Da da-da-da da da-da … Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is no longer the soundtrack to millions of people’s frustrated interactions with welfare bureaucracy, after the Department of Work and Pensions decided to drop it as the hold music on its telephone helplines.
A 30-second loop of the “Spring” section of the Italian composer’s classic concerto has for over a decade kept callers company – and often driven them to distraction – during their often almost interminable waits to speak to a DWP adviser about a benefits problem.
Officials finally decided to ditch the track after discovering that some callers found its repetitiveness disturbing. Millions of claimants put on hold while trying to speak to social security staff have been subjected to millions of hours of Vivaldi since the track was introduced in 2006.
“We had some feedback that the Vivaldi clip caused anxiety for claimants and in particular had an impact on autistic callers,” said a DWP spokesperson.
Currently the official average helpline on-hold time is eight minutes. In practice waits can be anything up to an hour, meaning callers could hear the snippet dozens of times. It is not uncommon for callers unable to hang on that long – possibly “Vivaldi’d out” – to abandon calls altogether.
Vivaldi is being replaced by a 20-minute mix of eight unnamed musical tracks that according to the DWP aims to reduce anxiety and ensure the experience of waiting is as far as possible relaxing by evoking “a steady neutral pace and reducing the issue of repetition”.
“We tested it with claimants in jobcentres and they overwhelmingly preferred it,” a DWP spokesperson explained. “It was seen as more calming and peaceful and light. One person said ‘I loved the Four Seasons, it’s a lovely piece of music’, but most preferred the new music.”
In classic DWP fashion, the choice of the Vivaldi track was, as a freedom of information request revealed eight years ago, driven by the “desire to obtain a cost-effective solution”. It had obtained a groupwide licence to play the music for free and any alternatives would, it concluded, have cost the taxpayer money.
There appeared to be little consideration as to whether the work’s intended pastoral evocation of murmuring streams, softly caressing breezes, and flower-strewn meadows would have a positive psychological effect on stressed benefit claimants hovering on the edge of destitution in 20th century Britain.
The Vivaldi loop quickly became a talking point among callers – and not always positively. Although some found it pleasantly soporific, others found it a jarring reminder that their own critical problem – non-payment of universal credit, perhaps – was not being regarded with quite the same urgency by the DWP.
Just five years after its introduction, a welfare rights advisers’ talkboard discussion suggested that a key skill for anyone wishing to join their profession should include “the ability, while on the phone, to refrain from turning to your colleagues and saying ‘If I hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons one more effin’ time …”
An unsuccessful online parliamentary petition was lodged in 2014 demanding that the DWP scrap the Four Seasons. “Anyone who rings the DWP with a query has to listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ on repeat for 45 minutes. If being unemployed or disabled was a choice, people would get jobs just so that they don’t have to listen to it,” it said.
Callers’ experience was captured in a 2019 Channel4 documentary called Skint, which recorded the despair of blind universal credit claimant David, who had been left with £5 to last him a month after his benefits were sanctioned. He was filmed distraught in Middlesbrough phone box, sobbing to the strains of Spring after officials put him on hold.
The RightsNet talkboard would occasionally discuss possible alternatives to Vivaldi. Suggestions included You Keep Me Hangin’ On by the Supremes, Cliff Richard’s We Don’t Talk Anymore, Blondie’s Hanging on the Telephone, and the Smiths’ Still Ill.