Why Is NASA’s Hold Music So Catchy?

It’s the inadvertent soundtrack to America’s space program. It’s also an earworm.

A red telephone receiver against a backdrop of stars and galaxies
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

Astronauts haven’t visited the moon in 50 years, but the United States is intent on taking them back. Hundreds of reporters from around the world traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week to cover the launch of the first mission of an ambitious effort known as Artemis, Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology. The launch was called off yesterday when one of the rocket’s main engines refused to cooperate. As journalists flitted around the press center just three miles from the launchpad, waiting for more details about what went wrong and when NASA would try again, I thought about what we had in common: not the assignment that had brought us there, but a certain tune that most of us probably know by heart.

If prompted—if someone started singing a few familiar notes—the press site could probably break into a rousing rendition of NASA’s hold music.

The music precedes every NASA telephone press conference, and it lives rent-free in our brains. And it’s not just reporters: Astronomers, engineers, and personnel at NASA and commercial space companies alike have been subjected to the trademark music. At the beginning of an in-person briefing this weekend, Jackie McGuinness, the NASA press secretary, told the crowd, “We need some NASA hold music for this room.” Any hold music can become an earworm—there’s an entire internet-video genre of people vibing to the pleasant synth of Cisco’s customer-service music—but NASA’s has a certain air of gravitas, the kind that underpins the lofty endeavor of space exploration. For years, it has accompanied nearly every major NASA announcement to the press. The hold music is the overture 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 has held more teleconferences than usual in the lead-up to the first Artemis mission. Waiting on hold before each of them, I realized that although I’ve covered NASA for more than five years, I knew nothing about what feels like the agency’s unofficial theme song. I wanted to know who wrote the music and whether they knew that I felt this sticky jingle deep in my bones. So as NASA prepped its moon rocket, I set out on a little investigation.

I dialed in early to a teleconference that NASA held last week to provide updates about the Space Launch System, the rocket that engineers are currently troubleshooting. As usual, an operator answered and asked me for my name, ready to patch me into the call. She seemed confused, even a little suspicious, when I started asking about her instead. She told me that she works for Verizon, which provides NASA with conference-call services, including hold music. Verizon customers can pick their own custom music, but NASA seems to have opted for the default. The operator said she and the other operators don’t have to listen to the melody themselves, but she feels bad for the poor souls who do. “Nobody cares for it, to be perfectly honest,” she told me. Some callers have complained about it, she said, but no one has ever offered a compliment. (I’m not naming the operator because she told me she’s not authorized to speak for Verizon.)

The NASA hold music is quite divisive. The loop contains two different instrumental melodies that repeat one after the other. One is a countryish guitar tune, fun but relaxed. The other is an upbeat, piano-forward romp that is—the space press corps would agree—much catchier. Some like jamming out to it; others absolutely loathe it. The second of silence between every repeat is just long enough to get your hopes up that the press conference is finally about to start, but then: plonk plonk plonk plonk. To me, the sound has become so associated with the stress of work that my pulse jolts when I hear it, like encountering the blare of your early-morning alarm in the middle of the day.

The Verizon operator didn’t know the provenance of the hold music, and emails to the phone company went unanswered. So I called into NASA again, put my phone on speaker, and had my partner hold up Shazam, the music-identifying app, on his phone. The IDs popped up quickly. The twangy melody appeared to be "Windows Rolled Down," by The 126ers. The peppier, more earworm-y jingle was “Soul Composing,” by Phat Mama Tee.

The songs were on YouTube, along with the artists’ other tracks, which were similarly 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 more intensive internet digging, I found out that the name was linked to a recording studio called Trout Recording. I sent the company an email, the subject line a straightforward 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 copyright-free audio libraries. There is, to his knowledge, no Phat Mama Tee—whoever uploaded the song to YouTube must have added that—and the track is actually called “Scrapbook.” Goggin told me that he and a group of his musician collaborators recorded it in 2014 during a jam session in which they probably churned out at least 10 tracks. When we spoke on the phone, he played a recording of it, trying to jog his memory of that day. (A muscle in my face twitched involuntarily.) He doesn’t remember if that’s him on the piano, but “we were just kind of sowing our indie-pop, ballad-rock oats that day,” he said.

Goggin didn’t know that his work has ended up as NASA’s hold music or that he has such a niche and passionate fan base. “I’m absolutely thrilled that something that I’ve worked on and created is affecting people—I mean, possibly positively, possibly negatively,” he said. “It’s nice to know that [it] exists in the consciousness of other human beings.”

I never managed to find the artist or artists behind The 126ers, who may have produced the other half of NASA's hold music. Perhaps some things are meant to remain as mysterious as the depths of the universe itself.

NASA is scheduled to hold another press conference tonight to discuss the canceled launch attempt and announce a new timeline 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 lead to a sustained presence on the moon, and the soundscape of that future will be equal parts rumbling rockets and hold music; every launch, every significant milestone, will be another opportunity to tune in. Goggin's inadvertent space-travel anthem might get even more famous. After I finished bombarding him for information, Goggin had a question for me: “What’s the number that I can call to hear that?”