Please Hold the Line…

music box © Lodewijk Muns

… and Put Up with That Tune

Circumstances have forced me to spend a lot of time making phone calls — and a lot of time staying on hold. It has given me a freakish and unsought for expertise in “on hold music”.

Complaints about this particular abuse are all over the internet. So I will swallow my frustration and just make note of a few things that struck me. First: how a very small number of tunes has a disproportionate share in the total repertoire.

One of the most frequent numbers is a famous-notorious piece called Opus Number One. Its synthesizer sound is very “eighties”, and it dates, indeed, from 1989. It is a strongly evocative piece — dingy office carpet, neon light and low suspended ceilings come to my mind.

Even more depressingly synthetic is a tune called No Man’s Land. Its opening harmonies may have been taken from the famous Twin Peaks title music, which despite (or thanks to?) its triviality has a haunting quality. But any thought of douglas firs or waterfalls will be quashed by the crashing keyboard of this tune.

The most frequent terrorist of Dutch phone lines – it must have been loaded onto tens of thousands of machines – is this little nerve-racker of uncertain origin:


It is amazing how poorly most of these pieces have been produced, considering that they have been made for an audience of thousands, even millions. The worst maybe is a debilitated version of Eine kleine Nachtmusik: reproduced by a synthesized music box, in two voices, or rather one-and-a-half, for much of the lower voice is simply missing. (The opening theme of Mozart’s Symphony nr. 40, reduced to a fast series of beeps, is another favourite).

Music may, of course, help shortening the wait. But even enjoyable music will turn into torture when served at the wrong moment, grinded through the telephone’s narrow bandwidth, and brutally cut by messages, switches, or, finally, somebody answering.

Music may also, and does influence our mood. We live in a society obsessed with the manipulation of sentiment. No wonder that the incidence of depression is staggering.

What seems to have escaped the telecom branche and those who write about it is that on-hold music doesn’t have to be (what the entertainment industry calls) a “song”. Usually a piece with a beginning, middle, and an end (mostly ABA), and often an introduction. Music that has a kind of sentence structure, regulated by the rules (“grammar”) of harmony.

But pieces that are structured in this way cannot be looped, or decently interrupted. They can only be repeated, giving rise to a cycle of beginnings and endings that does the opposite of shortening the wait — oh no, not again!

On-hold music should be something more than the toot-toot-toot on-hold signal, but not quite “a piece of music”. Like much “world” (non-western) music it should have neither beginning nor end, but just go on, with or without transformations.  It should have enough detail to hold your attention, if you choose to listen, but not force itself upon you. It must be ignorable. Preferably without clear pitches. Percussive. Rather like what people often spontaneously do when they’re waiting, drumming with the fingers on the table, but in a non-nervous, energetically relaxed way. Drum-along drumming.

Even a few straight-out-of-the-can digital samples might do the job:


(Updated March 1, 2019)