Tech Talk: How to instantly find and play music you’ve just heard on TV

The BBC's Playlister plugs TV soundtracks into your phone
The BBC's Playlister plugs TV soundtracks into your phone
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EVER watched a TV programme and tried to identify the piece of music playing in the background? Of course you have.

TV companies are required, for copyright purposes, to log every tune they use on air, however incidentally. But their pages of lists have never been seen outside the music publishing offices of Tin Pan Alley. Until now.

Using the BBC’s Playlister website, it’s now possible to plug those logs directly into your phone or computer and play them – through your hi-fi speakers if you wish – instantly and in full.

At present, only music-centric programmes are supported, but even so it’s a great way of rediscovering tracks you half-remember from decades gone by, and adding them to your collection.

You do this with a music streaming service such as Spotify or Deezer, within which you can curate playlists to your heart’s content. If you don’t want to listen offline and you’re prepared to put up with adverts, the services are free; otherwise they’re £10 a month.

The BBC Playlister is compatible with both services and matches the songs in the programme to those in the vast streaming libraries. You can access them on a PC, tablet or some smart TVs and connect your stereo amp to the headphone socket for the full studio experience.

Even if you already subscribe to an unsupported and paid-for service like Amazon Prime Music, you can use Spotify as a handy companion.

The Playlister is also useful for listing the tracks played on any of the BBC’s radio shows. But it isn’t a complete solution, especially for non-BBC programmes or when you simply want to identify a song playing on the pub jukebox. For those occasions there is Soundhound, an app that will run on any phone and “listen” to anything within earshot. It then tries to match whatever fragments of notes and chord progressions it has picked up with something in its database.

If you’re lucky, it will serve up an artist and title, and links to buy or hear the tune online. Similar apps like Shazam do the same job and may have been installed as part of your phone’s standard-issue software.

With all these services, the accent is very much on streaming music to you, rather than letting you download it. This way, you typically “own” it for just as long as you stay subscribed; thereafter, it disappears into the cloud. However, this doesn’t mean that your existing collection of downloaded MP3 files needs to exist separately: Spotify and several other services let you upload and play your personal music collection from within a single interface, and Apple Music also lets you import tracks you’ve bought from iTunes. You can choose to let the service scan your hard drive or upload files manually, but you’ll need to upgrade from the basic free subscription to do it.

If you choose to jump services you’ll find various online tools that can migrate your playlists between platforms, though you should expect some inconsistencies.

Even so, there’s no question that streaming music is more flexible than downloading it, and if you can make do with the basic free service its value is obviously peerless.