talkroute on hold music

On Hold Music and the Psychology of Waiting

Have you ever wondered why you hear music or informational messages while you’re on hold? The reason is to give callers something to listen to while they’re waiting, right? Well, yes, but music and messages on hold were deliberately designed, based on the psychological reactions of people when they are placed on hold.

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In this article, we will examine how callers respond to being placed on hold and the reasons they react in a variety of ways. The mind of a customer works in interesting ways, but it works in predictable ways, too, which is why businesses are able to create hold programs that create the best environment for callers, if they must wait. Here’s how it works.

The subject matter, research, and many of the terms detailed in this article are chiefly derived from the report, “The Psychology of Telephone ‘On Hold’ Programming,” by Dr. Jim Will.

Businessmen and Clock

Perceived Time

One of the first reasons that a caller will become frustrated (and potentially hang up the phone) is if they perceive their time on hold to be excessive. Even if someone has only been holding for 2 minutes, there are key factors which make this time “feel” longer than it actually is, or in the opposite case, time seems to fly.

Dead air, or “unoccupied” time makes the time seem to drag on, whereas if there is content filling this time—such as music or a spoken message—the time feels like it’s going more quickly. In the same way, “explained waits” are more favorable to a holding caller than “unexplained waits”—that is, informing them that the call will be answered soon or stating a current approximate wait time.

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Music Serves the Message

The whole purpose of playing music for someone on hold was originally to give a few moments between messages for the caller to absorb the message they just heard, for maximum recall later. Music serves the message, while also helping to pass the time. Not just any music will do, however; certain types of music calm a person while on hold, and other types cause them to react negatively. Justin Worland of Time Magazine discovered from a study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology that playing recognizable pop songs produced a more positive experience for callers than elevator music or bland, repeating melodies, which tends to frustrate callers.


Manage Anxiety

A crucial factor for handling callers on hold is to manage their anxiety. After all, the more anxious or irritated a person is, the more likely they are to hang up, which is the very thing a business is trying to avoid. For example, the length and variety of music selections and messages greatly affects the mood of a caller. Short, repeating melodies or messages will drive anyone crazy; you anticipate that a message or small piece of music is going to repeat over and over—and it does. This is highly likely to produce anxiety for the caller, resulting in “wearout”.

Information that Interests the Caller

The message serves (2) basic functions:

  • Keep the caller engaged and attentive.
  • Promote sales materials.
  • Again, messages should be kept at a longer length to prevent wearout, and they should be varied so that a caller does not hear the same thing over and over again. Ideally, these messages should be designed to be at least mildly interesting to callers because this is how they will stay interested while holding, increasing the likelihood for a productive conversation when the call is answered by a representative. Also, it is a perfect opportunity to present promotional materials and instructions.

    hold music


    Any kind of interference during hold time also produces a negative response in the caller. Do you ever hear music and speech at the same time when you’re on hold? Not usually because simultaneously playing music and a message makes it sound chaotic and cluttered, which is irritating to our ears. Interference also takes the form of anything out-of-place; every section of the program must be played one-at-a-time to keep it simple and palatable.

    talkroute on hold

    Structure is the Key

    Just like a child learning how to interact with his fellow humans, structure is an integral element of a successful on-hold program. This works for the same reason that pop songs are popular—we feel safe and comfortable in a structured program. Predictable patterns are used, according to a standardized formula that we have come to expect in mainstream music. On a hold program, callers respond the most favorably to music and messages that are produced according to a simple pattern, wherein the message is spoken slowly and clearly. To create an optimal holding program, music sections should be the same duration, and the spoken messages should also be of equal duration which is relatively the same as the music sections.

    Surprisingly, the technique and format of on-hold programs has not changed much since the 1980s. The basic idea is to keep callers calm, entertained, and interested, thus preventing them from hanging up. When you call most mega-corporations at their customer service centers, however, it becomes clear that businesses still have a lot to learn about providing a positive holding experience for their callers because it’s still not that much fun. It may be time to rethink the strategy.


    Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.

    Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.

    StephanieOn Hold Music and the Psychology of Waiting