The odd history of on-hold music

Click to play video: 'The unlikely origin of on-hold music: an explainer'
The unlikely origin of on-hold music: an explainer
WATCH: Outside of recognizing it as your cue to sit tightly and wait for the person on the other line to help you, have you ever given on-hold music a second thought? Regardless of your answer, you might be unfamiliar with the origins of on-hold music. The phenomenon was born in an unlikely, but happy incident for American inventor and factory owner Alfred Levy. Adam Wallis explains – Apr 14, 2024

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.

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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.

In 1966, he filed a patent on a machine, “Telephone Hold Program System,” that automatically played music for callers anytime they were placed on hold. Every single on-hold phone device in use today is based on that patent. It doesn’t matter if it’s some inoffensive pre-recorded instrumental material or a radio station.

This has revolutionized interactions with customers. I once saw the results of a study that said at least 70 per cent of customers who are subjected to dead silence while on hold will hang up in disgust and frustration within 60 seconds, simply because they think they’ve been disconnected or are being ignored and disrespected. Playing them music — even bad music — is far better than the old way of signaling an active connection, which was usually a beep every 30 seconds or so. Today, most commercial phone line system comes with an “M.O.H.” input. That stands for “Music On Hold.”

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After on-hold music became widespread, things escalated in odd directions. In 1989, a 16-year-old Yanni-loving computer nerd named Tim Carleton and his friend, Derek Deel, recorded a six-minute piece on a four-track machine in Carleton’s parents’ garage. It was entitled Opus Number One and incorporated in phone a system built by Cisco (then a start-up) called Call Manager. It made Carleton and Deel stars of the on-hold music world.

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If you have been put on hold any time during the last 35 years, I guarantee you’ve heard this because, for the longest time, this was the only go-to music for Cisco phone systems. It was even used in by Bud Light for a Super Bowl commercial in 2023.


There’s still plenty of work that needs to be done, though, as companies and governments still don’t get it. Cisco finally realized that their phone systems needed more options than Opus Number One. The Department of Work and Pensions in the U.K. played a 30-second loop of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons for years before it was changed, citing complaints from the public that such repetition caused anxiety and was particularly upsetting to autistic callers.

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You can’t use just any music. If it’s copyrighted popular music, the owners of the business with the phone system are legally obligated to pay royalties. Years ago, Bruce Springsteen called a motorcycle shop only to be put on hold and immediately heard his Born to Run. When someone finally answered, his question was, “Did you get a license for that?” And if you license music, you must be careful. Top 40 pop is good for callers 25 and under, but tend to drive off older clients. Plus, familiar songs might actually make the wait feel longer because we have an a good idea of how long these songs actually are.

There are now many companies that specialize in on-hold music. They emphasize the need for music that’s not too sleepy and not too loud. Tempos and melody are important. On-hold music should be happy, both in terms of musicality and lyrics (except in the case of funeral homes; that’s inappropriate). It’s important to have variety, moving from clips of different styles, lengths, and genres (except jazz — studies have shown that it should be avoided because it causes too many people to hang up.)

Predictability in the music is death. This is especially important if callers may be subjected to wait times of 10 minutes or more. (I can’t imagine the mindset of an Adelaide, Australia, man who stayed on-hold with Qantas for 15 hours back in 2012. That’s a lot of on-hold music.) An announcement should come on every once in a while, reassuring the caller that “your call is important to us.” That’s annoying, but it works.

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Finally, businesses should realize that whatever on-hold music they choose, it has to work well with the limited frequency response of telephone lines. Using material that just doesn’t translate down a phone line will drive customers crazy.

The on-hold music business is larger than you think. There’s a trade group, The On-Hold Message Association, now trading as, and even has conferences and awards programs for the best on-hold music.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, there a community of on-hold music fans. They compile YouTube videos like this
Best of On Hold Music playlist.


By the way, despite Opus Number One being heard by hundreds of millions (billions?) of people while on hold, Carleton and Deel haven’t seen a penny in royalties from their composition. They wrote it, recorded it, submitted, were paid for the job — and that was it. I imagine they cringe when they call somewhere are subjected to their creation.

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