Operating Tunes: How Music Helps Surgery

A new study analyzes the songs played in the OR.

The third episode of the hospital comedy Scrubs starts with a tense moment in the operating room between attending surgeon Dr. Wen and his intern Dr. Turk.

“Look, I’ve been an attending for three years here, what makes you think you know better?” Wen says.

“In my gut, I know I’m right!” Turk challenges.

“We need to make this decision now!”

“Fine, then it’s on you.”

“Yes, it is! Nurse …” Wen says, issuing his confident command. “Erasure!”

“Yes, doctor,” the nurse replies, turning to the stereo behind her and inserting a CD. Erasure’s “A Little Respect” blares and Dr. Wen happily bops his head, much to the irritation of the patient on the operating table, who complains “I hate this song,” as the anesthesia mask is placed over his face.

“Me too, man, me too,” Turk says sympathetically.

The scene is silly, sure, but it’s also pretty accurate—according to a 2008 survey, operating-room staff play music 63 percent of the time, and it’s usually the lead surgeon who chooses what to play. The majority of the staff also reported that the music improved communication among the surgical team.

In an article for the British Medical Journal’s new Christmas issue, which classically accepts pieces on all kinds of lighthearted topics, three surgeons from the University Hospital of Wales review the existing literature on music in the OR.

“Research guides everything we do—how we wash our hands, how we open and close the skin,” says lead study author Dr. David Bosanquet, a surgical registrar at the University Hospital of Wales. “But I wanted to know if there was any evidence behind the music we play in [the operating] theater, and there is, actually.”

The most popular music to listen to while cutting into human flesh, it turns out, is not Erasure, but classical music. And its soothing effects may carry over to the patient—one study found that “relaxing music” was more effective at reducing patients’ pre-operation nervousness than anti-anxiety drugs were.

This is especially useful considering “more and more procedures are being done with the patient awake,” Bosanquet notes. For example, for a hernia repair, whereas patients used to be put under general anesthesia, it’s now more common to just use a local anesthetic, or an epidural. This is understandably stressful, and Bosanquest says that “patients who have been terrified of the thought of going through an operation can be helped with their favorite artists and songs.” He says when he asks patients if they’d like the radio on during their operation, they say yes “nine out of 10 times.”

For the benefit of the surgeons, the BMJ article offers some tongue-in-cheek dos and don’ts. Coldplay’s “Fix You” is recommended, to “harness the full healing power of Chris Martin. Expect miracles,” the authors write. They suggest avoiding REM’s “Everybody Hurts”—“no patient appreciates receiving such a repetitive reminder.”

If it were up to Bosanquet, he’d just play the radio, for variety. “If you have one artist on, and it rubs someone the wrong way, then they can’t escape from an hour and a half of Pink Floyd or something,” he says. But he’s still a trainee, so he’s not usually the one picking the soundtrack. “I go with whatever my bosses want, obviously they rule the roost.”

Dr. Turk feels your pain.