Why Hold Music Is So Annoying

We asked an expert to explain why listening to hold music is such a frustrating experience.
She's probably spent the last 20 minutes listening to the same fuzzy song on a loop.
She's probably spent the last 20 minutes listening to the same fuzzy song on a loop. / Westend61/Getty Images (woman on phone); filo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (music notes)

We’ve all reluctantly dialed up business knowing that before we reach an actual person, we may be forced into the dreaded hold zone, the hum of annoying hold music flooding our ears as we ponder all the things we would rather be doing. Waiting on hold may never be a pleasant experience, but it might be helpful to know why hold music triggers such negative emotions. 

“Hold music is an audible representation of time that is being spent not being assisted,” Dr. Leigh VanHandel, Associate Professor of Music Theory and Music Cognition at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, tells Mental Floss via email. “For the person on hold, the music is a marker of time passing without progress toward whatever their goal is. So, in a way, it makes the passage of time more obvious, which might increase frustration.”

The Necessary Origins of Hold Music

photo of an annoyed man talking on the phone and checking his watch
Nothing slows down time like being put on hold. / Westend61/Getty Images

As much as it frustrates us, hold music may be a necessary evil. Imagine waiting on a call for any amount of time and having no music at all, just a sound void. The problem with “silent holds,” which were common in the early days of hold capabilities, is that people didn’t know if someone, anyone, was still on the line, and they would simply hang up.

But, in 1962, factory owner Alfred Levy filed a U.S. patent application for a “Telephone Hold Program System” that delivered a way to keep a caller on the line while they waited to be attended to. He explained, “It is an object of the present invention to provide a system of the character described which upon actuation of a hold instrumentality, e.g. a key or button, will connect the incoming call to a source of program material, e.g. music.” The concept took off and silent holds became a thing of the past, being replaced with music that only slightly improved caller experiences. 

Later, companies realized that they could fill some of the customer hold time with branded announcements or advertisements instead of just solely with music. This was essentially free marketing for them. 

Why Hold Music Is So Frustrating

Many companies have no choice but to keep their clients on hold at some point during a phone call. Choosing the right hold music is a complex decision for businesses, with one of the most important factors being the music genre. “I don’t think there is a single genre that would make everyone’s wait time more pleasant,” VanHandel says. “Whatever genre [the businesses] pick, some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it.” That might be the reason why companies choose hold music in generally inoffensive genres like classical, smooth jazz, contemporary, easy-listening music, and usually include instrumental pieces. 

There is also the added factor of copyright—which can be very expensive—so people tend to turn to companies like Mood Media that specialize in creating original music for small businesses. 

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The musical loop duration also affects the caller’s patience threshold. Short wait times could have shorter music loops at short intervals; longer wait times should have a longer loop. Repetition in hold music can be aggravating and lead to increased impatience. “Human beings like a balance of repetition and novelty in any medium, including music.” VanHandel says. “[If] there’s just a 30-second loop of music, punctuated by a rotation of one or two announcements, advertisements, or plugs for the company you are trying to reach, that can get very tiresome; there’s no novelty, and only repetition.” This draws the caller’s attention to the amount of time passing, making them all too aware of just how long they’ve been waiting to get through to another human on the other end of the call.

Sound quality matters, too. People are so used to crisp, full sound these days; this makes the fuzzy, tinny audio that comes through on the end of the phone line, no matter what type of music it is, especially disappointing. “I think anything that adds to the pain of the wait ... can definitely make a difference,” VanHandel says. “Our brain and our auditory system both have to work harder to process sounds when they are of low quality.”

How to Make Being on Hold Less Annoying

photo of an angry woman yelling at a vintage red phone
How most people feel while on hold. / Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The bottom line is that people are already aggravated from having to make a call at all and wait to speak to someone. “The best thing a company can hope for is hold music that doesn’t add to the frustration and irritation of the customer who is waiting,” VanHandel says. “Companies should spend less time overthinking their hold music and more time hiring and training customer service representatives.”

VanHendel also points out a new trend of companies taking a caller’s phone number and calling them back instead of having people wait on the line: “That feels more respectful of a customer’s time to me and may be a way to avoid the whole ‘hold music’ issue altogether,” she says.