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  • Michael Spencer

Soundings: composers up in arms…advertising and musical omnivores…on-hold audio

Composers up  in arms about composers– Michael Spencer comments on a rare example of composers       complaining about music. Advertising should be paying more attention to musical omnivores – how musical tastes are evolving in key age demographics (AP). Is on-hold audio holding up – the psychology of the on-hold caller (AP).


Composers up in arms about composers

A recent article in The Times newspaper (UK) has senior film music composers lamenting the ‘blandness’ of most current movie soundtracks. Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, The Lion King) dismissed them as unmemorable: ‘They drift around like cows grazing. So many scores sound like nobody really thought about them’.

It would be tempting to retort: when was utilitarian music ever less than 90% dross? We could say much the same thing about German church music in the 18th century for example.

However, it would be worth exploring some possible reasons and how do other commercial music genres such as TV ads and website audio line up.

For one thing, film, video, TV and internet media are dominated by visually literate creators whose natural mindset (with notable exceptions) is to treat music as add-on rather than integral. And even though they might recognise music’s crucial presence, current production timescales and budgets often leave little scope for the composer to spend enough time with the material, and rarely to be part of the initial scoping.

Ironically, this is exacerbated by digital production methods which can significantly reduce the lead-time for producing (for example) a full orchestra score. In pen and ink days, that extra time would have enabled composers to develop their creative thoughts in tandem with writing the score. Instead, that ‘creative thinking time’ has been effectively stolen by faster turnaround deadlines, forcing composers to rely more and more on stock musical cliché or pastiche. A case of technology killing creativity rather than enabling it.

Secondly, it seems that musical underscoring is increasingly non-synchronised. That is, the music is rarely required to match exactly the on-screen action (think of a Tom and Jerry cartoon). This makes the composition process much cheaper and faster, and requires a lot less technical and creative skill from the composer. However, it also means the music doesn’t have to have any dramatic or motivic development in line with the narrative. Simple cut and paste repetitions will do the job. How different it was with iconic film director Eisenstein who re-cut sections of Alexander Nevsky to fit with Prokofiev’s music for ‘Battle on the Ice’. Not the last time this was to happen either. Spielberg did a similar thing with John Williams in ETAs directors become less and less aware of the synchronisation possibilities, composers become less and less able to work this way. And so the vicious circle continues.

Michael Spencer Managing Director


Advertising should be paying more attention to musical omnivores

Musical tastes in developed economies are becoming increasingly omnivorous. Younger educated people in ‘liberal’ professions often develop relatively broad musical tastes, thanks in part to increased travel opportunities and interaction with a larger range of cultures. But is this really mirrored by a similar broadening in the advertising industry’s musical offerings?

It also appears that, if exposed to many different musical styles during their emotionally formative years, not only do people’s tastes remain wide, but their propensity to seek out new musical experiences increases. Other research has already identified specific desires by established, but time-poor, professionals who would like to expand their musical awareness and knowledge (and, by implication, pleasure) into previously ‘no-go’ areas such as classical music and opera.

Conventionally, products and services aimed at a specific age or socio-economic group will often employ music tracks which were popular when members of the target market were in their teens or early twenties. Many analysts of musical taste formation agree that the soundtrack to those years – which bring particularly intense emotional experiences – imprints itself strongly on a young adult’s subconscious, and musical tastes thereafter tend to remain within those limits. The nostalgia effect is already well-recognised in advertising circles.

But nostalgia is not the only factor at play here. (And possibly the only age demographic where this approach can any longer be trusted to work is the existing 15-25 year-old group.) Personality type also affects how musical preferences evolve, as do education, family status, location (urban, suburban, rural), travel experience, domicile and – significantly – music participation opportunities.

The musical omnivores group is increasing in number, both in absolute terms and relative to other socio-economic groups. Members tend to be more pro-active in their consumer behaviour and as a result are beginning to affect the music production market itself, for example, by encouraging the emergence of cross-over genres.

Locking onto an age-related musical genre in the expectation of aligning the same age demographic with the product should perhaps give pause for thought – will the nostalgia trigger a positive response or will it be regarded as old hat?

Andrew Peggie


Is on-hold audio holding up?

Examine current industry and consumer comment on the merits or otherwise of telephone call holding music or speech and the ‘them and us’ gulf quickly becomes apparent. On the one hand, we have callers venting their collective spleen about the evils of being forced to listen to drivel: a recent Consumer Association poll put objections to on-hold music as high as 48% of the UK population. On the other hand, telephony services and music providers naturally tend to talk up the marketing and PR value of creating bespoke opportunities to influence a ‘captive’ audience.

What seems to be missing from the comment is an acknowledgement of the manipulative effect inherent in a telephone queue. Perhaps it’s not so much the content that people object to, as the fact that they have no awareness of where they are in the queue and no means of controlling the process other than hanging up. The caller initially makes a pro-active decision to telephone and is then reduced to the level of a button presser or yes/no responder and required to wait an indeterminate amount of time. No wonder people feel aggrieved.

Psychologists agree that positive emotional and cognitive responses are often suppressed in situations where the subject is stressed, angry, frustrated or impatient. In other words, the basic frame of mind of a typical caller on hold to a call centre is one which is the least likely to respond positively to any audio messages.

There is good news, however. Research into caller responses to on-hold music indicate that people actually remain on the line longer when music is playing. The reasons, though superficially obvious, can be quite complex. But a critical factor appears to be the caller’s perception of what appropriate on-hold music is, in relation to their reason for calling. A second – though disputed – factor is that music alters the caller’s sense of time passing. They spend longer waiting because they think they are holding on for a shorter period of time than they actually are.

Other studies have shown that musical tempo, volume, style and complexity can all contribute to a listener’s perception of time passing, especially during a telephone call where there are few other stimuli on offer.

When it comes to retaining the caller on the line, music wins every time over ‘please hold on’ announcements. However, no-one yet appears to have compared on-hold music with announcements which give estimated waiting time or queue numbers. In theory, this kind of information should be beneficial since it enables the caller to regain some decision-making control. On the other hand, a voice-over telling the caller how long they have to wait could actually be counter-productive, since impatience can have the psychological effect of making a known waiting time of, say, ten minutes seem unbearably long and lead to a decision to abort the call there and then.

Where choice of music seems to bring benefits is in ameliorating the caller’s possibly negative mood. Callers’ views about what was appropriate on-hold music are possibly an instinctive reaction to the mood changing properties of the most effective music. A more positive waiting experience, stimulated by music, should in theory also rub off onto the image of the company itself.

The key musical ingredient seems to be a familiar tune but in a different, perhaps unusual, instrumental arrangement. (One research example was a Beatles melody played on pan-pipes.) This correlates well with the notion that effective background music should be non-challenging but with enough originality to enable the listener to opt in and out easily. And for the time-shrinking perception to work, it presumably should be uninterrupted by voice-overs.

Andrew Peggie

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