Hold on, I'm strumming

March 26, 1999

Depending on your point of view, universities are either a stuffy lot or show exquisite good taste when it comes to playing "music on hold".

Music on hold - the technical term for the tunes played on the switchboard while a caller is waiting to be put through - has been around for a long time. It began life in a very limited fashion with Greensleeves played on what sounded like a child's xylophone, but has developed into something much more sophisticated.

Markus Pslanz from the Paris office of Nortel, which manufactures the equipment, explains: "Now we provide a computer interface that allows users of our PBX boards to play whatever CDs they like. A music on hold facility costs about Pounds 260 and I estimate that about 70 per cent of firms with boards capable of performing the function actually play music. But playing the music over the phone technically counts as a broadcast and needs to be licensed. To overcome this we can provide users with eight minutes of music on which we have already paid the royalties."

Most universities seem to be in the 30 per cent that do not take advantage. Reasons vary, but perhaps the most honest is the University of Cambridge telecommunications office, whose spokeswoman says: "We do not play music because, quite frankly, we can't make up our minds what to choose."

Those who do play it tend to lean heavily towards the classics. The University of Western England plays Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, chosen by the assistant vice-chancellor, and Sandwell College plays Vivaldi's Four Seasons because according to its telecoms manager John Nowicki, "it was a legacy of the person who put in the system".

Meanwhile, the University of Durham plays a selection of classical and popular music. "This replaced a selection of music compiled by our own music department that, quite frankly, nobody liked," telecommunications manager David Green says.

London's Guildhall School of Music has gone the other way. Eric Hollies, its director of initial studies, says: "We use real music on CD recorded by one of our examiners on a guitar. This replaced the disc that came with the system, which we could not stand. As a school of music we get professional musicians ringing in and the quality on standard pre-recorded discs is so bad they find it irritating."

York University computing services information desk is about to update its system with a custom-made service that includes music and messages. Operations manager Brian Souter says: "We have had the same piece of music for four years and I am sick of it. We need a queuing system because we are an information service and we receive a large number of inquiries. I hope the new system will give us more flexibility."

Souter and others should perhaps take heed of a study recently carried out for the British Psychological Society by Adrian North, David Hargreaves and Jennifer McKendrick of Leicester University.

This study showed that callers were prepared to hold on for 20 per cent longer if they liked the music - Beatles songs were the easy winner over the other two alternatives tested, pan-pipe music and recorded messages.

"Callers did not like voice messages and found them aggressive and down market, and researchers listening in heard more complaints from these callers than any others," the study concluded.

Either universities do not want people hanging on their phone lines or they have the good taste not to inflict poor-quality recordings on a caller already fed up at having to hold on.

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