Why Does Hold Music Sound So Bad?


As if being on hold isn’t annoying enough, you are usually met with an earful of music that sounds terrible. So why does hold music sound so bad? Is there any truth in the rumours about hold music being deliberately bad to make you hang up? 

There are a few reasons contributing to the universally terrible hold music. Put simply, phone audio is designed to handle voices and only voices. Industry standard compression and EQ, coupled with lossy codecs to reduce file size, means audio quality is reduced and this leads to bad sounding music. 

There are many other factors that contribute to hold music sounding bad. Read on to find out everything that contributes to messy and distorted audio, and why we have to listen to it in the first place.

Hold Music Frequencies Explained

To listen to music at its full potential, good-quality speakers will reproduce the full audio range of human hearing. Music is mixed and produced to sound good across all of these frequencies.

Human voices don’t span the full frequency range that we can hear. The voice can span 125Hz to 8kHz., with most voices being clearly heard even between 500Hz and 5kHz. When the first phones were invented, the speakers only had to cover this range so that we could hear the voices. That’s all they were needed for. 

Phone providers and even the PSTN (public switched telephone network) apply EQs that only really allow the frequencies of the human voice to pass through. Anything else is superfluous.

Different handsets, even today, respond to different frequencies and have a different frequency range. This means that they all have their own characteristics. 

Even though a modern iPhone or other smartphones will cover more audio frequencies so that we can listen to music, the phone networks have not caught up. They really don’t need to, either. Most phone calls allow you to clearly and crisply hear the main thing you need to; someone’s voice.

Point-To-Point Compression

We won’t go too far into the science behind it, but the data is compressed as it is transferred. That means a lot of the original audio gets lost even before the network hacks away thousands of hertz of frequencies.

It’s a bit like listening to audio through one of those tin-can “phones” you made as a kid. Functional, but they leave a lot to be desired.

The phone algorithms are designed to look like the information they think is going to be relevant to a phone call. So, if there is a subtle hi-hat or audio layer in the background, the algorithms are going to brutally get rid of these sounds. Different algorithms might be more brutal.

Either way, this type of point-to-point compression will have a negative impact on the audio.

Copyright Issues and Royalties

One of the reasons why there is specifically-composed music for use as background or “hold” music is to get around the performing rights societies that pay royalties to musicians when their tracks are used.

If a company wanted to use a recent chart hit as their hold music, it would not only sound terrible because of the compression issues, but it would also cost a bomb.

There are also two different types of payment you might have to make when you use music as your hold music. Someone may hold the copyright to the song, while someone else owns the copyright to the recording. Confusing, I know. 

CDBaby have created a great guide to the basics of copyright. If you hear terrible cover versions of songs while you’re on hold, this is a way around having to pay for both types of copyright. If the recording is copyright free, and the song’s copyright has expired, the hold music might be free to use.

Copyright laws and performing rights societies are different around the world. This makes it even more confusing. However, the methods used to get around this are the same everywhere.

Specific royalty-free music might be an option. This is music that is produced and distributed on the understanding that the copyright won’t be registered. You can put it on your hold track without having to pay per use. You might pay for access or to buy the media in the first place.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

In theory, you’re not supposed to spend a lot of time on hold. We all know that in practice, it rarely works out like this.

Companies aren’t exactly likely to spend a lot of time and money working out the best playlists for the callers they have put on hold. Hold music should be a necessary evil, and ideally, you should only have to listen to a few minutes.

Being made to listen to music on repeat has been used as a torture method. So it’s clear that people don’t enjoy it. Even listening to a song you love on repeat would eventually drive you crazy. It’s probably this that feeds the conspiracy theories that hold music is designed to make you hang up.

Why Do We Have Hold Music Anyway?

Hold music is simply designed to fill the silence. It’s the same as the elevator music you might find in a hotel. Hold music is meant to be reassuring.

Initially, maybe it was a nice novelty to have some hold music. Now, it’s usually an annoyance. However, if you were put on hold, the other options are not as appealing:

  1. A repeated message saying that you are on hold and should be connected soon. 
  2. A noise to let you know that you are still in the hold queue.
  3. Silence. Unnerving silence.

We’ve become so accustomed to hold music that it wouldn’t sound right if it didn’t exist, either.

Is Hold Music Designed to Make You Hang Up?

So many people want to know the answer to this question. It’s certainly an interesting discussion. For some companies and phone lines (customer complaints, for example) they don’t exactly want to have to field a lot of calls. Some companies would rather you lost patience before you got connected, but these companies are probably the ones that you won’t go back to for repeat business.

It’s unlikely that many companies have used intentionally bad hold music, it just seems to be the way that music has evolved for the low-quality speakers and fast streaming and data transfer. 

Summary

It’s undeniable that almost all hold music is bad. Unfortunately, the entire phone system was made for convenience and functionality, and not making hi-hats sound crisp or letting the bass in a song cut through the mix.

It might be that the music itself is bad. It might be that the point-to-point compression makes it sound worse. Maybe the phone itself doesn’t sound good. In all likelihood, it is a combination of all of these factors that makes hold music sound terrible. Let’s just hope you don’t get stuck on the phone line for too long.

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous rock star....but that hasn't stopped him from writing and recording music in his home studio. Rob has over 15 years experience of recording music at home.

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