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How Listening to Music Affects Surgeons' Performance

A new study says dance music makes surgeons sloppy, while past research encourages Mozart in the operating room.

Photo by Flickr user Shawn Rossi

Related: Classical music relaxes cats during surgery.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong during surgery: You could wake up in the middle of it, your surgeon could accidentally operate on the wrong body part, your anesthesiologist could spend the entire surgery shit-talking you. One thing that rarely makes the list of worries, though, is the type of music your surgeon listens to. Over two-thirds of surgeons play music in the operating room, but according to a new study, published by the Journal of Advanced Nursing, listening to bass-heavy music prevents surgeons from communicating adequately during surgery, which can lead to worse operating outcomes.


The study was based on 35 hours and 20 surgeries worth of video footage in operating rooms. Of those surgeries, doctors listened to music in 16 of them—often electronic, drum and bass music. Researchers who reviewed the video footage found that surgeons weren't able to communicate as well with their nurses when there was thumping music in the room, and medics were five times as likely to repeat requests than in surgeries without music.

I can think of few things more genuinely frightening than being anesthetized cut open only to have a nurse misunderstand something and fuck up the surgery because there was some drum and bass pounding in the background.In an article from The Guardian about what surgeons listen to during operations, one man recalls how "surreal" it was to hear surgeons blasting during his pregnant wife's C-section. "Our eldest son was born to the sound of some hardcore Ibiza club hit," he said.

According to that same article, most surgeons use music to create a "harmonious and calm atmosphere" in the operating room. Others, somewhat worryingly, use it to stop from "getting bored."

Besides today's most recent study, there has been other research into the matter—with varying results. A study from last year, which measured surgeons' performance while stitching up a wound, found higher quality stitching and 8 to 10 percent more efficient when music was played. That corroborates a study from 1994, which found that when surgeons selected the music in the OR, they were less stressed, more accurate, and faster in their operations. But another study, from 2008, called music in the operating room "distracting;" a survey of 200 anesthesiologists found that just over half considered music a distraction.

The real problem might be the kind of music. Claudius Conrad, a surgeon who also casually holds a PhD in music philosophy, tested the performance of colleagues who worked in silence, listened to Mozart, or listened to an ear-bleeding combination of German folk and death metal. He found that, of the three scenarios, surgeons performed quickest and most accurately when they listened to Mozart. His research was small-scale, but if it's true, it might be worthwhile to give your surgeon a tape of A Little Night Music before going under the knife.

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