Extract from “Your Call is Important to Us: Towards a Socio-political Praxis of On-Hold Music by Dr Jeff Grunt.
It has been well documented in this treatise how poor cultural framing of “on-hold music” can induce cognitive dissonance in the intended audience. British users of Southern Rail’s helpline demonstrated this cross-wiring of outcome and intention quite clearly when 56% reported they were “quite distressed” or “very distressed” when hearing The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, apparently as it reminded them that British weather was more homogenous, located as it is in a generic “single season” paradigm of rain and wind.
What has been less well researched has been the kinetic-auditory impact of, for example, timbre and “note envelope” parameters. Anecdotally, a lower-quality under-developed timbre may induce a certain displeasure, but there has yet to be a wide-scale analysis of, for example, whether Beethoven’s Ninth is less likely to provoke negative-biased responses when played by a full orchestra rather than on a stylophone.
Nevertheless, an early attempt at producing telephonic music may prove instructive, especially as to its demise. The “Telharmonium” (pictured above) was an early electronic instrument developed in the later Victorian era by a Thaddeus Cahil. Three versions were produced, the last weighing around 200 tons. The instrument itself would take up an entire room. Thus, proving unwieldy to travel, the instrument was used primarily for telephone users to listen to music. However, despite the relative unavailability of recorded music at that time, the telharmonium was not a success. Notwithstanding the tremendous power consumption required, the fatal flaw seemed two-fold.
The first problem noted was that the basic sound, a sine wave, was “pure and clear”. Although there were options to modify this source, I contend that this purity, this perfection, may well have contrived to create displeasure. The sounds may have been unearthly or ethereal to the listener used to the more visceral sounds of a street urchin playing a violin. Secondly, there are also reports of cross-talk incidents, where conversations were interrupted by ghostly music. In all, by the early part of the 20th century, the instrument had lost favour and fell into disuse.
We can, I think, conclude clearly that here we have less a sociological issue than a timbral one. I shall be exploring this more thoroughly in the next chapter “Windpipes and their Role in Helpdesk Worker Abuse.”
(Dr Grunt is Lecture of Muzack at UMIST and is also author of “Elevation: The Use of Religious Music in Lifts” and “Liminal Exotica: Bossa Nova Rhythms and Hotel Lobbies”)