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The discerning listener's guide to on-hold music


Last updated 5/11/2021 at 3:26pm | View PDF

The thing about being a journalist is you spend a fair amount of time on the phone. I can do lots of initial research through Facebook and even conduct interviews using Facebook Messenger if I want. Email is also a great method to contact sources. However, when it comes to checking facts with organizations, confirming that a local event is happening when it's supposed to or even getting a brief quote from someone, the phone conversation is often the go-to communication method.

Frequently, these phone conversations can be great. People feel more comfortable than they do when talking over email, and I often get interesting anecdotes that I wouldn't get otherwise. After several months on the job, I noticed something else: Whenever I got on the phone with companies or larger organizations, I had to spend time waiting for the call to get through. As a result, I've listened to my share of "on-hold" music. In fact, I feel I'm becoming a connoisseur of the genre. Here are the three on-hold music tracks I've particularly enjoyed, with my ratings based on quality and other traits:

First, there was the company that went for light and classical. The piano was soothing but not quite graceful, and it had a fair-to-middling rhythm section. In short, it was relaxing, but in a soft and dated kind of way; the sort of music you'd hear in old PBS programs about turnip farming in the Yorkshire countryside. I gave it three out of five stars for quality, four out of five stars for feeding my sense of nostalgia.

Then there was the government department that went for a sort of light electronic beat playing in a loop. It was definitely diverting. It reminded me of someone trying to do something like, but not close enough to, the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. Or, perhaps it might be someone trying to play Vangelis' soundtrack for Blade Runner on a low-quality synthesizer. Just when the beat started to feel repetitive, a nice "ka-choom-choom-choom" effect came in and surprised me. In short, it's the sort of music you probably find insulting if you're over 40 (because you remember the 80s electronica scene and this is just not the same) and amusing if you're under 30 (because it reminds you of those LP records your father has up in the attic). I gave it one out of five stars for sound quality, three out of five for keeping my mind occupied.

Then there was another company that really went beyond the call of duty: They had different tunes every 40 seconds with messages for timely services. I was treated to a jaunty tune like the opening theme to a Bugs Bunny cartoon as I was informed that I should really tell any graduating seniors students I knew about their company's education scholarships. Then it became slower, more trumpet-driven as they told me how open to feedback they were and how to find them on Facebook and Twitter. It was almost tragic that they finally took me off hold. I gave it three out of five stars for quality and five out of five stars for innovation.

What is the point of all this, you may ask. I'm not entirely sure. I suppose the main point is learn to take those moments that are boring (waiting on the phone, waiting in line for something) and find something funny in them. Life becomes much more bearable (and entertaining) if you can find the funny side.


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