Posted by: Malcolm Jarvis

Hold music is one of those subjects that unites people from all walks of life. No matter where you’re from or what your background is, the prospect of five minutes listening to poorly chosen music while your telephone gradually makes a painful imprint on the side of your head fills everyone with a justifiable sense of dread.

There’s even a fairly steady stream of surveys and news articles on the subject, all of which confirm that hold music is one of the aspects of contacting call centres that really drives people nuts. Some studies even go as far as to suggest that the use of bad hold music is regularly viewed as bad customer service.

So, given that hold music is such a powerful potential source of frustration, why do companies continue to get it wrong? Reading the articles that are out there, there seems to be a lot of speculation regarding the best choice of music to placate or even entertain customers while they wait in your queue. Some common suggestions include “Hanging On The Telephone” by Blondie, or Lionel Richie’s “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?”. Or how about looking up the customer’s record in your call centre CRM, grabbing their date of birth, and playing something based on their age range - pop for the under 25s and presumably something fusty for the oldies?

The problem, in my mind, is that every single one of these articles misses the point completely. Even if you implemented a call centre system that detected and automatically played someone’s all-time favourite music while they waited, a facility which is possibly not that far off, most music when played down the phone just sounds terrible. Butchering a song that someone actually likes is unlikely to improve the waiting experience.

Telephones: The World's Worst Radio

So how do you choose good hold music? The trick is to understand the limitations of using a telephone line to play music as it’s just not designed with this purpose in mind. As with any network, the public telephone network has limited capacity. In other words, only so much information can go across it at any one moment. In order to ensure that every phone call can connect and each party can hear the person they’re talking to, a lot of non-essential quality is squeezed out of the conversation in order to minimise the amount of capacity used by each call. It’s something that’s immediately noticeable the first time you talk to someone using a crystal-clear Skype call. Even though there’s a significant loss of audio quality when using the good old public telephone network (with mobile networks being even worse), for normal conversations we’re used to it and it doesn’t bother us all that much.

So while this loss of quality is fine for regular conversations where it's just people speaking, if you're planning on piping music down the telephone line, you need to remember that the audio quality will, at best, be around 24 times worse than what you'd hear on a CD.

As an example of what that actually means, let’s listen to the popular hold music staple that is Pachelbel’s Canon in D. At CD quality it sounds soothing. As hold music it starts to grate very, very quickly.

(If you can't hear any difference between these two samples, then there's a good chance your speakers are reducing CD quality music to phone quality for you!)


For a more modern example of a bad choice of hold music, let’s take an example I have to endure on a regular basis, Month of Sundays by Passenger. At CD quality it’s got lots of interesting stuff going on, which you’d imagine might be ideal to distract someone from the fact they’re being kept on hold for ages. However, playing it over the phone it’s simply too busy. As soon as the brass and backing vocals kick in it just sounds yuck.

Clipping: What it is and why you absoutely need to avoid it

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Due to general sloppiness when it comes to setting the volume level for music on hold, a form of distortion known as “clipping” can appear, and regularly does if you’re willing to believe personal anecdotal evidence. If you want to know about the science behind clipping, then Wikipedia will tell you everything you need to know, but for those of us who have things to get on with, we can get by just knowing that when something is played too loud down a phone line, the sound starts to distort and sound really horrible.

Where this creates an extra snag with music on hold is that the loudest part of a song doesn’t typically come in until the final chorus or reprise. This means that if you just listen to the first 10 seconds to check that your new hold music is working, then chances are you’ll be blissfully unaware that three minutes into holding (just as customers are beginning to feel irritated anyway), you start playing a sound like fingernails on a blackboard to them.

Here’s what happens to our two example tracks when we use some amplification to introduce clipping into the mix:

Not quite the desired effect, I think you’ll agree. It might be funny if you and I didn’t have to endure it time and time again.

Choosing Hold Music That Doesn't Suck

So what can we do to avoid inflicting further musical misery on our own customers while they’re patiently sitting on hold? We could just go back to playing a ringing sound, or an intermittent beep just to let people know they’re still connected, but that would be awfully dull. The best compromise is relatively simple electronic music that doesn't have too much going on as the ideal choice for hold music as it requires far less refined sound quality to get a decent rendition down a telephone connection.

Solo guitar and piano music can also be decent choices provided you avoid songs with extremes of high and low volumes and pitch. Most phone systems come with default tracks that, coincidentally, fall squarely into these categories. If you’d like something a bit different then you can find plenty royalty-free tunes available to purchase online (they’re not all that terrible), but remember you'll need to pay for a PRS license if you want to make use of tracks by a recording artist.

Here’s an example of some royalty-free music that we use both at CD quality and hold music quality.

You’ll notice that there’s not too much of a difference between the track when played at CD quality and over the phone. All the instruments can still be heard clearly, and the same techniques I used to introduce clipping on the other two tracks had no effect (I could have kept amplifying the track until it did, but it proved the point). And because it’s fairly bland and inoffensive, you’re not going to upset anyone too much if it’s not their cup of tea.

A Better On-Hold Experience

So, to summarise:


DO: Use simple electronic or acoustic tracks for music on hold

DO: Make sure you’re licensed to play the music that you’re using

DO: Listen to your music on hold right through once you’ve put it live to check the quality

DON’T: Assume that orchestral music sounds sophisticated or soothing

DON’T: Assume that playing the latest chart songs will sound cool


Ultimately, your choice of hold music isn’t going to make customers happy if they’re being kept waiting for more than a few minutes, or endlessly passed from one team to another. There are plenty of technologies available to make the inbound call experience faster and more enjoyable although these will vary between different call centre solutions. If you’re not sure what tools you have available to optimise your inbound experience, your call centre software or systems provider will be happy to help.

In the meantime, reviewing your use of music on hold to ensure that you’re not making customers more irritated by the time they do get to talk to someone will make both your customers' and agents' days just that little bit more enjoyable.

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