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The Science Behind Hold Music Isn’t Quite Sure What Makes the Best Type of Hold Music

Maybe because there’s no such thing as good hold music?

Two years ago, one sadistic redditor asked, “What’s the best on hold music you’ve had?” Assuming he meant “heard,” other redditors responded with actual examples of hold music they’ve heard and why they liked it.

“I really like to get my groove on to Cisco’s hold music. I have a prospect who I’m pretty sure lets his phone ring and ring and ring to see how long I’ll wait,” responded one redditor. Another said his favorite hold music is “Enter Sandman,” but done in an “elevator music style.” And finally, my favorite response comes by way of redditor ryawnick who described his favorite ever hold music — which included Enrique Iglesias followed by “She’s a Maniac” — as a party. “It was a good time,” he wrote.

My point is that I was surprised to find that some redditors (I’m not sure if these are actual human beings) find some hold music to actually be pleasant. My other point is that these people must be insane, because hold music by its very foundation is manufactured noise meant to protect people from silence.

“At first, the market adopted this idea of using music on hold to decrease the perceived waiting time and also to fill in those awkward moments of silence,” Danny Turner, Mood Media’s global SVP of creative programming, told the BBC in 2009. According to the same article, the stereotypical hold music was pioneered by the Muzak company (now named Mood Media) beginning in the 1930s. “Over the years, this kind of background mood music became so prevalent at workplaces and hotels — with speakers hidden in the potted palms — that it sparked a backlash: the brand name Muzak became a noun with negative connotations,” reports the BBC.

Despite most people’s hatred of it, there is some (very creepy) science behind why it continues to be used by any company that wants to keep you on the line when everything in your body is telling you to hang up. In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Anat Rafaeli, a professor at the Israel Institute of Technology, and her former graduate students Nina Munichor and Liad Weiss, looked at what keeps people waiting when they’re put on hold. “Given that apologies often interrupt background music without providing any useful information, she suggested it is possible that ‘you sort of drift into the music, and go with the flow, and forget that you’re really waiting, or wasting your time,’” reports Newsweek.

To that end, according to Phone Tel’s website, a company specializing in Business Telephone Systems, Security Products, Structured Cabling and other business communication needs, hold music is basically a way to keep your mind numb from realizing just how mind-numbingly awful it feels to be put on hold.

“When a song is unobtrusive, it finds a secure spot through our ears into the backs of our minds. Our minds have a limited amount of space for conscious thoughts at any given moment, and music forces itself to take up a certain amount of that, which can distract or alleviate customers’ worries about big purchases.”

So what makes “good” hold music? According to Vijay Kershnan, a marketing professor who studies the science of hold music, the traditional view is that if you play simple elevator music that’s easily memorable and doesn’t arouse the listener, it helps the person on hold to sort of drift into the state noted above. However, recent research suggests that playing somewhat more complex music might be better.

“The best kind of hold music is the kind that makes the listener think,” Kershnan told KALW’s Daniel Moore on his podcast. “If the music can draw the attention such that cognitive resources are used in processing the music itself — if the music is interesting, somewhat surprising, somewhat different, in short a little bit complex, so that it engages the thinking process of the listener — then the listener doesn’t have time to think about other things to fill up the time.”

Which is why nowadays there are companies like BusinessVoice, which specialize in on-hold marketing for mid- to large-size companies. Instead of treating hold music as an afterthought, BusinessVoice sees the on-hold experience as an expression of brand identity, and per the same BBC article, the music they’re creating is getting more and more precise:

“For a company that has a queue for sales and a queue for services, BusinessVoice would create two completely different messages and formats on those separate call experiences. ‘A lot of time we pick out music based on beats per minute of a song. So, if you’re a customer service line where people are holding for 10 minutes, we don’t want to have high beats per minute. If it’s a sales queue and you’re trying to move people to action, we want to increase their heart rate a little bit,’ explains [Jerry] Brown, [the founder and CEO of BusinessVoice].”

Of course, no matter how much time and money is spent on creating the perfect on-hold tune, the truth remains that hold music is stalling you from completing something that you’ve been putting off because you know that you’re going to have go through five different customer service representatives before you can actually complete it. So whether it’s the latest pop song or the usual piano melody muzak, it doesn’t change the fact that the person relieving your ears from audio purgatory better be ready to deal with the worst version of you.