Playing music during surgery

31st March 2012 | Daily Life, Musings | 8 comments

The press has been reporting recently on the successful use of music during surgery in a couple of different hospitals.

Apparently it can ‘lessen fear’ and reduce the heart rate of patients who are played ‘easy listening’ and ‘chart classics’ while having surgery under local anaesthetic.

Although ‘easy listening’ is balm to some people’s ears, it won’t work for everyone. Whenever I’m having any kind of treatment with one of those ‘cosmic vibrations’ CDs burbling away in the background, trying to make me feel at one with the universe, I feel actively irritated. The other day I was subjected to a ‘soothing’ CD in which bits of Mendelssohn and Liszt (played by a computer program) were faded out now and then into the sound of waves breaking on the shore. After a while of listening to this I felt distinctly less peaceful. If I were forced to listen to ‘chart classics’ during an operation, I’d probably feel like biting the surgeon’s arm.

A recent study from Japan raised interesting questions. Mice were found to survive surgery for a longer period if during their recovery period they had been played excerpts from Verdi’s opera ‘La Traviata’, or from Mozart symphonies. Such music is far from ‘chill-out’ – it engages the emotions powerfully and probably raises the pulse rate. The Verdi-medicated mice evidently experienced beneficial changes to the functioning of their immune systems, but the effect was not the same with pop music. For me, that’s a more intriguing result than the ‘easy listening’ experiment. Could it be good to play surgery patients music which draws them in, works on different layers of their perception, and takes them on a long imaginative journey? It worked for mice, and they presumably didn’t have any preconceptions about whether or not they liked classical music.


  1. Petra

    I agree completely with you Susan. The ‘relaxing’ music offered during my acupuncture sessions is a synthesized pan pipes / crashing waves mixture and I now always opt for silence instead.
    One of my solutions to enforced exposure to ‘easy listening’ is to listen to Elektra at full volume as soon as I get home. Restores the balance very quickly!

  2. Alison

    Interestingly enough I used to attend a GP practice (in a bleak, economically-deprived inner city area) where my doctor would routinely see his patients to the musical accompaniment of Bach cello suites, or the Monteverdi Vespers (or something similar). I always found that this enhanced the quality of the experience immeasurably – until, that is, it reached a really good bit, and I just wanted him to shut up so that I could listen …

  3. James B

    I wonder how far this goes, could it be that different singers could produce different effects – Joan Sutherland versus some lesser known soprano for example. I was reading the childrens’ book ‘The Iron Man’ with my primary class last week and was very impressed with the antagonist’s real job when he is not terrorizing the Earth – he flies around the universe singing the soothing ‘Music of the Spheres.’

    Am loving ‘Beyond the Notes,’ by the way. I had no idea of the challenges faced by chamber groups. Actually, even the tragedies make me jealous – it would be marvelous to work in an environment where everyone is actively encouraged to share their opinions and ideas about what ‘worked’ and ‘what are we really trying to accomplish here.’

    • Susan Tomes

      It’s an interesting thought, James, that different performers could produce different effects with the same music. I’m often surprised at how oblivious listeners seem to be to who’s performing. For me, a bad performance can make even good music seem flawed, whereas a good performance can make even weak music enjoyable. If I were in the operating theatre I wouldn’t want just any old performance of Verdi’s La Traviata. Definitely Kleiber’s!

  4. Mike B

    Last time I was in an operating theatre, the slow movement of Elgar’s 1st symphony was playing. While I would be quite happy for this to be the last music I ever hear, I was only there for a routine patch-up, involving about 45 minutes’ anaesthesia, so I thought it was a bit over the top.

    Then it became evident that the radio was tuned to Classic FM. It could just as easily have been the Sabre Dance, or Verdi’s Dies Irae!

  5. James B

    Hahaha, yes you’re right. If they dared to give me Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata and the opening wasn’t just the tempo I like…… I’d probably demand a refund!

    I’m well into the Florestan Trio section of ‘Beyond the Notes’ now. I’m loving the book, to the point that it’s revolutionizing the way that I listen to music. I’ve just now read your rather poignant point, that music that you’ve known for some twenty years can still bring a tear to the eye. I am NOT a crying person, but a select group of pieces; Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, the ninth symphony, Schubert’s E flat Trio and some of Rodrigo’s guitar music never fails! Love also the points you raise about the differences between pop and classical music earlier in the book.

    • Susan Tomes

      Gosh, James, thank you – that must be one of the nicest compliments I’ve had about ‘Beyond the Notes’.

  6. James B

    HIlarious point, Mike B! Shostakovich’s Symphony of Death whilst you have that routine extraction, sir?!


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