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Music in the operating room

Music in the Operating Theatre


Music has a long history in operating theatres around the world. In 1914, physician Evan O’Neill Kane brought a gramophone into his operating room to help calm his patients before and during anesthesia. In the 1930s, music became a popular topic in medical journals, which recommended “soft, soothing, melodious music” and advised surgeons to avoid jazz or “sentimental tunes.”


Today, music is heard in operating rooms around the world. To find out more, Mabel Moll interviewed Mr Michael Carter, a Consultant Paediatric Neurosurgeon, about his experiences of music in the Children’s hospital.

Click here for a quick link to 

surgeon Mr Michael Carter’s playlist. 

Hi Michael, can you tell me a bit about you and your role in the Children’s Hospital?


Sure! I’m one of four Consultant Paediatric Neurosurgeons here in Bristol, which is one of the biggest paediatric neurosurgery units in the country. Paediatric neurosurgery patients are a very diverse group - some of our patients haven’t been born yet, while others are 18 year-old royal marines. 


I also run the South of England Paediatric Epilepsy Surgery Service, which covers a much larger area as there are only 4 of these units in the UK.


Music is a daily feature of my life, both at work and at home. When not under lockdown, I play in my band, Peter Mouses House Band, which has been together for 11 years.


What does music mean to you?


I think music is as essential to humans as fire, earth, water and air. The ability to communicate through song and movement and drama is fundamental to our ability to socialise as a species.



One of the first things kids do when they start to move around is they hum, make noises, clap their hands, start to dance. In that sense, music relates directly to me because it’s always been part of my life. I listen a lot and I play a lot. 


In epilepsy surgery we often have to do resections of the temporal lobe, which is an important part of the brain for understanding and appreciating music. I think the area has been overlooked a bit in terms of housing a ‘vital function’, and I’ve always tempered my operations to avoid damaging that connection if at all possible. I think you’ve lost a lot if music becomes just unconnected sounds, 


Do you play music in the operating theatres?


Absolutely. It’s nice to have something going on in the background and it smoothes your mind out when you’re operating in stressful situations. I like things that calm me down and still enable us to communicate as a team.


Usually I have power of veto as the surgeon in charge and there are a few ground rules. But we have a pretty flat hierarchy about who gets to request what.


I love hearing stuff from overseas - last year was Calypso and Soca because we had two trainees from the Caribbean. We currently have a Russian trainee so play a lot of Russian Big Band stuff. 

Do you make music as well?


Yes, all the time. We’re always singing on the wards too - if you crack out a guitar and start strumming Ed Sheeran's ‘Castle on a Hill’, you’ll have 30 people join you.


At Christmas we sing a lot of carols because everyone knows the harmonies. Harmonisation generates a massive endorphin surge, a sense of union that’s almost supernatural.


Many of our kids bring in keyboards when they’re in hospital, and last year Isaac, one of our epilepsy patients,  wrote a song ‘It’s a Hospital Christmas’ which was lovely.

This year I’ve been working with New York Science Rapper, Baba Brinkman, on a rap about epilepsy surgery for kids. We had hoped to demo it at the Bristol Festival of Science, but Covid put paid to that. Instead I had a tiny role in Baba’s anti-Covid rap ‘Stay Home’ on Youtube.


Do you think music has played a different role this year, in the pandemic?


I think music is hugely permissive. It enables you to wear your heart on your sleeve. A lot of people have been very sad over Covid, for many different reasons. Music enables you to acknowledge the other side of your existence, not just the pure functional being. People listen to lyrics a lot these days and are in tune to the emotional effects. Music allows people to cry if they need to, which is important. 


My own experience is that people have been making music more too. Quite a few of my colleagues have joined musical groups, virtual choirs. And the number of people participating in singing in the hospital has gone up. It’s an odd but very lovely thing, singing in a work environment, and this year it’s become much more significant.

Credit: The Grand Appeal featuring Michael Carter

Mr Carter’s Current Paediatric Neurosurgery Playlist


Kalinka (trad Russian)

Jerusalem (Parry)

Like a Rhinestone Cowboy (Glen Campbell)

True blue (Madonna)

Only You (Yazoo)

If wishes were horses (Kris Drever)

Tease me (Chaka Demus and Pliers)

Redemption Song (Bob Marley)

Better Together (Jack Johnson)

Walk the Line (Johnny Cash)

O Magnum Mysterium (Lauridsen)

View from space (Baba Brinkman)

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