Music in the Operating Room–What Should it Be?

March 19th, 2011

I got involved in this dialog after reading an article by surgeon Rahul Parikh in Salon online ( March 7th, about the music he listens to while operating on patients. It made me want to ask this question. I hope you’ll join the discussion!

As a musician whose day job for sixteen years has been providing music at the hospital, from the lobby to the ICU to the bedside, I have given a lot of thought to this question. Even though there are generalizations in countless publications and many research projects about certain kinds of music having a specific effect on people, the truth is that music is subjective, and what one person finds beautiful, another may find annoying. While a masterpiece to most, Pachelbel’s Canon is just pabulum to some. Next to intuition and kindness, my most valuable skill in the hospital is having an eclectic repertoire.

One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Concetta Tomaino, co-founder and Director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, and faculty member at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. When asked by aspiring music therapists, “What IS the best kind of music to play for the patient?” she replies “The kind the patient wants to hear.” And this, of course, may vary according to the situation the patient is in, and what the desired effect may be. Music can be used in physical therapy to motivate and improve motion. A weekly sing-along in the hallway of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit creates community within that population of patients and family members. And certainly, when someone is anxiously awaiting surgery, the musical prescription would be for whatever music that patient finds calm and soothing.

This then begs the question: in the operating room, who should be hearing the music they like—the patient, or the doctor? Research shows that even while unconscious, your sense of hearing may remain intact. So, if you’re about to go under the knife, would you rather have your favorite music playing, or the music that makes your surgeon feel comfortable and at their best?

At a hospital in Houston, a classical harpist and an anesthesiologist teamed up for a research project where live harp music was played for patients in the O.R. This resulted in a decrease in the amount of anesthetic needed, a very positive effect for the patient. But, we don’t want to anesthetize the surgeon, now, do we?

Fortunately, our options for listening to our own favorite songs have changed, with the advent of personal listening devices. So, in theory, the patient could be listening to “their” music while the surgeon does also. But what about the rest of the medical team? They all have to communicate with each other, so each one can’t really be dancing to a separate iPod. Should the surgeon just blast his/her favorite music across the room on the O.R. speakers, even if it’s Nine Inch Nails? I think the delicate art of compromise, something which seems to have become a rare gift, may be called for in this situation. Any way you look at it (or listen to it,) it is tricky.

What do YOU think?

Cathy DeWitt, Musician in Residence, Shands Arts in Medicine, Gainesville, FL

P.S. Being a musician, I can’t just ignore or “tune out” music. I am annoyed by the ubiquitous pop music that plays everywhere I go. I can’t shop, eat out, go to the beach or even take off in an airplane without hearing a batch of pre-programmed pop radio assaulting my ears. I guess personal listening devices are one defense against this constant barrage of un-requested tunes. (Remember requests? You used to call them in when there were live deejays playing music on your local radio station. But, that’s another soapbox…)

Leave a Reply