sound of its stations and its inclusion of many local stations. Unlike iHeartRadio, we were able to find our favorite Baltimore stations and listen to them clearly.

We also liked that we could listen to radio broadcasts across the globe. Sitting in our office, we were able to access stations in Italy, Honduras, Venezuela, and Japan. You can create radio stations based on artists as well.

Honorable Mentions: We liked Rdio's ability to make playlists for free, but didn't like that you couldn't create more than one customized radio station (like you can on Pandora). We also enjoyed the fun and extremely widespread playlists on Songza, including ones uploaded by outside sources like Men's Fitness. Both sites were also easy to navigate and we did not experience any playback issues.

We also had dozens of recommendations from our office mates who like the music-streaming service that Internet retailer Amazon includes with its Prime membership. However, since it requires a paid subscription to Amazon Prime, we excluded it here.

As for Apple and Google, we found their platforms less intuitive, possibly because of content overload. We're sure these will improve with the new releases, so we're looking forward to trying them in the future.

With so many artists available on these platforms, you can find (almost) anything you want. One thing to note – because you can't download the music, you don't "own" it the way you do with CDs.

As our executive editor – an avid music fan – told us, it's a change in how we think about music. Our editor is notorious as the owner of more than 1,000 CDs – not to mention storage bins filled with hundreds of cassette tapes and LPs that his wife keeps threatening to throw out. (He does subscribe to Spotify's paid service.)

The idea of tracking down old or hard-to-find recordings to build a rich collection is obsolete. Anyone can use these streaming services to access whatever they want, whenever they want. Now that finding Red Norvo's 1951 recordings with Charles Mingus and Tal Farlow is as easy as dialing up the latest Katy Perry record... Our editor hasn't bought or downloaded an album in more than a year.

I highly recommend you try one or more of these services for free.

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