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The best hold music since ‘Careless Whisper’

Most companies' hold music is unlistenable. Here's how to make yours better.

By Patrick Grieve

Published December 8, 2015
Last updated August 31, 2020

According to a survey by text-message service TalkTo, more than half of Americans spend 10 to 20 minutes every week waiting on hold—which works out to 43 days over a lifetime.

That's a lot of hold music. And with a few notable exceptions, that hold music is pretty awful—most of us will spend 43 precious days of our lives waiting to speak to a customer service rep while listening to some third-rate cover of "Careless Whisper."

But life on hold doesn't have to be all saxophone solos and elevator Muzak. You can help make those 43 days fly by for customers by putting more thought and effort into your business's hold music. To help you get started, we'll explain the effect that phone hold music has on customers, lay out the key criteria for selecting the best hold music, and even provide a free track that was selected by voters as the perfect hold song.

Why hold music is worth investing in

No one likes being put on hold, but science has shown that playing music can keep people on the line longer and make their wait feel shorter.

The USA Business Telephone Today Center in Washington, DC, studied the impact of putting people on hold for one minute, both with and without music.

The first group of 10,000 callers were put on hold for one minute, with nothing but dead air for their listening pleasure:

  • Over half of them hung up before the 60 seconds was up
  • Those who did stay on the line vastly overestimated how long they'd been made to wait, with 45% of callers estimating that their hold time had exceeded three to five minutes

The second group of 10,000 callers were also put on hold for one minute but got to enjoy some music while they waited.

The tunes did the trick:

  • Only 13% of callers dropped off the line
  • Additionally, only 31% of callers felt like their hold time had exceeded 60 seconds, and 56% of them actually estimated that they'd been waiting for less than a minute

The type of hold music you pick seems to matter as well. Psychologists have found that calm music with a slow tempo is the most effective at making waits feel shorter than they really are.

This research explains why soft rock and smooth jazz have become such hold-music cliches. But before you pick a slow song and call it a day, there are other factors to consider when picking hold music.

How to pick the best hold music for callers

People calling customer support often aren't in a good mood to begin with, and no one likes having to wait. One of the worst things you can do is add to their frustration with obnoxious, inappropriate, or just plain ugly-sounding music.

Create a pleasant on-hold experience by keeping these factors in mind when selecting tracks.

Genre and content

Your hold music doesn't have to be themed, but it should at least seem like an appropriate choice for your business. For example, a hospital ICU shouldn't play something as upbeat as Bobby McFerrin's “Don't Worry Be Happy,” just like a family theme park shouldn't blast a tearjerker like Fleetwood Mac's “Landslide.”

Also avoid lyrical content that is potentially offensive or embarrassingly ironic—for example, Elton John singing, "I think it's going to be a long, long time" in "Rocket Man" or Michael Stipe telling customers to "hold on . . . hold on . . ." in "Everybody Hurts."

Sound quality

A telephone speaker is not exactly an audiophile's dream. Audio compression makes music sound a lot worse over the phone, especially if you're transmitting a heavily produced song with lots of notes and instruments. One bank's instrumental cover of Britney Spears' “Toxic” came across as a series of screeches when used as hold music, which probably didn't do their business (or Britney) any favors.

Listen to how your chosen hold music sounds over the phone, keeping your ear open for volume changes and distortion. There's always going to be some audio loss, but the key is to find a tune that doesn't suffer too much from a decrease in fidelity.

Average wait time

Finally, consider how much time your customers are going to have to spend listening to your music selections. If your average wait time is pretty long, avoid playing short, repetitive songs that could really grate on customers who have to listen to them on a loop. On the other hand, if your average wait time is relatively quick, you should feel free to play more upbeat music.

Our pick for the best phone hold music ever written

Finding the best hold music can be challenging—which is why we went ahead and just made it.

A few years ago, we hired professional musicians to compose not one but three different songs. Then we let the public vote on their choice for the best hold music. The fan favorite was a catchy little ditty titled “Four, As In X,” which we then professionally recorded, mixed, mastered, and made available as a free download on Soundcloud.

No more sappy saxophones. This track draws listeners in with a pleasant piano hook, then grows more complex, adding new instruments and vocals as it progresses. It's got character, but not so much nuance that it can't survive audio-compression issues. And it's got a beat but is still paced at a calm, relaxing tempo.

Hallelujah—your customers' ears are saved.

Make sure every customer conversation is pitch-perfect

Of course, hold music isn't all it takes to win over a customer (even if it is the world's best hold music).

Once the music ends and the caller talks to an agent, they still want quick solutions to their problems and personalized support.