Dr. Ramin Eskandari, a pediatric neurosurgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina, is a fan of reggae in the OR.
If you’re about to perform open-heart surgery, you should be listening to classical music. Bone fractures call for heavy rock, elective cases are ideal for EDM, the cath lab calls for something more mellow, and trauma lends itself to R&B.
These are some of the listening habits of nearly 700 surgeons and other healthcare professionals, according to a survey conducted by Figure 1 in partnership with Spotify. Surgeons from more than 50 countries shared their professional music preferences in an in-app questionnaire.
Of the surgeons and surgical residents who responded, 90% said they listened to music while operating. Rock and pop were the most popular genres, on the playlists of 49% and 48% of respondents respectively. Classical came next at 43%, with jazz at 24% and R&B selected by 21% of respondents.
No matter the genre, the surgeons surveyed reported that music helped them focus by relieving tension in the operating room and relaxing the whole surgical team.
“Music induces an almost trance-like state of focus,” said Dr. Patrick Beeman, an OB/GYN in Cleveland who uses Figure 1. “That might be the reason why so many people listen to something while they operate, because you need a sort of single-mindedness when you’re operating. But at the same time, any sort of surgical case has the potential to be fraught with anxiety and you sometimes have very important competing interests hanging in the balance. Music has a calming effect. Especially by providing familiarity.”
On at least one occasion, Dr. Beeman’s preferences have helped him connect with patients.
“When I was a second or third-year resident, we had a 15- or 16-year-old female who came into labor,” Dr. Beeman recalls. “She was scared. I asked the patient what music she liked and she mentioned Coheed … One of my favorite bands happens to be Coheed and Cambria. So I started to play some Coheed from my iPhone for the patient and had her focus on that while we did the cervical check. I gained some good rapport from doing that.”
Of course, there are times when silence is required. Surgeons reported turning the music down when training younger doctors, when there are complications, and during critical points in the surgery.
And there are songs that, when played in the OR, may well distract from the business at hand. Some of the notable tracks heard in the operating room include 2 Live Crew’s Pop That, Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust, and Rose Tattoo by The Dropkick Murphys.
Here are 10 of the playlists shared by the surgeons of Figure 1, along with their rationales for their choices.
The Classical Cardiac Surgeon
Specialty: Cardiac surgery
Years of practice: 2
Preferred genres: Classical. “I’m doing only cardiac surgery so Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, and Chopin are the best.”
How does music affect your performance? “It makes me more relaxed.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “When complications appear. You need to be 100% focused.”
The Yachting Otolaryngologist
Specialty: Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
Years of practice: 5
Preferred genres: “The relaxing sounds of Yacht Rock and/or Boy Bands allow me to focus on the surgery I am performing while maintaining a stress-free operating room environment.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “Generally I do not turn down the radio. However, during intubation and extubation or if I am trying to communicate with anyone in the operating room and the music is too loud for effective communication, the music is turned down.”
The Poppy Pediatric Surgeon
Specialty: Pediatric surgery
Years of practice: 15
Preferred genres: “‘80s, ‘90s, and current pop music.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “When the patient is being prepared for anesthesia.”
What’s the most unexpected song you’ve heard in the OR? “Heavy metal.”
The Alternative Oncologist
Specialty: Surgical oncology
Years of practice: 4
Preferred genres: “Alternative for faster, less stressful cases; happy music for the last case of day (Bob Marley, Jack Johnson), total mix for routine cases, easier music for stressful cases (Fink, Dido).”
How does music affect your performance? “Music is essential to my performance and that of my staff. People request to work with me because they like my music and because they know there will be a good atmosphere. It keeps everyone happy and focused on the case.
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “If I encounter bleeding, if anesthesia is having to do extra work, if the staff are changing out for breaks I turn the music down
What’s the most unexpected song you’ve heard in the OR? “Lords of Acid.”
The Countrified Plastic Surgeon
Specialty: Plastic surgery
Years of practice: 8
Preferred genres: “For easy routine surgery, a more chill playlist of country, southern bluesy rock. For emergent trauma surgery, something loud with a bite like AC/DC, Metallica, or old-school rap like Lloyd Banks, Master P, Bone Thugs & Harmony, etc.”
How does music affect your performance? “As long as I can still hear the heart rate/O2 sat monitor beeping from the anesthesia machine, I prefer music. Seems like there’s a void without it, and I can’t stand the suction sound blasting the entire case. It’s like nails on a chalkboard.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “When my scrub repeatedly asks me to repeat myself, when anesthesia requests, or when s— is about to hit the fan and I need all ears on deck!”
What’s the most unexpected song you’ve heard in the OR? “Had one staff who would listen to Mozart concerts in full, and another who would listen to non-stop Katie Perry …”
The Eclectic Ear, Nose, and Throat Surgeon
Specialty: ENT surgery
Years of practice: 12
Preferred genres: “It’s great having all members of the theater team adding to the playlist. Makes it more eclectic and you get introduced to so many new things.”
How does music affect your performance? “Helps relax the atmosphere.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “Emergency situations or those which require everyone in the theater to be focused.”
What’s the most unexpected song you’ve heard in the OR? “Circle of Life from The Lion King.”
The Jazzy Ophthalmologist
Years of practice: 7
Preferred genres: “Classical/jazz music for difficult surgeries, pop music for minor procedures.”
How does music affect your performance? “Improves mood for myself and staff.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “Never.”
The Hip-Hopping Orthopedic Surgeon
Specialty: Orthopedic surgery
Years of practice: 2
Preferred genres: “During simple surgeries, I will play music to help the time pass quickly, usually a new hip-hop album. During a more complicated or long surgery, I will play usually alternative music just to have something playing in the background.”
How does music affect your performance? “I feel as if I perform better with music. Without music, my vision will get blurry at times from only hearing the sounds of the OR.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “If there is any complication at all I will turn the music completely off.”
What’s the most unexpected song you’ve heard in the OR? “TNT by AC/DC.”
The Rocking General Surgeon
Specialty: General surgery
Years of practice: 2
Preferred genres: “Mostly rock classics, reggaeton, reggae, in general trauma surgeries.”
How does music affect your performance? “I work faster and I’m more focused on what I’m doing.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “If something goes wrong.”
What’s the most unexpected song you’ve heard in the OR? “Marc Antony.”
The EDM Urologist
Years of practice: 8
Preferred genres: “Everything imaginable — rock, classical, EDM.”
How does music affect your performance? “Allows concentration and clear mind.”
Is there a point at which you turn it off? “Surgical pause, need for clear communication.”
What’s the most unexpected song you’ve heard in the OR? “Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-Lot.”
Published July 26, 2021; updated May 31, 2022
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