Stuck On Hold: how government muzak really works


Little did Fryderyk Chopin suspect when he wrote Waltz #3 in A Minor in 1845 that some poor Centrelink client would hear the whole damn thing 15 times over before managing to speak to a real live human being.

On hold music is a staple of practically any 21st Century telephonic interaction between an individual and a bureaucracy, be the government entity big or small,  yet it is a much neglected subject.

Some research has been done in the UK about the impact that on hold music has on the time people are prepared to wait.

The 1999 study, conducted by researchers from the University of Leicester on behalf of the Performing Right Society, found that playing music, rather than a recorded verbal message, meant people waited 20 per cent longer, partly because it influenced their perception of time.

The study also found that callers waited longer if they were listening to music they liked and if it fitted the expectations they held about an organisation.

In the apparent absence of any Australian research into on hold music, Government News decided to shoulder the burden by calling different government departments to check out their offerings, before going to the musical, beating heart of the issue with Music On Hold Australia (MOHA), which has been supplying all levels of government with on hold music for the past 30 years.

Any survey of on hold music, no matter how cursory, must surely begin with the department that is the master of leaving people hanging on the telephone: The Department of Human Services, where on hold times seem to range from between 15 minutes to half of your adult life.

While you wait for help at Centrelink, a Chopin waltz gently leads you through the benefits maze, interrupted by repeated requests for your customer reference number. It’s a haunting piece of music that Wikipedia describes as having an unclear mood, “showing great sadness at times but also hinting at happiness and hope.”

It could have been composed especially for Centrelink, if it had been written 140 years later.

There is even a Facebook page dedicated to Centrelink’s on hold music called, ‘Finding the Centrelink hold music calming because you’re a classy derro’. The page includes a tale from one enterprising Centrelink client who put a Centrelink worker on hold using the agency’s own music while he spent ten minutes finding his forms.

Department of Human Services General Manager Hank Jongen gave Government News a rundown of Centrelink’s own on hold oeuvre (which is provided as part of its contract with Telstra) and it has a distinctly classical bent.

The selection includes Handel’s Water Music, Bach’s Suite No.3 in D Major ‘Air’, Tchaikovsky’s Old French Song and Mozart’s Divertimento No.3. Chopin is the most popular composer.

The Department’s Medicare and Child Support lines play Cello Suite by Bach, which was carried over from previous contracts.

Mr Jongen said DHS handled approximately 59.5 million calls for Centrelink, Child Support and Medicare services and the average wait time was 14 minutes during 2013-14.

It’s not just Centrelink’s on hold music that has inspired a cult following.

Australia’s other customer service monolith, Australian Tax Office (ATO), has had so many people ringing to ask where they can buy the on hold music that it has statements on its website saying where it can be purchased.

Jenny Crosby from Music On Hold Australia, which supplied the fabled Seaspray album to the ATO, said the tax office hadn’t changed its music for decades.

“They’ve got such a lot of cred for having that music over the years, it must have been twenty years,” Ms Crosby said.

“It’s a nice piece. People like it. It’s calming, people don’t know what’s coming next and it’s always at the one level.”

A quick straw poll of MOHA’s offices brought up three most requested pieces: Millenium Summer, Blues Supply and Journey all available on the MOHA website, which divides music into genres like easy listening, blues, pop and jazz.

The music is all Australian and written in-house and performed by session musicians.

Music On Hold Australia (MOHA) has a strong government customer base including local councils, state government and the federal departments of Finance; Defence; Ageing, Disability and Home Care, and, of course, the ATO, as well as TAFEs and universities.

Mrs Crosby’s late husband, trumpet player Les Crosby, is widely credited with bringing on hold music from the US to Australia in 1982.

Mrs Crosby explained the ground rules of on hold music: keep it soothing but not too boring and make sure there are no particularly loud sections and not too many silences, in case people think their call has been lost and they hang up.

It’s also good to stay calm and keep heart rates steady.

“When you’re on hold you don’t want something that’s too emotional,” Mrs Crosby said.

Mrs Crosby said most levels of government demonstrated “a lack of interest” about the on hold music they used, with telecommunications providers often choosing music on their behalf.

Some government departments have on hold music that comes built into their phone system and probably don’t know their customers are hearing when they’re on hold.

But she said federal government departments tended to be a bit more involved in the decision.

“A lot of the Canberra guys buy online and a lot of them are choosing their own music but they are IT guys and they know how to put it onto the phone,” she said.

“It’s something that’s necessarily everyone’s business: people on hold. We try to make it as musically pleasant as it can possibly be. Over the last 30 years I think they’ve all been played.”

She said local governments and councils tended to play information recordings, rather than music.

If you were wondering why government departments can’t play commercial Australian music, be it Men At Work, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu or Jimmy Barnes, it’s because it is a much more expensive proposition because it attracts license fees through both Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) and the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia (PPCA).

With the number of handsets owned by government departments, it’s not a cost effective option when MOHA is selling a perfectly decent on hold tune, written and performed by Aussie artists for $39 a pop.

While Government News easily had time to analyse Centrelink and Medicare’s on hold music, due to their fearsome ability to keep callers dangling, it was a lot more difficult to find out what on hold music other government departments were using.

The sprightly telephonists from the Departments of Finance, Defence and Communications answered the phone so quickly there was no time for any kind of musical interlude to occur.

The Department of Defence had to be heavily cajoled into pressing the hold button, even for a few paltry seconds.

The customer service staffer appeared so deeply worried about meeting response time targets that she let Government News have just a few seconds blast of their on hold music, noting : “I have to dispense with a call in 30 seconds, I can’t hold on while you listen to music.”

Quite right too, although we suspect it’s an easy listening MOHA tune. But forget Shazam.

The good people over at the Department of Finance were more obliging, the telephonist saying: “I’m warning you now, don’t fall asleep”, before giving me two good long bursts of some kind of ponderous classical piano, sedate but a little melancholic… arguably the perfect fiscal cocktail for holding customer interest rates steady.

At Roads and Maritime NSW there was upbeat, poppy tune with a lilting melody and some soul-searching piano (possibly about to reach a Eurovision Song Contest-type of key change crescendo) before it was cut off entirely and the line went dead.

Many clients of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection are familiar with the waiting game.

It’s on hold music was fairly bland but not unpleasant, with a light drum beat and a bit of electronica, interspersed with exhortations to go online and do whatever you wanted to do instead.

Those delivering the policies of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull provided a satisfyingly detailed response to Government News inquiries about on hold music on their beat.

“Music on hold (MoH) comes with the voice back-end platform, it is a file installed on the PABX. As the MoH file is provided by the PABX manufacturer, it is possible that agencies have common PABX equipment, or manufacturers have installed a similar MoH file,” the spokesman said.

He said the MoH file installed on the PABX was subject to licensing and copyright as it was considered a public broadcast. Licensing fees are paid annually to APRA under the Commonwealth Government Agreement for Music in the Workplace.

Who selected  the infamous dueling banjos of the federal Parliamentary switch, however, remains a mystery.

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4 thoughts on “Stuck On Hold: how government muzak really works

  1. Bravo – some interesting journalism based on real researched fact about a neutral and non-controversial matter that most journalists wouldn’t bother to write about. What a refreshing change.

  2. Yes, there is a long wait trying to get through to Centrelink/DHS, but I am guessing there are LOTS of calls everyday to the department and it’s a fact of life that if you don’t use your online account to do your business, you will have to wait for a call centre person to help you. I just get a drink, a biccie and a magazine and listen to the music until someone comes on the line. Although, I’m finding that most of my stuff can be done via my online account these days, which is great.

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