Music History

The strange history of on-hold music

[This was my weekly column for – AC]

It’s happened again: before you get a word out, the person or machine who answered the phone at the doctor’s office/tech support/airline/customer service centre slaps you on hold and music starts to play.

In some cases, it’s a local radio station. Other times, it’s something terribly innocuous, generic, and mildly annoying. And I swear those companies that play the same simple tune over and over and over again do that so you’ll just give up and go away. (Apple tech support is a bit different. The last time I called for help, the prompts gave me a choice of the kind of music I could hear while waiting, but that’s unusual.

The main purpose of on-hold music is simple. If you hear the music, you know you’re still connected and somewhere in the queue. But this wasn’t always the case. Who came up with the idea of on-hold music?

His name was Alfred Levy. Back in 1962, he owned a factory and was having trouble with the phone lines running into the building. Somewhere in the system, a loose wire was touching a metal girder, turning the whole structure into a giant radio antenna that just happened to be tuned to the frequency of a local radio station. This meant that every time someone answered the phone, music leaked through. It was especially noticeable when callers were placed on hold.

Levy was annoyed at first but then realized that this wasn’t such a bad thing after all. It occupied the callers and let them know that they were still connected.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38542 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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