Study Shows Music Soothes The Surgeon's Heart, But Only If Harmonies Are of His Choosing

By Lois Baker

Release Date: September 20, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Playing music during surgery may help some surgeons relieve stress and improve their performance, a study conducted by researchers at the University at Buffalo suggests.

Only music selected by the surgeon had a strong positive effect during a laboratory experiment designed to mimic the stress of surgery, however. Results showed that music selected by the researchers, and known specifically for its calming influence, resulted in only slightly decreased cardiovascular activity and no improvement in performance.

The study, conducted by Karen Allen, Ph.D., and Jim Blascovich, Ph.D., of UB's Center for the Study of Biobehavioral and Social Aspects of Health, appears in the Sept. 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Various studies have been done on the role of music in relieving anxiety and pain in patients before, during and after various medical procedures, including surgery. And while many surgeons are known to listen to music in the operating room, Allen and Blascovich said their investigation is the first to study music's therapeutic effect on these physicians.

To assess the influence of music on surgeons' cardiovascular reactivity -- blood pressure, pulse rate and skin conductance -- and performance, the researchers enlisted 50 male volunteers, all music enthusiasts who listen to music during surgery. In a laboratory setting, the 50 surgeons were asked to perform mental arithmetic tasks, a standard method for measuring psychophysiological stress, to mimic the stress a surgeon might experience in the operating room.

Each participant performed the tasks twice under three conditions -- music of choice, music selected by the researchers -- Pachelbel's Canon in D, a well-known classical orchestral piece often included in commercially produced "stress-reduction" tapes -- and no music. Baseline cardiovascular readings were taken before and after each task, and readings were monitored during each task and music condition. Performance was rated for speed and accuracy by a researcher blind to the study conditions.

Results showed that the surgeons performed substantially better when listening to their own selection than when listening to the control music or when no music was playing.

"With their own music, the surgeons were less influenced by external things and were better able to concentrate on the task and get it right," Allen said.

Cardiovascular response also was significantly lower during the self-selected music segment than during the other two conditions. Average pulse rate when performing the stressful tasks was 78 beats per minute during the self-selected music, compared to 110 during both the Pachelbel selection and when no music was playing, results showed.

Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure rose significantly in response to stress during the no-music and Pachelbel segments, but remained stable during the physicians' choice of music.

"Using their own music, the surgeons showed only small changes in blood pressure over their baseline, even when under stress," Allen said.

No specific category of surgeon-selected music was associated with favorable physiological responses and improved performance. The selections, all instrumentals, included work by Count Basie, Aaron Copeland, many classical composers and traditional Celtic harp music.

"This experiment lends credible support to the importance of individual taste and selection of music," the authors state. "James Galway and the Chieftans playing Irish music complete with drums and tin whistles had a more positive influence on the surgeon than the soothing Pachelbel used as the control."

"To the extent that surgeons' performance and cardiovascular responses during a standard laboratory psychological stress generalizes to the surgical suite, one would expect beneficial effects of the same music on both cardiovascular reactivity and performance during surgery, " Allen stated.

The authors emphasized that all study participants were music enthusiasts who believed they functioned better under its influence. Results may be different for surgeons who do not listen to music during surgery or who are not devoted to the genre, they noted.

Allen is associate director and research associate with the UB Center for the Study of Biobehavioral and Social Aspects of Health. Blascovich is a UB associate professor of psychology.