Hold Music: A Genre For No One

If you’ve ever called a customer support hotline thinking you were going to talk to a real human, it’s likely you were put on hold and subjected to music that clearly has no genre. Hold music has become a very common feature of such phone systems, but it has a very uncommon history. In 1962, a man named Albert Levy filed for a patent for a “telephone hold program system.” Observing that customers of phone services could have more than one incoming call, Levy developed a way to keep one caller occupied while the needs of the other was addressed. Levy’s solution was to add music to the mix. Prior to filing his patent application, Levy owned a factory somewhere outside New York City. Unfortunately for those who loathe Muzak versions of Michael Bolton songs while waiting to talk to our cable companies, Levy’s factory had a problem with its phone service. A loose wire was touching a steel girder, which acted as an antenna and picked up the signal from a local radio station. The wire tapped into the audio, relaying the station’s broadcast to anyone who was on hold — which Levy only found out when callers informed him of what he thought would be a problem. To Levy’s surprise, callers were pleased by the distraction, and that’s when he decided to turn the bug into a feature. He filed his patent, and over a half century later we’re still listening to the same no-genre music while on hold.