Surgical Selections

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

Toscanini for a tonsillectomy? Bach for brain surgery?

These sound like the crazy concepts of a CD columnist, but don't blame me this time! These ideas come from the lead paragraph of an AP story from Chicago reporting on research which concludes that surgeons are likely to do a better job at the operating table with a little background music.

"Surgeons had lower blood pressure and pulse rates and performed better on nonsurgical mental exercises while listening to music," the article continued, relaying information they painstakingly uncovered by reading the latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"It has to be classical music," according to a cardiovascular surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center. "Anything else interferes with the rhythm of the operation." But this particular surgeon is totally against singing. For some unexplained reason, he feels strongly that opera isn't good for operating.

Turns out the surgeons were hooked up to a polygraph and their stress was measured through blood pressure and pulse. I think urinanalysis might have been useful to determine if Puccini or Prokofiev caused anyone to pee in their pants. But, if this was done, it wasn't reported by the AP.

The article did say that the quickest, most accurate performances with the least physical stress came while the surgeons were listening to the music they chose. But it was better to have music the experimenters chose in the background than no music at all.

The authors of the scientific study noted that more than a century ago Nietzsche wrote that "Without music, life would be a mistake."

"Our data prompt us to ponder if, without music, surgery would be a mistake," the researchers quipped. I like that. Scientists with a sense of humor. What's the world coming to?

Well, I'll tell you what it's coming to. In the near future, making a reservation for surgery will be something like making airline reservations now. Instead of choosing an isle seat or a window seat, you'll get to select between a live string quartet and a recording of the Grateful Dead. You'll fill out a form with little boxes to check marked "Classical, Jazz, New Age, Rap, Soul, Country & Western, Rhythm & Blues, Musicals, Opera," and, for classical-loving pessimists, "Requiems."

As if it isn't hard enough to select a surgeon now, in the future you'll have to find out in advance as much about their musical tastes as their scalping techniques. And when you check to see whether the operating room has the latest statzelfratz, you'll want to make sure the ultrasound machine includes decent speakers.

"I realize my spouse isn't allowed in the room during the operation," you might say. "But can I bring my favorite compact disc?"

If you are allowed to pick your own CD, you can play a new version of that old game, "Which Recording Would I Select if I Could Only Bring One with Me to a Desert Island?"

Does Galway go best with gallbladder removal? Offenbach with ovaries? Puccini with prostates? Telemann with testicles? Brahms with breasts? Do you choose melancholy music to fit the unwelcome nature of the occasion or happy tunes to lift your spirits? These are evidently very serious questions, judging by recent research results.

According to a report on "What Works: Music to Heal By" in the September/October 1994 edition of Natural Health: The Guide to Well-Being, if you want to relax, manage stress, or recover from an illness, you should select soothing, "sedative" music.

I have some soft, concrete suggestions:

If you don't know Tomaso Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor for Organ & Strings, you certainly should. I think it is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, and would certainly work well with any organs or strings you might need removed. A lot of people must agree with me, since there are some 26 CD recordings of this piece currently available, and organs are popping out at a sound-barrier-breaking rate these days.

Which one to pick is partly a matter of what other compositions you would like to have on the same disc. Several come with the Pachelbel Canon (i.e. London 411973-2 LH with Münchinger conducting the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and DGG 413 309-2 with Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic).

Pachelbel is an excellent choice, I suppose, for those suffering from pachyderma, but not recommended for those with pachelbelphobia. And the DGG disc also contains Gluck's Dance of the Blessed Spirits from "Orpheus and Eurydice," which makes most folk feel they've died and gone to heaven anyway.

My favorite composer of sedative music, however, is Ralph Vaughan Williams. Almost everything he ever wrote puts me to sleep. Try The Lark Ascending when the baby's descending, Greensleves for gangrene, or Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis with phalloplasty - all on the same recording (Argo 414595-2 ZH with Marriner conducting).

All kidding aside, the most beautiful, reposing, first class compositions I can think of are Bach's Goldberg Variations (CBS MK 37779 with Glenn Gould as the pianist), Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (Newport Classic NC 60033 with the Manhattan String Quartet), and Chopin's Nocturnes (2 RCA's 5613-2 RC with Artur Rubinstein).

But my biggest "compact discovery" in this area is a CD put out by a small company in Portland, Oregon, called Gagliano Recordings: Songs from the Cello (GR 927-CD) with Hamilton Cheifetz, cello, and Harold Gray at the piano. Included is the Aria from Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, arrangements by Cheifetz of five songs by Schubert and four by Schumann, as well as works by Couperin, Ravel, Debussy and de Falla. A fantastic recording in every respect!

You might wonder if it really matters what music is played during your operation. A friend of mine recently confided to a few million classical music forum members on the Internet that he went in for surgery twice in a period of two weeks. The second time he said to the medical crew, "Hey guys, how about some classical music this time?"

One of the interns replied: "That's what we played last time. Don't you remember? Well, that's the last time we'll play your suggestions. If you're just going to fall asleep, what's the point?"

Another Internet correspondent wrote that when he was having eye surgery several years ago, he distinctly remembered hearing the music from Beethoven's Egmont blasting out over several speakers. Turns out that it was nothing more than an auditory hallucination induced by the local anesthesia.

"The surgeons were awfully amused," he wrote, "when I complimented them on their choice of music!"

The Internet may not be a superhighway, but it can be a two-way street! Please take a moment to send your e-mail reaction to this piece to the author at


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