Why is the NASA Hold music so catchy?
Astronauts haven’t visited the moon for 50 years, but the United States intends to bring them back. Hundreds of journalists from around the world flocked to Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week to cover the launch of the first mission in an ambitious effort known as Artemis, Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology. The launch was canceled yesterday when one of the rocket’s main engines refused to cooperate. As reporters flitted around the press center just three miles from the launch pad, waiting for more details on what went wrong and when NASA would try again, I thought about what we had in common. : not the mission that brought us there, but a certain melody that most of us probably know by heart.
If prompted – if someone started singing a few familiar notes – the news site could probably launch into a catchy rendition of NASA music on hold.
Music precedes every NASA press conference call, and it lives in our brains for free. And it’s not just journalists: astronomers, engineers, and personnel at NASA and commercial space companies have been subjected to trademark music. At the start of an in-person briefing this weekend, Jackie McGuinness, NASA’s press secretary, told the crowd, “We need NASA music on hold for this room.” Any music on hold can become an earworm – there’s a whole genre of video on the internet of people vibrating to the pleasant synth of Cisco customer service music – but NASA’s has a certain air of gravity, the kind that underpins the noble enterprise of space exploration. For years, it accompanied nearly every major NASA announcement to the press. The music on hold is the opening before a rover lands on Mars, a space telescope is deployed, or a moon rocket launches (or not). It is in a way the soundtrack of the American space program.
NASA held more teleconferences than usual in the run-up to the first Artemis mission. While waiting for each one, I realized that even though I’ve covered NASA for over five years, I don’t know anything about what the agency’s unofficial theme song sounds like. I wanted to know who wrote the music and if they knew I felt that sticky jingle deep in my bones. While NASA was preparing its moon rocket, I undertook a little investigation.
I called early on a teleconference that NASA hosted last week to provide updates on the Space Launch System, the rocket that engineers are currently troubleshooting. As usual, an operator answered and asked for my name, ready to connect me to the call. She seemed confused, even a little suspicious, when I started asking about his In place. She told me she worked for Verizon, which provides NASA with conference calling services, including music on hold. Verizon customers can choose their own custom music, but NASA seems to have gone with the default. The operator said she and the other operators didn’t have to listen to the melody themselves, but she feels bad for the poor souls who do. “Nobody cares, to be perfectly honest,” she told me. Some callers complained about it, she said, but no one ever paid a compliment. (I’m not naming the carrier because she told me she wasn’t authorized to speak for Verizon.)
NASA music on hold is quite controversial. The loop contains two different instrumental melodies that repeat one after the other. One is a fun yet relaxed country guitar track. The other is upbeat, forward-thinking piano playing that’s — the space press corps would agree — far more catchy. Some how to stick to it; absolutely others hate this. The second of silence between each repetition is just long enough to give you hope that the press conference is finally about to begin, but then: plonk plonk plonk plonk. For me, the sound has become so associated with the stress of work that my pulse races when I hear it, like I’m encountering the sound of your early morning alarm clock in the middle of the day.
legend says that when the nasa hold music loop reaches the end, the universe will disappear and be replaced by something even stranger
—Charles Bergquist (@cbquist) July 11, 2022
The Verizon carrier did not know where the music on hold was coming from, and emails to the phone company went unanswered. So I called NASA again, put my phone on speaker, and asked my partner to hold Shazam, the music identification app, on his phone. Identifiers appeared quickly. The nasal melody seemed to be “Windows Rolled Down”, by the 126ers. The more peppery, earworm jingle was “Soul Composing”, by Phat Mama Tee.
The songs were on YouTube, along with the artists’ other tracks, which were also instrumental – the type of chill stock music used in commercials. But there was virtually nothing online about the identity of the musicians themselves. The YouTube description for “Soul Composing” listed someone called Silent Partner as the creator; after some extensive internet research, I found out that the name was related to a recording studio called Trout Recording. I emailed the company, the subject line being simple and desperate Do you know Phat Mama Tee? I got a response a day later. “I do!” the email said enthusiastically. “I am the composer.”
The composer is Bryce Goggin, a longtime musician and record producer who creates music for royalty-free audio libraries. As far as he knows, there is no Phat Mama Tee – whoever uploaded the song to YouTube must have added it – and the track is actually called “Scrapbook”. Goggin told me that he and a group of his musical collaborators recorded it in 2014 during a jam session in which they probably produced at least 10 tracks. When we spoke on the phone, he played a recording of it, trying to refresh his memory of that day. (A muscle in my face twitched involuntarily.) He doesn’t remember if it’s him at the piano, but “we were sowing our indie-pop, ballad-rock oats that day,” said he declared.
Little did Goggin know that his work had become NASA’s music on hold or that he had such a specialized and passionate fan base. “I’m absolutely thrilled that something I’ve worked on and created is affecting people, I mean, maybe positively, maybe negatively,” he said. “It’s good to know that [it] exists in the consciousness of other human beings.
I have never been able to find the artist or artists behind The 126ers, who may have produced the other half of NASA’s music on hold. Perhaps some things are meant to remain as mysterious as the depths of the universe itself.
NASA is due to hold another press conference tonight to discuss the canceled launch attempt and announce a new schedule for the mission, which would send an uncrewed astronaut capsule on a journey to the moon and back. The space agency envisions a future of missions that will lead to a sustained presence on the moon, and the soundscape of that future will be equal parts rumbling rockets and music on hold; each launch, each milestone, will be another opportunity to connect. Goggin’s involuntary space travel anthem might become even more famous. After I finished bombarding him with information, Goggin asked me a question: “What number can I call to hear this?”