The Many Requirements Of Hold Music, A Genre For No One Hold music is camouflaged sound — it needs to obviously exist, while also barely doing so. Small wonder, then, that its biggest "hit" does none of that.
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The Many Requirements Of Hold Music, A Genre For No One

Hold music has a paradoxical purpose: Keep folks on the line, but don't draw their attention. DigiPub/Getty Images hide caption

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DigiPub/Getty Images

Hold music has a paradoxical purpose: Keep folks on the line, but don't draw their attention.

DigiPub/Getty Images

Someone is late for the conference call, so the music starts. "Well, I've been sitting here all day," the song begins, sort of croony, with a vaguely country affect — the kind of opening that leads you to expect there is, somewhere, an ex-lover who probably isn't coming back. A certain variety of pining. But then, a few bars in, a turn: "Yes I'm waiting on this conference call, all alone. And I'm on hold, yes I'm on hold... I hope it's not all day, ey!"

It's a panoptic experience, being on hold while listening to someone singing about being on hold. Depending how long it takes for someone else to join the call, you could be listening for awhile. The music builds as time goes on, culminating in a spoken verse that begins: "Well, let me tell you all a story / about a man who was on hold all day..." This unusually self-aware song is the default music for a conference call service called UberConference, where "I'm On Hold" plays on a loop for anyone who calls in early, on almost every call that doesn't start exactly when it's scheduled to (or doesn't ever start at all). It's selected by nine out of ten call organizers, and plays over a million times per month, says Craig Walker, CEO of Dialpad, owner of UberConference.

It's the only song Alex Cornell has ever written. Cornell was one of the co-founders of UberConference, and in addition to being a designer, is a singer and guitar player who had always found songwriting frustrating. "Then I just came to it one day," he says. "I just wanted to write a pleasant melody designed to be heard over the phone." With encouragement from Walker, Cornell started messing around with the lyrics. He wrote and recorded it in one night, in 2012, as a voice note on his phone — and thus, this self-aware hold song was born, and lives on, seven years later.

"That self-awareness came from wanting to experiment with this genre of hold music, that I'm not even really sure is a thing," Cornell said.

If it is a genre, hold music, it's fair to say, is a troubled one with few hits. It's not really meant to be loved or even listened to — it's meant to communicate something specific: Don't hang up. (Cornell makes this plea specifically at the end of his song.) Silence is believed to be a death knell for phone calls — people will simply think the line is dead and hang up. This is true even on non-hold calls; it's why phone companies transmit something called a "comfort tone" over phone lines, a barely audible synthetic noise that signals a connection is still there.

Hold music was born in the early 1960s, a few years after the first transatlantic phone cable was laid, between Newfoundland and Scotland. As a greater volume of calls were being placed, especially to big businesses, the phenomenon of being asked by the switchboard operator to please "hold" — a word that connotes both the cradling of a telephone and a clinging on to one's patience — increased in turn. An industry legend is that Alfred Levy, a factory owner, discovered the potential of hold music accidentally when an exposed wire in his telephone system was picking up the broadcast of a radio next door. Levy submitted a patent in 1966 for a "Telephone Hold Program System," which described the psychological frustrations of being on hold in prim detail. "Courteous telephone practice requires that a held caller be assured at reasonable intervals that the party to whom he wishes to speak still is busy but the pressure of her duties may prevent the operator from so advising the incoming caller so that he may be bereft of even this small consolation," Levy wrote. "In any event, listening to a completely unresponsive instrument is tedious and calls often are abandoned altogether or remade which leads to annoyance and a waste of time and money." So, Levy proposed, some music might be in order — much like the kind that was increasingly broadcast to restaurants and bars and department stores by Muzak.

Hold music took off, as did its later counterpart, hold messaging — branded announcements that could be overlaid onto the music, telling you business hours or thanking you for your well-spent time in the telephone queue. Sometimes, the experience drives people absolutely crazy — Cisco's now-classic tones are particularly despised, to the point of having developed a cult following. There's a bit of a paradox here. People complain about hold music all the time, but companies can't do without it, for fear of the dreaded hang-up. It can also soothe customers into thinking their wait times are shorter than they actually are, as a 2009 study published in the Journal of Services Marketing demonstrated. But there was also a caveat, researchers warned: "Music should be liked by callers for it to reduce the estimation error of waiting times."

This is where it gets tricky. David Green is the board chair of the Experience Marketing Association, and has been focused on hold music for more than two decades. (Formerly called the On Hold Messaging Association, the group gives out awards each year for the best on-hold experiences.) Green enumerated some things that can lead to a hold gone wrong: "Small loops of music that repeat over and over at short intervals might subliminally or consciously make you count the intervals, and make you aggravated that you've heard it three or four or five times," he says. Jingles on repeat are understandably irritating, as are some advertising messages. Auto dealers, he says, often play their radio ads over the phone, which is a mistake, because most customers call for repairs rather than sales. "Can you listen in your mind for a minute and imagine the typical car commercial on the radio?" he says. "Now imagine listening to that when you're placed on hold, not particularly happy that your car will cost $500 to repair."

Playlist: Waiting By The Phone

This brings up the ever-present question of appropriate branding for your business. At a funeral home, Green says, you don't want an upbeat pop song, for obvious reasons. Mark Malekpour, who works at Beatsuite, a music library which sells a variety of songs specifically for hold systems, says that companies too often want popular music. "For an insurance company, you don't want something from Queen or U2," he said. "When you're choosing music for an insurance company, it shouldn't feel happy or feel good or lighthearted, because insurance is something you have to have, and you want to think, 'These guys get what insurance is all about.' " (Beatsuite's bestselling hold song is called "Inspiring Innovation," which is tagged as: "Success, achievement, and trustworthy.")

But there are also the technical limitations of the form to consider. Mainly, don't get too complicated. Many companies want classical music on their hold lines, but experts say it rarely works because music has to be compressed into an extremely low-quality format to be played over analog phone lines. "When you have an orchestra of many instruments with loud parts and quiet parts, and then you're crushing it down, the quiet parts become fuzzy and the loud parts become distorted," explains Malekpour. "You're running up against the limitations of the telephone lines because they were designed for voice only." Simple can beat creative. "People like to make fun of elevator music and that's fine," says Cristina Stacy, vice president of On Hold Marketing Works. "But the thing with elevator music is that it's simple."

Corporate cost-cutting and new technology have resulted in the advent of automated systems that can make the on-hold experience even more frustrating. It can feel near-impossible to get a human on the phone these days, which a national survey conducted by Consumer Reports found to be Americans' second-greatest annoyance, after hidden fees but beating out inaccurate weather reports and dog poop. Green observes that often people call as a last resort, because something on the website wasn't clear, perhaps, and they really need an answer quickly. So callers are captive listeners, a state often associated with the gridlock of waiting, whether in line at a Starbucks, in a dentist's chair, or in the proverbial elevator making its slow way up.

Traditional hold music can function as a kind of anesthetic, both against what might await you on the other end of the line and against the seemingly endless, infuriating condition of waiting under capitalism. It can create a sort of calming pall, a customer service lullaby for your wait. Green said that his favorite experience in his years working in hold music was helping with a collection agency that was sending past-due medical bills, often quite high, to people and asking them to call a specific number. Originally, the hold sounds were a simple double-beep that telegraphed to callers that the line was live. But, Green says, he advised the company to add "some very low, low, low beats-per-minute piano music, to take it down a little bit, and add messaging on the top that said to that caller, 'You may or may not owe this or the full amount on the bills sent to you, please have your information ready, so we may help you work through this.' "

Cornell's "I'm On Hold" follows some of the industry standards, particularly around frequencies and compression, which is one of the reasons he wrote it with a country-ish melody, wanting something simple but catchy, with only a single instrument and vocals. But in other ways, "I'm On Hold" totally upends the genre by breaking the cardinal rule — that hold music shouldn't call attention to itself.

The song was immediately polarizing, as far as these things go, which the company's executives,saw as a good thing; it generated buzz on Twitter, and gave people something to talk about when they got on the phone. Some people hated it, Cornell said, and others loved it so much they downloaded it. Cornell was invited to do a live performance for one company, where sales staff listened to the song all day long. It wasn't meant to fade into the background, and perhaps that's why it's lasted so long.

"It's been this ridiculously great viral feature," said Walker. "The feedback I get from people is like, they'll sometimes even show up late to make the other guy listen to the hold music."

Or the other person may not show up at all, as happened to me, and "I'm On Hold" will loop and loop ad infinitum. At least, until you hang up.