Hotline Bling - Hold Article

Hotline Sing: An Investigation Into Hold Music

Words by Sarah Timson

A quick peruse through social media proves Australians, and presumably the rest of the world, aren’t the biggest fans of hold music – particularly the classical loops made famous by Centrelink. The most common twitch-inducing factor for customers seems to be the tease of being interrupted by a recorded message. Sitting on hold listening to Mozart‘s Divertimento in F Major for half an hour straight is enough to send anyone wild, but when combined with the enthusiastic robot who assures you that although all operators are busy, your call is important and has been placed in a waiting line, pathological insanity becomes a genuine concern. Of course, it’s better than no music at all – a study conducted by researchers at the University of Leicester found that “Callers who were exposed to the music stayed on hold 20% longer than the callers who were exposed to verbal messages.”

If you’re still perplexed as to why Centrelink chose – instead of gentle panpipes – music from the same genre and era as the “ultra violence” scenes in Stanley Kubrick‘s A Clockwork Orange, you’re not alone.


A Clockwork Orange. Image: Wikipedia

The choice of genre would presumably have a massive impact on the customer’s attitude and consequent interaction with the business person. So why choose something as emotive as classical? A study conducted by James Kellaris (University of Cincinatti) proved that music distorts people’s perception of time. The average song length on this year’s Triple J’s Hottest 100 was 3.49 minutes. With that as a reference point, if you were to measure time in songs it becomes obvious as to why Centrelink would opt for the longer waltzes of Chopin instead of shorter bangers. In the listener’s subconscious “music clock”, five songs would equate to approximately 18 minutes, although that could stretch out to 35 minutes or more depending on the song choice.

The intent of hold music can differ greatly, too. While most businesses would likely have customer service as their top priority and be willing to do just about anything to keep people on the line, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some purposefully aggravate the ears of their dear customers in an attempt to cull call volumes. There are even blatant 10-minutely intervals of encouragement from Centrelink’s female robot to hang up and switch to online account management, and many bank hotlines encourage the same. If only all big businesses could be so straightforward.

Not all waiting songs are met with as much distaste as poor old Centrelink’s. ATO once received so many requests for their hold tune that they put a link to the lush soundscape on their website. It sounds a lot like playing The Sims in building mode. Most customers weren’t quite as enthusiastic after seeing the $20 price tag of the aural journey entitled Seaspray from Music On Hold, but you’d have to be proud of yourself for creating a track that people enjoy that much, considering it was introduced to them under horrifying circumstances like accidentally going over the tax threshold and having to pay your HECS debt.

Next time you’re lost in a forest after chasing bulbasaurs on Pokémon Go and you’ve run out of data for Spotify, you know who to call for a guaranteed 10 minutes of Australia’s favourite hold music. If  you’re looking for something more upbeat or just an ear worm to taunt you for the next 48 hours, 13CABS is your jam. If you’re lucky enough to call during peak times, you might even get a solid four or five loops in.

There have been a few predictions that with the dawn of technology, 1800-type numbers could be a thing of the past – thrown into the pile of obsolescence beside your first flip phone. Whether or not this is just wishful thinking is a mystery. We can only hope.

In the meantime, let’s acknowledge that hold music is very unlikely to be a random selection of songs, but rather a purposeful arrangement to manipulate your decision on whether or not to keep holding and what kind of attitude you’ll have when the consultant finally answers.

To make the situation slightly less detrimental on your blood pressure, it might be worth adopting a more appreciative outlook like renowned classical music enthusiast, Benjamin Zander. May as well have an existential epiphany while you’re waiting to yell at someone.

Image: Youtube / Drake, Hotline Bling