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The Complete Guide to the Best Hold Music for Your Business

by Margaret Joy

Music on hold helps you increase retention, reduce churn, and even influence your caller’s attitude with hold music.

Go on, get your elevator music jokes out. We’ll wait (and chuckle). We’ve all poked fun at Muzak, but the importance of hold music and its multifaceted nature may surprise you. Seventy percent of business calls go on hold. The main point behind hold music is to signal that the line is still open, but that’s not all it does. You can increase retention, reduce churn, and even influence your caller’s attitude with hold music.

Different types of music elicit different reactions in the human brain. Make sure you pick the right one for your business.

Music on Hold’s Accidental Origin

In 1962, inventor and entrepreneur Alfred Levy found a loose wire touching a metal girder at his factory. It amplified the broadcast signal from the radio station next door and transmitted the audio through the loose wire to calls on hold. Four years later he patented his work, and music on hold was born.

Hold music gained mainstream popularity in the early aughts. As cell phone customization became more of a focus, ringback tones gained popularity. People carefully chose the song to play in lieu of ringtones for incoming calls. It was a chance to control the call experience and showcase your personality before you even said hello. By the time the first US national carrier offered ringback tones in 2004, it was a multibillion-dollar industry.

Why Use Hold Music at All?

People don’t like going on hold, but you knew that. Funny, considering the early telephone users had to wait to be connected anyway, but now we expect an immediate connection. Think back a couple of decades to the dial-up era. You probably remember the time it took for AOL to connect—and the sounds that went with it. Now, a web page that takes more than a few seconds to load is inexcusable.  

Hold music keeps your callers distracted from the wait, although it should not be considered a fix for long queue times.

USA Business Telephone Today conducted a survey of 30,000 callers to study the effects of hold music, or the lack of it, for a single minute. More than half the callers who were put on hold without any auditory stimulation hung up. The silence affected the rest of the group’s perception of time: More than 27 percent thought their wait time exceeded five minutes, and 18 percent thought it exceeded three minutes. Only 3 percent judged their wait time to be close to the actual one-minute timeframe. All of the callers in the study had listened to dead air for only 60 seconds.

Of the 10,000 callers who heard hold music during their minute wait, only 13 percent dropped off, and more than half guessed their wait time was less than a minute. To take it a step further, the study's last group heard a mix of music and messages while on hold for one minute. Two percent hung up. Another 81 percent thought their wait time was less than a minute.

Music on Hold Influences Mood

Let’s drop some jargon: Caller retention. Customer satisfaction. Reducing churn. If you care about any of these, hold music should matter to you. Music affects mood. It can even have an effect on purchasing and decision-making behavior. Skip the sponsored Instagram posts of avocado toast; hold music is a bonafide influencer!

No one calls customer support to chit chat. They call because they have a problem and are likely irritated enough to get on the phone and ask about it. Odds are they’re not alone, so there’s a bit of a wait before your team can answer. If you were answering support calls, what would you want your frustrated customer listening to in the moments before you pick up?

The same goes with sales: You want your caller to be excited about talking to you.

You might be thinking, “Great, thanks for the info, I’ll go pick something neutral, like classical, or upbeat, like pop.” Slow your roll—there’s a lot more to hold music than just genre.

A phone line isn’t a state of the art speaker system; its primary function is to make sure the call is connected. Volume changes, frequency, and distortion are all elements to consider when choosing hold music.

The way we approach musical genres today is much more fluid, from both the musician and the listener’s perspectives. Thanks to the age of MP3 players and streaming services, we can group music by other metrics than language and style or what’s popular in our specific region.

Curation by context is the game of late. We choose music by our mood, by our activity, and by our audience. Spotify lets you browse by mood and events, showcasing playlists that cross multiple genres because music can’t be sorted into individual boxes.

Why wouldn’t you give the same attention to the tool that keeps your callers on the line?

How to Choose On Hold Music for Your Business

Picking the appropriate hold music is crucial. After all, there’s a reason elevator music is a running joke. We know that waiting is annoying and that music influences mood. Don’t just queue up some Mozart and call it a day; do strategize your musical picks.

“The human brain reacts differently to different types of music, eliciting very specific emotional, physical, and behavioral responses, almost as if music were a map, communicating emotions to a brain even better than words. As in conversation, different inputs stimulate nearly all of the brain.”

–DJ Lanphier, Mic.com

Music is subjective. What one person enjoys, another might despise. Even that pillar of hold music neutrality, Muzak, can inspire wildly different reactions.

1. Consider Genre

So how do you choose the right hold music? Start with what’s appropriate for your business. A funeral home wouldn’t blast the Bee Gees. A sports arena isn’t going to stream some easy listening to the fans. Know your audience, understand their mind space, and pick your music accordingly.

“Call center operators who picked up the phone reported feeling less emotionally exhausted when dealing with customers who heard standard pop music.” –Time, Why Music on Hold Drives You Crazy

Generic pop songs perform better than those with prosocial lyrics or instrumental music. It turns out people calling in with grievances don’t want to hear songs about helping the world, and stereotypical elevator music triggers anger when on hold for extended periods.

What sort of genre, tempo, or rhythm best exemplifies your brand? Lyrics or instrumental? Heavy bass or soft tones? Like ringback tones, this music is your caller’s introduction to your company. Make sure it’s on brand. A law firm probably doesn’t want the latest dance floor bass drop. A music agency, on the other hand, might want to feature some of their top artists and latest hits. Don’t take this to mean that traditionally serious industries can’t flex their personality—just acknowledge what’s appropriate in your domain.

2. Factor in Wait Time

You also need to factor in your average wait time. If you know your callers will be listening for a while, choose something other than rock or alternative, which creates the perception of longer wait times.

Even if your wait time is short, don’t discount the power of hold music. OnSIP’s average wait time averaged 18 seconds last month, which is just long enough for the caller to notice that the instrumental music is pleasant, with enough character to prevent boredom, before our team picks up. When that’s the last thought in your caller’s head before speaking with your business, it’s likely to be a more pleasant conversation than it might have been otherwise.

3. Think About Quality

Finally, take into account the reduction in quality that goes hand in hand with hold music. The audio quality is—at best—24 times worse than that from a CD. Yes, we just said CD. The public telephone network wasn’t built with HD music in mind. Thankfully for OnSIP customers, we provide HD radio for VoIP music on hold. That said, your company might have top of the line audio quality, but if clients call in from an old landline or cell, they might hear some distortion. 

The best hold music has few instruments and preferably only one. Simple music handles the change in quality better than a full orchestra arrangement. The latter gets distorted, particularly if it’s too loud for the phone to handle and clipping happens. No one wants to hear a dirge-like cacophony masquerading as “Pachelbel’s Canon in D.”

Free Hold Music

If we learned anything from Napster, it’s that music doesn’t come for free. While there are a few free music sites out there, there are plenty of royalty-free websites for finding hold music, but keep in mind you may have to pay a subscription fee or download fee. (OnSIP subscribers can access three free music channels; read on for more details.) If you’re of the mind that your business could and should use Top 40 or other recent tracks, you will have to pay royalties for the right to use them.

We put together some resources for a mix of both free-to-use and royalty-free hold music:

  • Zendesk commissioned their own music on hold track and have made it available for your streaming pleasure.
  • Free Stock Music provides free music for download and even has a tag for music on hold.
  • Beatsuite is a great resource for royalty-free hold music, and they also offer professional voiceover services for on-hold messages.
  • Easy on Hold is another great site, and they even break down how their system works with all types of phones, including VoIP!
  • Free Music Archive is a curated library of free-to-download music, but make sure to check the individual tracks for licensing specifics.
  • Melody Loops allows you to browse music by genre, mood, style, and even specific function (like hold music).
Browse thousands of radio stations with OnSIP’s enhanced music on hold.

OnSIP and Music on Hold: Play Anything!

OnSIP’s standard music on hold allows you to choose from three free channels: Jazz, Classical, and Elevator. If these sources aren’t the vibe you’re looking for in your hold music, subscribe to our enhanced music on hold service. With this enabled, you have access to thousands of online radio stations.

If you still can’t find the right hold music or are lost among all the possibilities, you can create your own radio station that streams any music you’d like to your callers or upload your own MP3 files. 

OnSIP’s enhanced music on hold allows each user to select their own hold music, so each caller gets different tunes depending on who put them on hold or which menu they came in through. (You can even change your hold music for the holidays or for a special event!) You can also record a customized hold message to engage your callers while they’re waiting on the line. This presents a great opportunity to advertise additional features of your business or inform your audience of a special sale or promotion.

Check out our Knowledgebase to review our music on hold options, as well as the specifics for setting up custom music.

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