HIGH NOTES: Can Music Calm Your Nerves Before Surgery?

I was a week away from getting LASIK to correct my near-sightedness when I caught wind of a recent study on the use of calming music before medical procedures. The University of Pennsylvania researchers found that soothing music was just as effective as sedative medication to reduce patients’ anxiety.

They studied 157 people about to receive a peripheral nerve block, a procedure done to block pain sensations during surgery. Some of them followed the usual protocol and took midazolam (also known as Versed), which makes you sleepy and relaxed but can also cause side effects like impaired cognition, paranoia, and even suicidal thoughts. Others listened to Marconi Union’s “Weightless,” a song created with the help of music therapists to promote relaxation. The researchers asked patients about their anxiety levels before and after the medication or song and asked them more questions afterward about their experience with the procedure.

While those who took the midazolam were more satisfied with the procedure overall and reported better communication with the medical staff, both groups reported an equal amount of stress reduction.

Intrigued by these findings, I decided to give “Weightless” a listen before my own surgery. The eight-minute track makes you feel like you’re surrounded by gongs harmonizing to create a sound-healing bath. The music is slow and mystical, with chimes and what sounds like a xylophone creating a melody. I listened to it the night before the LASIK and as I was sitting in the waiting room.

This was not exactly a formal experiment, to say the least; aside from the fact that I’m a sample size of one, I also took an Ativan that my ophthalmologist had prescribed, so I can’t compare conditions. That said, I didn’t particularly notice any change in my mood after either the music or the drug, except that the Ativan made me feel a bit drowsy and out of it. I will say, though, that I got through the procedure with only one significant freakout, which is pretty good for me because I’m a huge baby, especially when it comes to things touching my eyes.

At the very least, it probably didn’t hurt. “There have been studies that have been done for decades using music medicine, and it has shown to reduce anxiety before surgery, minimize the use of sedative medications, reduce fluctuations in vital signs, and keep patients calm in the recovery period,” the study’s lead author Veena Graff tells me.

Indeed, a meta-analysis published last year based on studies of over 7,000 patients found that people reported lower anxiety and less pain associated with surgery after listening to relaxing music. The music had the greatest impact on anxiety when people listened to it pre-operation and affected pain the most if they listened to it afterward. Certain music, like that involving string instruments, was even more effective.

Music doesn’t just affect the people receiving surgery — it could actually make doctors better at their jobs. One 2015 study found that surgeons who listened to their music of choice while operating on pigs’ feet produced higher-quality results that required less repair time.

Given that this song takes up only eight minutes of your time (which you could spend doing something else simultaneously, so it’s really taking up no time), there’s no reason not to give it a listen before you undergo a medical procedure or another stressful event. Maybe one day, the hospitals of the future will have songs like it playing in the operating room for both the patient’s and the physician’s benefit.

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