Earlier this year, a video of a woman playing a violin on the operating table caught the world’s attention. Doctors at the King’s College Hospital in London woke musician Dagmar Turner in the middle of her brain surgery to ensure that the procedure was not affecting her ability to perform.
The 19-second video is one of several examples of musicians performing while under the knife, as well as a meeting of seemingly disparate worlds: music and surgery. But these two practices have been mingling for longer — and in more ways — than one might imagine.
Music for Surgeons
It’s not just surgical patients who are using music. A 2011 study from the Journal of Anesthesiology, Clinical Pharmacology reported that hearing music during procedures helped surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses feel more relaxed in the operating room and elevated their moods during particularly stressful or difficult procedures. Another study suggested that classical music may improve the cognitive function, speed, and accuracy of medical teams.
Dr. Steve Hyman, an anesthesiologist at Vanderbilt University who also holds a Master’s degree in Piano Performance, isn’t so sure: “These studies aren’t super scientific,” Hyman said, although he added that in his personal experience, he has noticed a connection between doctors and classical music. When he first began playing in amateur piano competitions (“amateur” here meaning that the pianists, while extremely skilled, did not make their living as a performer), Hyman noticed that “by far and away the largest proportion of people that were playing the piano at these [competitions] were physicians of one type or another.”
Hyman has worked with surgeons who listen to music as they operate, but on a personal level, he prefers to keep his musical and medical practices completely separate — so much so, that he doesn’t play piano on the the days he works in the hospital, and vice versa. He says this separation helps him give his full attention to the task at hand, whether it be putting a patient to sleep before a surgery, or rehearsing a Beethoven concerto. Another concern of Hyman’s is making sure that any music playing in the operating room does not interfere with medical alarms, or the tones that are triggered when a patient is in distress. For Hyman, these alarms are already musical in nature and could be obscured by extra sound in the room.
Surgeries as Music
While both patients and doctors have used music in the operating room, some composers have turned their surgeries into music.
Recently, English composer and sound artist Emily Peasgood made headlines for making an audio recording of her hip replacement surgery, with the intention of turning into a composition.
“The thought of having the operation was so frightening to me,” Peasgood said of the experience, “that the only way I could make it palatable was to turn it into something creative.” Peasgood’s request to keep her hip bone in order to sculpt it into a flute, however, was denied.
The inclination to turn a medical procedure into music is not a new one. In 1720, Marin Marais, a composer and court musician for King Louis XIV, underwent a risky surgery to remove a stone from his bladder at age 64. The harrowing procedure—performed over a century before anesthesia was first used—made such an impression on the composer that he documented it afterwards with a series of musical interludes called Tableau de l’Opération de la Taille.
Over the course of three or so minutes (several minutes longer than the actual surgery probably took—speed was essential for success), a narrator and descriptive music depict Marais’s surgery: shuddering at the sight of the operating table, summoning courage, being bound by silk ties, the incision and drawing of the stone with forceps, flowing blood, and finally, the relief of a recovery bed.
Marais’s music certainly helped him process his own procedure, and centuries later, modern doctors have used it for the same purpose: a musicological and medico-historical study of Tableau de l’Opération de la Taille appeared in a peer-reviewed journal of urology in 1993, examining what the work reveals about 18th century lithotomies.
A Surgical—and Musical—Awakening
Marin Marais made post-surgery music by choice. Actress Mary Steenburgen felt like she didn’t have one. After undergoing a minor surgery on her arm in 2009, she describes waking up with a different brain:
I felt strange as soon as the anesthesia started to wear off. The best way I can describe it is that it just felt like my brain was only music, and that everything anybody said to me became musical. All of my thoughts became musical. Every street sign became musical. I couldn’t get my mind into any other mode.
While Steenburgen says the experience was debilitating for months, she was eventually able to harness her newly-musical mind into a second career. She learned to play the accordion, signed with Universal as a songwriter, and now lives part-time in Nashville. Her song “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” from the film Wild Rose was nominated for an Oscar this year.
During a time when traditional performance spaces are closed and people are seeking out new ways to experience art, these examples serve as a reminder that music does, and always has, find its way into even the most seemingly unlikely places.