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'Your Call Is Important ... ' Which Is Why You Hear Music


You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. It can be maddening. You call your doctor, your cable provider, your utility company, and you get sent to hold.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There are 12 callers ahead of you. (Music playing).

NEARY: Journalist Tom Vanderbilt, while waiting in that telephonic purgatory, wondered how we got to a place where we needed musical accompaniment. He wrote about it for the online magazine Slate and joins us now. Good to have you with us, Tom.

TOM VANDERBILT: Great to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: So Tom, there was a time when there was actually silence if you were put on hold. How and why did that change?

VANDERBILT: Yeah, I mean, first you sort of have to think about the history of being on hold which goes back to the creation of the telephone when, if you think about it, in the old days when there was old switchboard system - to merely make a call, you had to be put on hold by the operator.

So that's where the phrase hold the line comes from. But then, you know, after we got out of the switchboard era, and you called people, and you got a direct connection, you still would call a business or something like that. And if the person wasn't there to take your call, you know, they needed some way to sort of leave you hanging there. And it was called silent hold. The problem with this is not only that it was incredibly dull, but that you were not sure if you still maintained that connection.

NEARY: When did they decide to add music?

VANDERBILT: It was a bit of an accident involving a factory owner who had a sort of a loose wire in the building's electrical system. And it was when they were putting people on hold, they were inadvertently picking up a signal from a neighboring radio station.

NEARY: Well, does it in fact make people wait more patiently?

VANDERBILT: If you think about it, waiting on hold is the same as really waiting in any kind of queue in the real world. And if you think about, for example, the idea that putting a mirror in front of an elevator will make - distract people, give them something to do while they're waiting for the elevator, take their mind off of time, which - the more we think about time, the longer it begins to dwell in our mind, the longer it seems.

NEARY: What's your favorite kind of hold music?

VANDERBILT: I mean, I am a fan of Handel's Water Music which is what got me interested in this piece in the first place. I sort of imagined Handel several centuries ago. Did - could he have envisioned that his music was being used for this purpose - to keep me pacified while I was waiting on line?

But this is sort of the thing, though. The danger with hold music is that if you play something that someone likes, you know, that's fine. If you play something that someone doesn't like, the wait will not only seem, you know, less short, it will actually seem longer.

And there's even a danger that if you play something that someone is familiar with, and that they even like, the wait could still be longer because psychologists have argued that because it's a more familiar song to us, we can then shift more of our attention to thinking about things like the passage of time.

So there's been some study, but a lot of it is just people are doing it. And we're the human guinea pigs on the other end of the line.


NEARY: Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist and author. He wrote about hold music for Slate magazine. Thanks so much, Tom.

VANDERBILT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.