Music And Surgery: It’s All About The Playlist

Jul 20, 2015

Dr. Richard Pearl, and Dr. Chuck Aprahamian and staff in the operating room at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois.
Credit Alex Rusciano / Peoria Public Radio

Surgeons, nurses and other surgical staff make a series of critical decisions during an operation. But one of the elements that factor into a successful planned procedure might surprise you. Peoria Public Radio’s Alex Rusciano is in the operating room to tell us more:


PEARL: “This is about a 50 year old song first recorded by Stan Getz in 1964.…”

Dr. Richard Pearl scrolls through a music playlist on his smartphone. 

PEARL: “It was first recorded in Portuguese.”

 Dr. Pearl has been a pediatric surgeon for 35 years. He’s the Director of Pediatric Trauma and Surgery at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois, at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. 

 Dr. Pearl and his staff are getting ready for surgery. He says he uses music in the operating room to open and close a surgical procedure:

 “I think music finishes off the event. It’s like adding a frame to a picture.”

 The patient is a 13-year-old boy with a caved in chest. But before Doctor Pearl begins the procedure he hooks up his phone to Bose speakers, and amid the noise of medical equipment and monitors another sound emerges:

 <<“Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone…>>

 Throughout the hour-long procedure, the songs stay mellow, ranging from Sinatra to jazz. But Dr. Pearl says he prefers more upbeat hits when he’s finishing the procedure and ‘closing’ the operation:

   <<Music - Christina Aguilera – Aint No Other Man>>

 And Dr. Pearl has a partner in surgery. That’s Pediatric Surgeon Chuck Aprahamian. Dr Pearl says the lead surgeon of each procedure doubles as the DJ, because their playlist is king: 


Dr. Richard Pearl checks his music playlist on his smartphone before hooking up to the operating room speakers.
Credit Alex Rusciano / Peoria Public Radio
“When it’s my patient and it’s my case, we listen to what I like, when it’s his patient and I’m helping him, we listen to what he likes.”

 APRAHAMIAN: “Pearl Jam, Cat Stevens, the Band, White Stripes, etc….”

 That’s Dr. Aprahamian. Naturally, others in the surgery room might prefer their own music tastes before and during a procedure. 

 Another surgery at OSF started off with a different sort of playlist: 

 << Music - Taking Care of Business.>>

 The procedure is removing a spinal disk in the neck of the  patient to help alleviate pain.  Neurosurgeon Dr. Dan Fassett is handling the procedure. His top musical picks for surgery include classic rock and grunge: 

 “It just makes the day kind of ease by. I think it helps relieve tension and it actually improves our focus in surgeries.”

 Fasset is a member of the Illinois Neurological Institute, and like many area surgeons, he has privileges at UnityPoint Health.  But no matter which hospital system the surgeons are operating in sometimes, there can be a little discord in the operating room. This times it’s over Dr. Fasset’s music selection. Nurse Kim Blackburn says country is her favorite genre. 

 “I’ll get by with it for about a half an hour and then once we’re settled into the case it’s like ‘Oh, can we get this station changed please, I’m tired of listening to country’, or some twangy-song will come on Pandora’s mix and he’s like ‘Wait no no no no, can we get something better.”

 But the choice for operating room grooves doesn’t stop at the medical personnel. Blackburn says she also uses music to help young patients ease into anesthesia:

 BLACKBURN: “I just had a little girl not too long ago.  ‘Frozen’ is really popular….”

 <<Music - Frozen’s Let It Go’>>

 “…So we sang that as she was going off to sleep we played it, and she was singing it, and we were trying to get her to breathe the oxygen, so I had her sing with me, and that got her off to sleep. So that’s really popular for the little kiddos.”

 Back in the surgical suite with Dr. Fassett, Blackburn works with second year medical resident Paul Macmahon.  

 “I like something that really, you know, slows the heart rate, calms you down, more early 2000s rap, lot of Dre, lot of Ice Cube, lot of Eminem, early Eminem.”

 <<Eminem – Without Me>>


Neurosurgeon Dr. Dan Fassett, Nurse Kim Blackburn, second year medical resident Paul Macmahon and other staff in the operating room at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.
Credit Alex Rusciano / Peoria Public Radio
  While personal music playlists via smartphones are relatively new to the cultural vernacular, music in surgery is not. For some like Neurosurgeon Dan Fassett music in surgery is almost as integral to the procedure, as having a sterile environment for it.  

 “If we have an operating room does not equip with music, it just seems like it’s out of my routine, something is off.”

 So it seems, no matter the genre, some surgeons and surgical staff agree, that as far as general scheduled surgical procedures go, music adds to the omnipresent goal in any operation: maintaining a successful outcome for the patient.