Music in the OR: A Help or a Hindrance?

Music in the OR: A Help or a Hindrance? - Blog

Surgeons often play music during their operations in order to relax and reduce their perceived stress resulting from the task at hand. Many surgeons report an improved temperament and less mental fatigue if music plays during a procedure, suggesting that it may enhance their performance. However, surgeons also feel that background music makes communication more difficult and increases the likelihood that they will be distracted. [1] This discrepancy raises an important question: how does background music affect the focus and performance of surgeons and their teams?

Many already believe that listening to music while performing a task helps improve one’s temperament and stress levels, but does it improve one’s performance? One study sought to examine the relationship between the presence of preferred background music and task performance for simple sustained attention tasks. The researchers found that background music can increase the time a task operator is in a task-focused state as opposed to an under-stimulated (mind wandering) state while not increasing the time spent in an overstimulated (externally distracted) state. [2] The same study demonstrated that task performance was much better in task-focused states than in either mind wandering or externally distracted states, suggesting that background music can positively impact performance. However, this study only examined simple tasks, and the trend between distractions, focus, and performance may not hold true as task complexity skyrockets.

So music can improve performance on mundane sustained attention tasks, but how about complex and high-stress tasks such as surgery? A recent review evaluated numerous studies that specifically explored the impact of background music in the operating room, finding mixed results on performance relative to the presence of music. Of the studies they examined, the positive after-effects included improved outcomes of complex surgical tasks, spatial awareness, and memory consolidation. On the contrary, the negatives were hindered communication, a higher likelihood of distractions, and increased surgical site infections (SSIs) if the music level was too high. [3]

Surgeons employ music in the operating room as a positive mechanism to reduce stress and improve their disposition while performing operations. Music in the operating room appears to be neither an absolute benefit nor a hindrance. There are mixed effects, but the literature generally agrees with surgeons. Future studies should evaluate more specific criteria for surgeon performance and patient outcomes concerning music in the O.R.


[1] Williams, R., Narayanan, A., Fisher, J., & Khashram, M. (2021). Do surgeons think that music can affect intra-operative stress and performance? RACS ASC.

[2] Kiss, L., & Linnell, K. J. (2020). The effect of preferred background music on task-focus in sustained attention. Psychological Research.

[3] El Boghdady, M., & Ewalds-Kvist, B. M. (2020). The influence of music on the Surgical Task Performance: A systematic review. International Journal of Surgery, 73, 101–112.

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