The day before performing a fairly major operation on my neck, my surgeon emailed me the list of songs that he would be playing during the three-to-four hour procedure. This wasn't out of the blue: After one of his colleagues mentioned what great taste Dr. Cord Sturgeon (his real name!) had in operating-room music, I asked for a preview. Somehow, if our musical tastes were similar, I imagined that the removal of my cancer-flecked thyroid would go more smoothly.
Some songs on his playlist I took as positive cosmic signs, like The Charlatans' "Weirdo"—a favorite of mine from high school—and the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration "California Stars," a sweetly comforting ballad that reminds me of the late 90s. And The National! One of my favorite bands, though the choice of the delirious head-trip "Don't Swallow the Cap" felt a little odd. There were a smattering of classic-rock ditties, plus a few unexpected choices—White Denim? Nice. Though I was concerned I might wake up while Phish was playing "Backwards Down the Number Line" and worry I'd been sent to the Bad Place, it was comforting to know that I'd unconsciously be hearing a number of songs that I liked. I hoped they'd guide the doctor's hand.
It's probably worth backing up, first, to give some brain space to the notion that surgeons are rocking playlists while cutting open your flesh and making crucial, life-or-death decisions on your behalf. It might bring to mind Atlanta's "dancing doctor" from a couple of years ago, who mugged and mimed along to O.T. Genasis' "Cut It" and Migos' "Bad and Boujee" while performing cosmetic surgeries—and broadcast the results on YouTube. Following a string of malpractice lawsuits, her license was temporarily suspended, suggesting that her unbridled enthusiasm was the exception, not the rule. But there's one thing she has in common with many of her fellow surgeons: She operates with a soundtrack.
There's no definitive study on what percentage of surgeons use music while in the OR, but of the dozen or so I've found, none puts the number at less than half. In a survey of 700 surgeons from over 50 countries conducted by Spotify and the medical app Figure 1, 90 percent of respondents said they operate to a playlist. Rock and pop, unsurprisingly, were the most popular genres in the surgical theater, appearing on the playlists of 49 and 48 percent of doctors surveyed respectively. Other genres that fared well included classical, at 43 percent; jazz, at 24 percent; and R&B, at 21 percent. (I reached out to Spotify to see if they'd done any further investigating, but they didn't have any information beyond the original 2017 survey.)
Dustin Newell, an interventional radiologist who specializes in minimally invasive guided procedures (when we spoke, he was en route "to save a leg"), told me that music in the OR has been a constant since he was in medical school. "It elevates the mood in the room, it puts the patient at ease, and it helps the staff and the doctor get into a good rhythm," he told me. "It's a net positive."
John LoGiudice, a plastic surgeon at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, told me that music in the operating room is so prevalent now that he sees Bluetooth being incorporated into their design. He says that the days of burned-CD mixes at his hospital are long gone, and that the doctors and nurses now share a Pandora account that's wired into the same system that shows him CT scans and MRIs during procedures. It's standard equipment now.
David Bosanquet is a consultant vascular surgeon at Royal Gwent Hospital in Wales who says he prefers "indie-ish rock-y kind of stuff" like Coldplay and Radiohead while he works. Though he says the 90 percent figure sounds a bit higher than anecdotal experience would suggest (some surgeons, at the end of the stay, still prefer a quieter OR), many of his colleagues craft playlists as part of their pre-work routines.
In 2014, Bonsanquet co-authored a funny yet scholarly article in the British Medical Journal called "Making Music in the Operating Theatre," which collated studies about the benefits of music before, during, and after surgery. In short, existing research suggests that music can have a calming effect on patients and surgeons alike. It may also help boost performance; according to a report from the Journal of the American Medical Association about how music changes "cardiovascular reactivity" for surgeons, "music is related to improved autonomic responses and performance during stressful tasks."
When I discovered that my doctor played music in the OR, I have to admit it crossed my mind that he might get distracted by his killer playlist, using valuable brainpower trying to remember the lyrics to Hall & Oates' "Maneater" when he should be thinking about my thyroid. ("The woman is wild / a she-cat tamed by the purr of a jag-u-ar.") But the surgeons I spoke to said that music helps them in a variety of ways, from relieving boredom and stress to creating a sense of camaraderie. Dr. Callisia Clark, a surgical oncologist who prefers "mellow stuff like Bob Marley" while performing critical tumor resections, said that choosing and listening to music gets her teams on the same page. It also can help ease the anxiety that comes with navigating life-and-death situations.
On the flipside, LoGiudice says music can help him stay alert—especially when he is called on to perform emergency surgeries at off-hours: "This tradition started 20, 25 years ago: Anytime we knew we were not getting any sleep on a particular night, one of my more senior colleagues would start the procedure with the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. You need something to amp you up. And there's folks who will play nothing but Metallica when they're working in the middle of the night. You kind of have to! You're not going to be listening to the Commodores, you know?"
Bosanquet says there have been times—particularly during high-stress operations—when he's said no to music in the OR. "There are certain operations where the adrenaline is flowing so much that, even after five hours, you're still on the wire," he says. Still, most of the time, you're in a state of "slightly heightened awareness," he says. "You're thinking carefully throughout it, but there's still the possibility of getting tired. And I think having the music helps."
And it's not like everybody has the music at Dancing Doctor volume. "You have it at a low level and you make sure you're able to hear everyone clearly," says Newell. "You're not blasting it. Occasionally, there are patients who will ask for quiet, and that's okay. I'll go quiet for them."
Music in the OR isn't just helpful for the doctors, either. Under general anesthesia, the patient is fully out; sadly, I didn't have the chance to be delighted by my doctor playing R.E.M. or horrified at him playing 4 Non-Blondes' "What's Up." But many patients are either mildly sedated or even fully awake during surgery—and in those situations, the doctors I spoke to will ask for input.
Newell has had patients ask for mariachi music, and others—"younger guys, usually"—who want to hear hip-hop. "The only thing I'll veto is if somebody requests country music. I just can't—it messes with my flow."
Bosanquet also encourages requests, though he has an ever-growing, 32-hour playlist of his own to fall back on. The Beatles are a popular choice, which he puts down to the fact that many of his patients are older and that hearing something familiar can be calming. "Some studies say that listening to music is just as effective as giving the patient actual [pain] medication," he told me. "So if a patient is awake, I always ask them what their preference is."
For Newell, there's another benefit: "If your patients are awake, they're not hearing what you're doing. Otherwise, they might hear me make an incision with an instrument or even drop something. They could maybe hear tissue being dissected or cut! If you have a little ambient noise that drowns that out, it helps them focus on being calm and relaxed."
Spotify's list of the ten most popular OR songs favorites heavily favors classic rock—with "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and "Sweet Child O' Mine" at the top of the pile—but any ranking of this kind ignores the fact that every listener is different. The surgeons I spoke to had a wide range of taste, from reggae to ambient to pop; asking doctors about their favorite music, it turns out, is just like asking anyone else. To wit: Search Spotify or Apple Music playlists for "surgery" or "operating room," and you'll find dozens and dozens of results, ranging from mellow to fully rocking.
Musically speaking, as it turns out, my surgeon and I were musically simpatico in many ways—even if was admittedly frightened by the prospect of a Barenaked Ladies live track. But as somebody who's spent a lifetime judging other people by their taste in music (it's wrong, I realize), I mostly just found comfort in the fact that the man who would hold my life in his hands cared enough about music to make a playlist at all.
And who knows? The operation was a success. When I think back on it, I like to imagine that "What's Up" came on at just the right moment and breathed new life into the room, with the doctors, nurses, and support staff boldly singing along with 4 Non Blondes' Linda Perry as she sings, "I said hey / what's goin' on?"