Music to Our Ears

For as long we have pounded drums and plucked strings, listening to music has affected people’s sense of well-being, lifting and consoling their spirits, inducing calm and tranquility, or the trance of dance. I have listened to the sounds of classical jazz during microsurgery operations throughout my professional career as a surgeon. Coltrane, Miles, Evans, Djavan, Caetano Veloso and all the greats sweetly waft in the operating suite and overcome the din of devices within the room. Does music in the operating room lead to less wasted and more fluid surgical motion, and therefore faster procedures and better patient outcomes? Who knows. But as the background makes the painting, the music may make the maestro.

A recent study suggests that listening to music in surgery may also benefit patients. Maybe this is why oral surgeons and dentists offer earphones and video glasses to their patients. Anything is better than listening to the whine of the drill during a root canal. The effect of music on cortical, limbic or higher brain centers has previously been studied in patients undergoing brain surgery. These centers control feeling, thoughts and memory. In this recent research, a neurosurgeon studied the effect of different kinds of music on deeper portions of the brain, located in the thalamus. This region is responsible for sensation, motor function, consciousness, sleep and alertness. This study of music and Parkinson’s patients is quite different from what Oliver Sacks describes in his book Musicophilia, in which music therapy is used to increase the mobility and responsiveness of Parkinson’s patients.
According to this new study in awake patients undergoing surgery for Parkinson disease, music slowed the neuronal firings deep within the brain. As a consequence, patients became physically more relaxed, calm and even slept during their surgery. And pure melodic music appeared to be the most soothing to most patients.
So music in the operating room may make more sense than we think. In addition to helping the surgeon with his surgery, it may reduce patient anxiety. This in turn, could shorten operative times, reduce the need for anesthetic medication, and lead to quicker patient recovery and shorter hospital stays. In a word, more music, less pills.