There are a number of different ways to keep your music in sync on your Mac, iPhone, iPad and iPod. But how you keep everything in sync depends on whether or not you pay Apple to keep everything in iCloud, subscribe to Apple Music, or pay nothing and just hook up your Mac and iPhone once in a while to sync your data.

We’ll look at the various ways to sync your music so you can decide which technique you want to use. Some methods will cost you money and others are free, there are pros and cons for each option.

It’s free to sync your music from your Mac to your iPhone, but it’s not as simple as using iCloud, Apple Music or iTunes Match, where syncing will happen in the background without you doing anything.

iPhone music

If you prefer not to pay for iCloud storage or a subscription to Apple Music, syncing music on your devices will always have been done via iTunes. However, if you have updated your Mac to macOS Catalina, you’ll have recently found that the method for syncing your devices has changed. Apple removed the iTunes app from macOS with the arrival of Catalina. You’ll still find all your music on your Mac - the Music app is very similar to iTunes - the difference is that Music doesn’t do all the non-music related features that iTunes managed. Now if you want to sync the music on your iPhone and your Mac this is taken care of by the Finder. We’ll run through the new and old methods below.

If you are prepared to give Apple some money then everything happens in the cloud. Apple will store all your music, including your playlists, play counts, ratings, and more in your own personal iCloud Music Library that you can access on any of your devices. You don’t get the service for free though, you need to choose between iTunes Match (£21.99/$24.99 a year) or Apple Music (£9.99$9.99 a month). If you aren’t sure which you want, read Apple Music versus iTunes Match.

With either of these services turned on you won’t have to worry about syncing your Mac and iPhone, as every playlist, every track and any other data associated with your music library will automatically be mirrored across all your devices. We’ll explain how to keep your music in sync using Apple Music or iTunes Music below.

We’ll also offer troubleshooting for those people who find that syncing music from their music library on their Mac messes with their Apple Music playlists, what to do if your iPhone is synced with another library, and various other syncing problems we are aware of.

iPhone and Mac

Sync music from Mac to iPhone in Catalina

With the arrival of macOS Catalina we said goodbye to iTunes on the Mac. Now the way to sync music with the iPhone involves the Music app and the Finder.

The process isn’t that dissimilar to how to worked in Mojave and earlier (which we will look at below).

Here’s how to sync music to your iPhone using the Finder in Catalina:

  1. Open the Finder.
  2. Plug your iPhone into your Mac.
  3. You should see your iPhone appear in the Finder’s sidebar. Click on it.
  4. You may have to confirm that you ‘Trust' the device.
  5. Next choose which type of content you want to sync by selecting the relevant tab, e.g. Music. (If you are using iCloud Music Library you won't see the following options, skip to the relevant section below).Finder transfer music iPhone
  6. Now choose what you want to sync. You can sync either your entire library (which will include everything, including all your Playlists and ratings and any other meta data), or just a selection of artists, albums or playlists (if you have limited space on your iPhone).
  7. If you are choosing what you are syncing, scroll down and choose Artists, Albums, Genres or Playlists and then check the box next to each one you want to sync.
  8. Once you are done, click Apply. Syncing should start (if it doesn’t click Sync).

Sync music from Mac/PC to iPhone with iTunes (inc Windows)

If you haven’t updated to Catalina, or if you are on a PC, you can still sync your music using iTunes.

  1. Open iTunes.
  2. Connect your iPhone to your Mac (or PC).
  3. Click on the iPhone icon that will appear in the menu at the top of the window.
  4. In the left-hand column click on Music.
  5. Now choose between syncing your Entire music library (if you have lots of room on your iPhone), or
  6. Selected playlists, artists, albums and genres (if you are limited).
  7. If you have chosen ‘Selected’ you will need to check each box beside each playlist, artist or album that you want to sync. iTunes sync music iPhone
  8. Now click on Apply and the iPhone should start to sync with your Mac, if it doesn’t then click on Sync.

Sync music from Mac to iPhone via Wi-Fi (Catalina)

You don’t have to plug in your iPhone to sync with your Mac, you can do so via Wi-Fi. This might be handy if you don’t have the right kind of USB cable handy later on, however you will require a cable in order to set it up.

Once you have synced the music on your Mac and iPhone via the Finder in macOS Catalina, as above, you can set the two devices to sync via a WiFi network in future. (Skip to the next section if you aren't running Catalina).

  1. Connect your iPhone to your Mac.
  2. Open the Finder and select the iPhone.
  3. Now select 'Show this device when on WiFi'.
  4. Click on Apply.

Now, as long as both devices are connected to the same WiFi network and plugged in, they will sync over WiFi.

iPhone and Mac sync

Sync music from Mac to iPhone via Wi-Fi (via iTunes)

Back when iTunes was Apple's means of syncing devices, you could also set your devices to sync via Wi-Fi.

  1. Connect your iPhone and your Mac using your USB cable.
  2. Open iTunes and select the iPhone when it appears in the menu along the top of the window.
  3. Now click on Summary in the left-hand column.
  4. Choose Sync with this device over WiFi from the options.
  5. Click on Apply.

Now, as long as both your Mac and iPhone are on the same WiFi network, the iPhone plugged in and iTunes open on your Mac, your devices will sync automatically.

Sync music from Mac to iPhone using Apple Music

Now onto the paid methods of keeping your music in sync.

If you subscribe to Apple Music for £9.99/$9.99 a month you get access to the entire Apple Music library of 50 million tracks. You also get access to iTunes Music Library, so whatever device you are listening to music on, all your playlists, albums and more will be in sync, including play counts, ratings and so on.

This should be the case by default, but if it isn't, run thorough the following checks to sync your music on your Mac with what you listen to in Apple Music.

  • Ensure your iPhone and Mac are running the latest version of iOS or macOS (or in the case of the iPad, iPadOS). On a PC you will need to be using the latest version of iTunes.
  • Make sure all your devices are signed in with the same Apple ID - this should also be the Apple ID you used when signing up for Apple Music.
  • Check you are connected to the internet.

If your music library still isn’t in sync on your iPhone, you may need to turn on Sync Library. 

  1. Open Settings > Music on your iPhone.
  2. Select Sync Library.

If your music library isn’t in sync on your Mac, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Music or iTunes app
  2. Choose Preferences from the menu at the top (Music > Preferences / iTunes > Preferences).
  3. Click on the General tab.
  4. Turn on Sync Library. This will ensure that all your purchased music, content you add from Apple Music or import into iTunes or the Music app on your Mac, will be in sync.

Sync music from Mac to iPhone using iCloud or iTunes Match

You don’t have to subscribe to Apple Music to sync your music across all your devices.

If you subscribe to iTunes Match, £21.99/$24.99 a year, you can upload all your music on all your devices to the cloud and then stream, or download, high quality versions of every track you own on any device you own.

iTunes Match is also ideal if you have rare albums on your Mac that you want to be able to access on your iPhone alongside the Apple Music tracks. This is because if you only subscribe to Apple Music you only have access to the 50 million songs in Apple Music. If you happen to have a lot of music that's not on Apple Music the only way to get it to sync in the cloud is to also pay for iTunes Match. Once you have paid for iTunes Match all your unique music will be uploaded to the cloud so you can access it on all your devices.

As with Apple Music, you will have the option to Sync Music on any devices you have that are logged in with the same Apple ID. You can find this setting in Settings > Music on your iPhone, or on a Mac you’ll find it in the preferences menu of Music or iTunes.

If your music isn't in sync follow the steps in the Apple Music section above to sync your music in iCloud.

Music syncing problems and solutions

As simple as the various methods to sync your music are, inevitably there are complications and frustrations. We'll look at some of the common problems we are aware of next.

iPhone won’t sync because ‘synced with another iTunes library’

If you see this message it means that your iPhone was previously connected to another computer. To sync with your new Mac (or PC) you could wipe the iPhone, or you could sign up to iTunes Match.

If you are happy to lose any tracks from your iPhone that aren’t on your Mac or PC now, then you can choose Erase and Sync. This will wipe your iPhone and then sync it with iTunes on the new Mac or PC.

If you want to keep the tracks on your iPhone, consider subscribing to iTunes Match. This will unify all your music on all of your devices so that you can access any of your tracks on all of your devices. Another benefit is that you don’t have to store the music on your devices, you can just stream it from the cloud, or download it on a track by track basis.

Alternatively, you could consider subscribing to Apple Music, which would mean you have access to a huge catalogue of music that is likely to include the tracks you own and much more.

Why are some of my songs not syncing

This is connected to the above problem. If you have compiled a large iTunes Library of tracks - some of which aren't in Apple Music, you can find that your music libraries aren't in sync, because those tracks are missing.

This is because Apple Music matches the track you own to tracks available on Apple Music. If the track isn't in Apple Music you won't see it on your other devices. However, it is possible to have tracks streaming from an Apple Music library alongside tracks from your music collection.

We'd better clear up a few things here before moving on to the correct syncing procedure.
When you subscribe to Apple Music, the service looks at all the songs on your Mac to see if any of them match songs available in its library - the chances are that a lot of them will. These matched songs can immediately be streamed via your Mac or any other device that is signed into your Apple Music subscription. All these tracks can be accessed via your iCloud Music Library.

But iCloud Music Library only works for songs that appear in the Apple Music library. Many users have a range of remixes, mash-ups and obscure tracks that simply don't exist in Apple Music.

If these tracks exist in Apple Music you'll be able to listen to them on other devices too. But if they aren't in Apple Music, they won't be available to you anywhere else - unless you sign up for Apple's track-matching service, iTunes Match. 

iTunes Match

iTunes Match will upload and store your music in the cloud so you can play even your most obscure track on any of your devices. (Apple doesn't actually upload everything, if a track you own is available on the iTunes Store/Apple Music you can stream it, or download it, from there, but crucially everything else is synced accross all your devices).

iTunes Match is a yearly subscription (£21.99/$24.99) that also matches your music to the iTunes Store. The tracks it can't identify are uploaded to iCloud and you can then stream them.