Let me take you back. You’re on a call with a student service, maybe Unihealth, maybe StudyLink. You want a simple answer to a simple question, and you’re expecting the call to take less than a minute. You get past the automated call directory who tells you “we’re experiencing a higher number of calls than usual. Please stay on the line and someone will be on to assist you shortly.” Cue the hold music that lasts for 20 minutes just to have a minute-long chat (as you rightly predicted).
If you’ve ever been through that kind of torture, you know what tune I’m talking about. You don’t know anything about it, not its name or its origins, only that you’ve heard it more times than the latest TikTok sound on your For You page, and it’s twice as annoying.
According to Youtube member ‘Mama Jacqueroo’, the piece is called ‘Opus Number 1’, created when the composers were just teenagers. Allegedly, the composer finds his creation an embarrassment, and to this day he has never profited off it. A quick Wikipedia fact check confirms this tale and that the composers, Tim Carleton and Darrick Deel wrote the ditty in 1989 on a four-track tape recorder. I could not confirm the claims about the lack of royalties (AUSA only gives us enough pay for one investigative journalist), but it’s such a fitting story I’m sticking to it and running with it. From the go, it seems ‘Opus Number 1’ has brought nothing but pain into people’s lives.
This song invokes a primal fight or flight response for many (except your only choice is to battle it out). To help me unpack this misery masterpiece, I enlisted the help of someone who actually knows music. Jesse Schroder-Smale (she/her) studies Music and Science at UoA and teaches drums at the Chiron Rock School in Auckland (and also carried me through NCEA Level 1 Music).
The piece kicks off its first section with some lonely percussion using kick and snare drums. The snare sounds like a clap, and there’s an echo effect on the kick and clap to make it fit the echoey melodic parts. Jesse says that using the echo everywhere in the instrumental “creates an aliens, space and time travel feel”. She adds that “It’s sort of an eerie piece because of the delay effect, so it’s a good way to represent the unknown”. Honestly, that makes sense—you’re venturing into uncharted territory, not knowing when you’ll be put through to a real person to pause the task you’ve started during the wait to talk to a stranger.
The second section of the piece features a weird air-like instrument (what we figured was a synthed-up keyboard) and a vibraphone riffing over three chords. It’s airy and very whimsical, which teeters between grating and intriguing. “It’s mysterious, like a space odyssey,” Jesse mused, and I agree. The piece edges you into thinking, “What’s going on and what’s happening next?” while stopping you from saying, “fuck it, I didn’t need that prescription anyway” and hanging up.
In the third verse, This is where the song gets a bit silly and the presence of major chords, according to Jesse, make the whole piece sound more happy. That’s something you’re not exactly feeling after hearing it 17 times in a row. Three minutes in they chuck in the cheesiest bluesy solo. To that, Jesse said, “What the fuck”. I cringed. We mutually decided it didn’t deserve a comment.
‘Opus Number 1’ is structured with seven sections with two distinct melodies (for you music maestros, that’s an ABACABD form). To the untrained ear, it just sounds like repetition. But Jesse argues there’s a surprising amount going on in the piece. “Most pieces have sectioning to keep listeners interested, but also you want some repetition so the listener doesn’t get confused,” She goes on to explain that “listening to a piece that has no structure blows your brains,” and that in this piece “they go back to the main melody but develop it a bit so it’s like you’re listening to a story”. It’s that story that is supposed to keep you on the line.
By the end of it, we were getting pretty bored, so we decided to use our greatest weapon as students: playing it at double speed. Everything that was mind-numbing before became mind-bending. ‘Opus Number 1’ transforms into an almost DnB type hype-music tinged with anxiety. That’s a reach but it was the only way I’ve enjoyed it. Next time I’m on hold with campus security, I’ll think twice before I hang up.