UK: Now that's what I call corporate muzak.

UK: Now that's what I call corporate muzak. - No one is safe. Wherever there's a phone, there's piped music waiting to strike those put on hold.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

No one is safe. Wherever there's a phone, there's piped music waiting to strike those put on hold.

It's pretty easy to imagine, isn't it? Somewhere in '50s or '60s America a corpulent, cigar-sucking boss of the old school is approached by a fawning underling who nervously tells him they, um, have a problem. The company's ever-growing number of telephone customers, he explains, seem ill-equipped to cope with being put on hold, being left in silence. 'Fine', responds the boss, 'the public are dull-witted and have no taste.' (Remember this was back when Ratneresque candour was the norm.) 'Let's give them Greensleeves as interpreted by Big Bob's Lounge Orchestra.' So telephone music was born. And, in the intervening few decades it has spread far and wide - nowadays you can't call up a business in Uzbekistan without getting a good three minutes of traditional Turkic music, tastefully rearranged for digital panpipes.

But why bother with telephone music at all? How much more clever and original to be silent. Well, silence may be golden (more of which later) but it doesn't really seem to work because - after 30 seconds or so people tend to assume they've been cut off. 'Really,' says Michael Clarke, managing director of Muzak UK, 'it's just there to let people know that they haven't been forgotten.' Quite so, but it is possible for businesses to tell a caller that they still care without recourse to cheesy Tchaikovsky, by using, say, a simple beep or a repeated voice message. Well perhaps so, but (and this is frankly rather shocking) there is evidence that phone music does actually work. Leicester University's psychology department has been conducting research into 'wallpaper' music in its various guises.

Explains the department's Adrian North: 'We placed an ad in the local paper, offering people £5 to fill out a questionnaire and giving them a number to call. We then put them on hold and either played a message, the Beatles, or the Beatles on panpipes.' The results were a ringing endorsement for the lowest common denominator, for while most people researchers spoke to said they greatly preferred the real Beatles to the dumbed-down version, they actually expected the lowbrow version. On average, punters would listen to a recorded message for 198 seconds, the unadulterated Beatles for 230 seconds and lounge-style Lennon and McCartney for a whopping 257 seconds.

Most companies don't actually make people hold for that length of time, though (as time is subjective) it may seem longer. And, as North says, even though they'll listen to pale imitations a little longer, people do at least claim to prefer real artists. This is a something Clarke agrees with: 'The days of Greensleeves played on the wobble board by Rolf Harris are over. You need an original artist's music that suits the company and its profile, and you need something contemporary. But you must remember it's not there for arousal, it's there for comfort - hard-edge rap probably wouldn't be especially good.' So no Ice-T, then. Even so, there's no reason why a little originality should not be used to lift callers' spirits.

Mike Borkowski, of the PR company of the same name, explains: 'We've advised clients who've asked us to find specific types of music to reflect their companies.' Favourites include sounds of the early morning and birdsong, the (old) Batman theme tune and - feeding off the current appetite for retro-chic - lounge music such as bossa nova. Famous speeches, on the other hand, are a definite turn-off.

Meanwhile there is much to be said for the holistic, natural approach: 'Account handlers,' says Borkowski, 'find whale noises and baboons in the rainforest particularly effective.' Indeed, such are the popularity of Borkowski's simian simpers and cetacean clicks that, he says, some callers have actually asked to be put back on hold once their call has been dealt with. As for his own business, says Borkowski, 'We all pitch in and buy CDs and have a wide variety.'

Of course, there are those for whom serenading their callers is merely a matter of opting for the obvious. Capital Radio, quite sensibly, plays those on hold the same mix of populist music and news - in this case a bit of George Michael and Robbie Williams - that they would hear if they tuned in. Likewise, call any Virgin company and you will get the eponymous radio station. And BSkyB who used to run the Sky News theme tune now just runs the news soundtrack itself.

There are also businesses which plump for something which is effectively their signature. Channel Four, for example, plays a nicely engaging medley of excerpts from its programmes' signature tunes. Yellow Pages' melodies are selected by Alan Doyle, the marketing communications controller: '(It) is composed of past and current advertising themes, all of which are entirely consistent with the warmth conveyed by all Yellow Pages brand communications.' Music on hold, he continues, 'is a component of the marketing mix, just like the television advertising from which it is sourced'.

As might be expected, however, there is a sizeable constituency for which telephone music is a symphony for the devil. The most vocal exponent of this camp is Pipedown, The International Campaign Against Piped Music; luminaries such as Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley and Spike Milligan have elected to stump up its £12 membership fee. 'Do you hate piped music?

Loathe its incessant jingle? Detest the way you can't escape it?', begins its 18th-century pamphleteer-style flyer. Its stance, explains its founder Nigel Rodgers, is unequivocal: 'Silence or silence interspersed with a short message is what we are campaigning for. We want to restore the right to choose whether or not you want to listen to something. We say "why not offer people the choice of pressing the star key for silence?" When you don't expect it you have a right to complain.' Thus far, he says, Pipedown has had some success: Dickens & Jones and Debenhams have both dropped piped melodies and Tesco is considering such a move.

Companies which should meet with Pipedown's approval cite different reasons for their strangely silent phones. At both Cadbury-Schweppes and Unilever, for instance, the thinking is that people should not be 'held'. Customers are put straight through; if there is no answer, they are put onto someone's voice-mail. Going Places, where there is more call for this sort of thing, plonks for a simple beep: 'People get disillusioned with music,' is its line. Cable & Wireless goes for a charmless robotic voice: 'All our lines are presently busy. Please wait.' Reuters opts for straight-up silence, as does Powergen, though when asked why this might be the case, the latter's spokeshuman, replied: 'I haven't got a clue.'

Among companies which do not wish to be part of this silent minority, there are many who give less than full thought to what they play their customers during this valuable 'interface time' with their captive and fairly helpless customers. Asda plays the Chariots of Fire while Direct Line - which must have its fair share of people on hold - reckons it has been playing the same music for at least a couple of years. That said, way back whenever they chose it, there was method in the latter's music: 'We had Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Mozart's Rondo Horn Concerto. Research suggested these were the most acceptable and have wide appeal. You also need something with not too many swings in volume and it must be comparatively short for looping purposes.' Finally Airtours (which again probably has a hanger-on or two) plays pretty predictable pap, though the company is rather more in tune with the nation's mood: the music was changed for Di's funeral. To what, it didn't say.

For all the different approaches to mixing and matching muzak, however, companies probably shouldn't lose too much sleep over this particular facet of the corporate image. After all, if a business satisfies its customers in other, more meaningful ways, they are unlikely to carp too much about its telephone tunes. As even ambient music's most vehement critic, Rodgers, will vouchsafe, 'It's all a bit light-hearted. Piped music won't cause you to commit suicide.'

Muzak While You Wait - Strike the right note with your callers

For the novice muzakeer, there are a few guidelines: You need to work out what kind of callers you are likely to have. For businesses working in hip sectors like advertising, some off-piste listening might be called for. People who phone in are less likely to be put off by something a tad avant-garde or outre - whalesong or '70s theme tunes perhaps.

Bigger businesses, where customers come from a cross section of society, will need something rather less challenging. Nonetheless a little inventiveness and humour is unlikely to go amiss. Something that makes holders smile and maybe even remember who they called is a bonus.

Finally, companies would do well to consider the implications of new technology. The current vogue for automated phone systems where callers use touch-tone buttons to select options allows a new sophistication, as Michael Clarke, of Muzak UK, explains. 'You can target people who are interacting,' he says. 'Ultimately, it's about communicating with customers.' So, a company could perhaps play a cheery, upbeat jingle for those who are interested in a new product, while something more soothing might be appropriate for customers phoning in with a serious complaint.

I'll just put you on hold

1 Greensleeves

Semolina pudding that you can hear.

2 I heard it Through the Grapevine

You can hear it on the phone line.

3 Simply the Best

Uncomplicated. Good for the hard of thinking.

4 The Four Seasons

Soon feels like the whole 12 months.

5 Whales and rainforest noises

Are a far cry from a hot, cramped office.

6 Chariots of Fire

Try and remember who won what while you wait.

7 Anything on panpipes

Panpipes turn anything into a potential K-Tel hit.

8 Yellow Submarine

Classic status makes this LSD ditty fine for granny.

9 Brian Eno's Airport Music

A little knowing irony when you're on hold.

10 20th Century Boy

Reminds fortysomethings they were once hip.

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