Whether you’re waiting on hold for a Comcast employee to pitch you a new bundle service or a Healthcare.gov representative to tell you why their website sucks, listening to garbled hold music only makes that interminable experience that much more unbearable. What was initially meant to be a calming, ambient auditory experience has devolved over the years into 10-second loops of staticky Muzak. But it wasn’t always that way. In his newest installment of “Things You Must Know,” YouTuber Tom Scott explains how, back when phone technology was more primitive, hold music was a lot more pleasant.
In the days of telephone switchboards when living, breathing operators were tasked with connecting you to your desired party, each conversation was given a dedicated phone line. But, as telephones became more commonplace and things needed to become more efficient, companies realized they could put multiple conversations down the same wire by cutting the high and low frequencies out of the signal and placing each call on a different frequency band. This resulted in a lower audio quality that was fine for speech, but made more complicated things like music sound awful. Thus the era of crappy-sounding hold music began.
Things only got worse in the 1990s when companies started using digital compression to fit more and more calls on the same line. As Scott notes, the compression techniques first implemented decades ago have barely been updated, which is why, despite the technological advances in cell phones, hold music sounds shittier than ever. Things get worse the more the signal bounces around, getting repeatedly compressed until you, enjoying your 45th minute of being on hold, hear nothing but fuzz and static. But not to worry, they’ll be with you shortly. Your call is very important to them.