The new muzak

Observation/idea: I had to wait on a customer support line today for quite a while. I’m sure you’ve had to do this too at some point.

The company in question had selected some modern pop standards and AOR (Robbie Bloody Williams, Norah Bloody Jones, Dido Bloody Dido etc) to play while I waited, punctuated with cheery automated estimates of my wait time.

I’m sure they got sold a hold music package that was focus-grouped by some unfortunates and tailored to their brand image at quite a premium. It was nethertheless, obviously, supremely irritating. Not only to me, but because I work in a shared office, to my co-workers who caught the second-hand smog of musak through the speaker of my cellphone.

This lead me to think about designing musak.

I was trying to multitask during the dead-time of waiting on the line, which meant working at my computer keyboard while half-listening to the hold music  in case the customer-support person answered. Because they were playing pop music – it had to be held in focus to differentiate between the vocals of Williams et al, and the dulcet tones of the support guy. I had to listen all the time.

So first suggestion – use ambient music that makes for a clearer distinction between the wait mode, the announcements of how long you have to wait, and the voice of the person you’re waiting for – allowing me to multitask between the call on hold and my work that little bit more easily

Second suggestion – go further with this and create generative ambient music which would be unique and pleasant to listen to – and could also act as a preattentive aural information channel.

It could use rhythm and melody to keep you aware of you place in the queue, a recurring theme might build anticipation… an allegro con brio indicating you’re drawing near to the answer… a crescendo of attention building to the sweet moment your call gets answered.

Of course it’s an opportunity for sonic branding for the company also… getting their customers happily whistling their hold tune throughout the day…

0 thoughts on “The new muzak

  1. Sounds like video game music designers could pick up some extra work there. plenty of games music already “understands” your position relative to some dramatic event and builds or ebbs accordingly.

  2. Even worse than pop/AOR…last week on hold with Apple, they actually kindly played me Ben Folds Five, though after 30 seconds it’d be interrupted with a status message…just before looping back to the beginning of the preceding track – grrrrr! Like a aural nano-Groundhog Day.

    Maybe I could listen to my *own* music while on hold?

  3. Is it naive to suggest that companies spend less on promising ‘service’ through expensive adverts and spend the money on having people pick up the phone? I recently switched my bank, which is a less common occurrence than a failed marriage in the UK, and the new bank picks up first time, everytime. Designing muzak seems to me to be designing in annoyance and encouraging companies to ignore other ways of supporting you in their interactions with tme.

  4. Surely holding is dumb. Just winds people up.

    When I working for a telco, we replaced the holding system with one that collected your number via CLID or, failing that, touch-tone entry, and would call you back when you got to the front of the queue.

    Also, if you were put on hold mid-call, and a song came on that you just can’t stand, you could shout “CHANGE!”, and it would rotate to the next one.

  5. I could use that system about 10 minutes ag when on hold with AOL postmaster. Some god awful song was on for like 10 minutes and would love to yell out “change the song”.

  6. I was working on an idea along these lines for my Masters project in 2003. The programme I came up with constantly composed music in real time so as not to become repetitive and anoying. The style of the music was also designed so as not to be too engaging, informing the listener that they are still on hold whilst allowing them to concentrate on other work. Anyone interested in knowing more about it or obtainging a copy, (runs on PC or Mac) let me know.

    A version of it is currently playing on the r4nd internet radio station. Schedule randonly generated each day. Which can be found at

  7. Pingback:
  8. I used to work for a company that installed telephone networks and there was basically 3 options for on hold music. One was the radio, one was a CD of their choice and the thrid was that horrible computer generated music (like Greeensleeves!)
    Most companies believe it or not opted for the 3rd choice. Probably because they don’t have to listen to it themselves.

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