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Surgical Tunes: Music Strikes a Chord in the OR

When you’re on the operating table and just about to go under, instead of hearing the beeping of monitors or the murmur of doctors you may notice the sultry sounds of the blues, jazz or … is that Clay Aiken (search)?

Playing music during surgery is a trend that's alive and well at hospitals across the country — and doctors groove to everything from show tunes to The Smashing Pumpkins (search).

While some patients have been surprised by the musical choices, medical professionals say the tunes help doctors relax and focus — especially during long procedures.

“It cuts out all the background noise,” said vascular surgeon Dr. Patrick M. Battey, who listens to blues artists like John Lee Hooker (search) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (search) during most of his operations at Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital. “It helps me concentrate. It’s a calming influence for me.”

Battey said most of the ORs at Piedmont have built-in sound systems. And other medical facilities such as St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, Wis., Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis also regularly pump tunes into operating rooms.

But how do patients react to their doctors rockin' as they're performing intricate surgery?

“The way I feel about it is if the surgeon wants it, the surgeon gets it," said Jim Smith, 41, of Indianapolis. "You’re at their mercy. If he’s got a knife in his hand, I want him to be happy.”

Just before undergoing emergency back surgery, Smith heard some rather unusual native music his Lebanese surgeon put on at Indiana University Medical Center.

“He listened to some real weird crap,” Smith said. “I will always remember that. You couldn’t understand it because of the language, and they were pounding on a guitar. I was glad they were putting me under.”

But like many surgeons do before a procedure, Smith’s doctor asked him if he minded the background songs. Smith said no, and was thrilled with the results of the operation.

“He did a good job, so I should like that music, really,” said Smith.

Several TV medical dramas have thrown surgical tunes into their episodes. And NBC’s hospital parody “Scrubs” has gone a step further by spoofing the practice. Some characters are known to turn operation scenes into Broadway musical numbers, singing and dancing around the patient on the table.

But in real hospitals the music helps keep doctors happy and makes them more efficient, say experts. That’s the reasoning in the surgery department at Milwaukee’s St. Francis, which has more than 100 discs in its music library.

“The choice of the music is strictly that of the surgeon,” said Director of Surgical Services Jean Sagan. “The patient comes first, but we have to make sure the surgeon has all the tools he needs.”

Patients usually don't register having heard music during an operation if they're put under general anesthesia, though they might catch bits before they go to sleep. For operations where they're awake, doctors typically let them choose the tunes.

"During different levels of sedation, you'll see them moving their feet under the drapes," Battey said.

But as in any workplace, sometimes discordant notes are hit over musical tastes and volume levels.

Sagan said her surgical staff — whose operations are accompanied by Faith Hill, show tunes, classical music, Clay Aiken and Bruce Springsteen — handles that by negotiating. In one eight-hour reconstructive surgery procedure, the two doctors took turns listening their favorite CDs.

"I haven't gotten anybody who's really into rap," said Sagan. "It's kept as background music, so we don't have people running around dancing in the OR. And if something does turn critical, the CD players are immediately turned off."

A multitude of studies have been done on the effects of music on the brain. It has been found to be therapeutic for neurological rehabilitation, the perception of pain, blood pressure and the immune system.

“Music does have a positive effect,” said Al Bumanis, a spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association (search). “It’s the power of rhythm to energize. Different music works for different people, but most find music healing or at least relaxing.”

But a surgeon's penchant for certain music should never come before the preferences and comfort of the patient, he added.

“You have to play music the patient can relate to," Bumanis said.

Smith, for his part, swears by the idea of soothing surgical songs, and remembers how much better his musical MRI was than his non-musical one because of all the pounding noises the machine makes.

“I was in pain and nervous,” Smith said. “I laid in that thing for 25 minutes and listened to Reba McEntire. If it hadn’t been for the music, it would have bothered me a lot more.”