Music for Tech Support

Recently by Jeffrey A. Tucker: Capitalism as Drama

For those who feel compelled to document progress in our times, here is a point to add. The music played when you are on hold for tech support has generally improved in recent years. It’s not perfect by a long stretch but it is getting there.

For those too young to remember the bad old days, I have one word for you: trumpets. It was a cool jazz with trumpet doing the melody line, and then it would be followed by a spontaneous improvisation, which is fine the first time around.

But of course the nature of tech-support is that you are on hold for 10 minutes up to an hour, so of course the music must loop. The trumpet is fine once or twice but 10, 20, 30 times? It loses spontaneity. Then it gets on your nerves. Then it makes you crazy. Then you can’t stand it anymore. Finally you hang up, rattled and disoriented, and open the web chat feature or fix the problem yourself.

And maybe that was the point after all. Every good tech support person knows that the number one best way to fix a problem is to delay as long as possible, thereby creating massive frustration on the part of the end-user, which in turn gets the creative juices flowing to the point that the user fixes his or her own problem.

Tech support did its job! You see, this was not a market failure. It was an efficient management strategy. There is nothing worse than a tech-support person who is always there for you, babying you at every step. This does as much good for a person’s technical education as a GPS does for one’s sense of direction. Too much, too fast, tech support can actually dumb us down.

Of course a greater challenge that tech support faces is how to keep people from calling in the first place. The trumpet-based hold music eventually gave way to extended electronic instructions to reboot your computer, and over a period of time the calls diminished, understandably.

At some point, it became more likely that serious people were the main callers and so it became important not to annoy people to the point of insanity.

The other day I experienced some tech-support hold music that was genuinely interesting and over a long period of time. The background had a long wave to it that suggested a kind of forward motion indicating that something progressive was taking place. On top of that was a mild percussive rhythm that had an inviting quality. Then as a separate motif, there was a regular pattern of a digital clapping sound, one that you can sort of mimic with your mouth, which gives you something to do while on hold.

Even today, however, some companies persist in playing music with a singer yammering on about love or some social theme. This is terrible because it effectively prevents multitasking, so while you are on hold, your whole life is on hold. Then every once-in-a-while a voice comes on to tell you to continue to hold because your call is important. The less of this the better, since it is obviously not true. And it raises credibility questions in the caller’s mind.

Even the best possible singing, for example, a choir singing Machaut’s amazing Messe Notre Dame, would be a disaster for holding on the phone. It just wouldn’t convey that sense of urgency and progressive passage of time that is essential to quality hold music.