‘Hold music’ is annoying. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The people in charge of customer experience are rarely involved in choosing hold music. ILLUSTRATION: ANTONIO SORTINO
The people in charge of customer experience are rarely involved in choosing hold music. ILLUSTRATION: ANTONIO SORTINO

Summary

Companies really don’t give that much thought to what we listen to as we wait. They should start paying more attention.

Whether it’s a bossa nova version of “Stairway to Heaven," a synthy string composition or an energetic xylophone riff, you would be forgiven for thinking that “hold music" was designed to make you hang up. Surveys suggest people rank dog poop and going to the dentist as less aversive than waiting on hold for customer support.

But industry insiders and analysts say rather than malicious intent, companies typically just don’t give much thought to what their customers hear while on hold—or at least not as much thought as they should, given decades of research on music’s potential to regulate mood, improve physical coordination and function, and even influence how we perceive time and space.

“Sound is such an undervalued asset," says Brian Barth, creative director at MassiveMusic, a sonic-branding division of the music-licensing platform Songtradr. “People don’t see it as an opportunity to make an impression or to deepen their relationship with their customers."

‘The connection has been broken’

The problem could stem from hold music’s accidental inception. Back in 1962, an exposed telephone wire at a factory caused waiting callers to hear the scratchy transmissions from a neighboring radio station. Sensing an opportunity, the factory’s owner, Alfred Levy, patented a “telephone hold program system." In his application, he wrote that silence on a phone line led the originator of the call “to believe that his connection has been broken." In other words, his invention was meant to prevent dead air, not necessarily provide a pleasant alternative.

According to hold-music providers, the people in charge of customer experience are rarely involved in choosing hold music. “Typically, it is somebody who is managing the technology of the communications platform," says Tim Brown, founder and chief technology officer of Easy On Hold, a hold-music provider in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Case in point is “Opus No. 1," probably the most earworm-y song in the hold-music genre. It was composed in 1989 by a then-teenaged Tim Carleton and recorded on four-track tape by a buddy who later went to work designing telephone systems at Cisco. Today, that five minutes of tape is the default hold music for more than 100 million Cisco IP phone systems worldwide.

At the time, Carleton says, he didn’t receive a penny, which was likely one of the reasons his opus was chosen: no licensing fees. You’re not hearing Beyoncé or Andrea Bocelli while on hold because it’s too expensive. Instead, you’re hearing less-popular, and hence cheaper, instrumental versions of popular songs, or songs composed by lesser-known artists. There are whole libraries of so-called royalty-free hold music. Unfortunately, you often get what you pay for.

Though, to be fair, the oddly ethereal Opus No. 1 has quite the fan following and was even featured in a Super Bowl commercial last year. Carleton says he and Cisco have since agreed to a financial arrangement for the company’s continued use of Opus No. 1.

Head music

Regardless of a composition’s merit, most music just doesn’t sound good over the phone due to the highly compressed audio signal. But even if the music is selected and mixed to maintain its integrity despite bitrate limitations, that still doesn’t mean people are going to like it. “We’ve got two broad ways that we respond to music: one being the physiological response, the other being the cognitive response," says Sandra Garrido of Western Sydney University in Australia, who studies how music affects our mood and well-being.

Music affects us physiologically because our heart rates, respiration, and even our neural patterns, entrain, or synchronize, with the rhythm. “That has an effect on our mood because, for example, when we have a racing heart, it usually means that you’re in a highly emotional state," says Garrido.

But it can be a positive or a negative state. Listening to a peppy beat might vault you into euphoria or amp up your anger. Likewise, a song with a sleepy beat could make you feel chill and relaxed but could also make you feel hopeless and morose. It all depends on your personality, history and current situation.

Our cognitive response to music is similarly individualistic. For example, if you’re a musical aesthete, you’re more likely to get seriously aggravated by poorly arranged hold music, experts say. Someone who has musical anhedonia, a kind of musical apathy, might be oblivious.

Associations also come into play. If it is a piece of music you’ve heard before, Garrido says, your mood may shift according to whether you have positive or negative emotions attached to it. Was it playing when you were falling in love or discovering your ex was a cheater?

Repeatedly hearing a song while on hold can create its own negative association. It isn’t like people call customer service when things are going well. “As much as I used to like ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ now when I hear it while on hold at United Airlines, I want to punch my fist through the drywall," says Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of “This Is Your Brain On Music."

Enough already

Upshot: It is probably not a good idea to force your callers to listen to the same music over and over, no matter what it is. Not only do customers come to form negative associations, but the loops also become a yardstick for measuring how long they have been on the call. (“How many times have I heard this @#$*& song?")

Moreover, music theory tells us that people tend to like music with “an optimal level of uncertainty," which is a fancy way of saying familiarity can breed contempt for music just as it can for people.

We like music that is predictable, but we also like surprises thrown in every once in a while, like maybe a dropped beat or change up in chords, says Laurel Trainor, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

But the shift can’t be totally out there, like a lawn mower sound or, as often happens while on hold, a message telling us “financing rates are subject to change" or “all representatives are currently busy helping other callers." It is jarring and feels like a violation.

“It seems like they are trying to make hold music as innocuous as possible," says Trainor, particularly when it serves as filler between overloud announcements or marketing messages. “There’s nothing musically intriguing or surprising, and then when you hear it over and over and over, in a short loop, it’s going to increase your irritation, not decrease it," she says.

And you can’t tune it out and try to do something productive while you wait because you’re afraid you might miss when the representative finally, finally comes on the line. “Being in that vigilant state is effortful," says Trainor.

Research indicates we tend to especially like music that aligns with our current mood, perhaps because it makes us feel understood and less alone in the world. Think listening to the blues when you’re blue. So if hold music is, say, chipper when callers are upset or mellow when they are worked up, it is going to make customers feel even more like the company is inept and not meeting them where they are.

In music therapy, if a patient is very agitated, the therapist will start by playing music at a matching energy level, says Garrido at Western Sydney University. But the therapist will gradually shift away to music at a lower energy level, to calm the patient down.

What’s your pleasure?

Given responses to music vary between individuals and depend on the context, and situation, music theorists and neuroscientists say probably the best strategy when it comes to hold music is to give callers a choice: Press “1" for jazz, Press “2" for classical, Press “3" for rock, etc.

“In psychology, we talk about locus of control or being an agent of your own destiny," says Levitin. “Most people really hate being forced to do things or listen to things or watch things that are out of their control."

Apple is a rare instance of a company that gives callers a choice of hold music. But then, Apple owns Apple Music and can afford it. For companies and organizations without similar resources, a less expensive option is to stream a compilation of licensed hold music (about $35 a month for small businesses) while also providing the option to hold in silence or perhaps to get a call back when a representative is available.

Brown at Easy On Hold argues companies who offer silence or a call back are losing out on an opportunity to plug their company and products to a captive audience. True enough. But even the most carefully selected hold music and messaging could eventually fall on deaf ears if callers use apps like Never Hold, DoNotPay and Hold For Me, which effectively hold for you and notify you when a live person picks up the line.

Better to give customers a choice. No use making them feel like they would rather have a root canal.

Kate Murphy is a journalist in Houston and author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters." She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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