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A BIT OF MUSIC MAY STEADY THE SCALPEL

Toscanini for a tonsillectomy. Bach for brain surgery.

Surgeons are likely to do a better job at the operating table with a little background music, a study suggests.Surgeons had lower blood pressure and pulse rates and performed better on nonsurgical mental exercises while listening to music, researchers wrote in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Two Chicago-area surgeons agreed heartily but disagreed sharply on which music works best.

"It has to be classical music," said Dr. Roque Pifarre, a cardiovascular surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center. "Anything else interferes with the rhythm of the operation. And no singing! I don't think opera is good for my operating room."

Dr. Edward May, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon at the University of Chicago Hospitals, favors Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel.

"It's a great way to relax, and it just makes the place less impersonal," he said.

The study tested 50 men, ages 31 to 61, all of whom regularly listened to music while operating.

The surgeons were hooked up to a polygraph, which measures stress through factors such as pulse and blood pressure, and were asked to count backward by 13s, 27s or other increments from a five-digit number. The task was repeated while the surgeons listened to music of their own choosing, to music of the kind used in commercial stress-reduction tapes, and with no music at all.

The quickest, most accurate performances with the least physical stress came while the surgeons were listening to the music they chose.

They also performed better with less stress when listening to the music chosen by the experimenter than with no music at all.

The surgeons selected 50 musical pieces, all instrumental. Forty-six were classical, two were jazz and two were Irish folk tunes.

"Nietzsche wrote, `Without music life would be a mistake.' Over a century later, our data prompt us to ponder if, without music, surgery would be a mistake," said the authors, led by Karen Allen of State University of New York at Buffalo.

Dr. Jeffrey Posnick, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, favors the Beatles and Elton John while working.

"Being able to listen to music just relaxes the room and puts things more at ease and makes it easier to do the work you do," said Posnick, who did not participate in the study.

He estimated three of four surgeons prefer music while working.