“Don’t try this at home,” Claudius Conrad, M.D., Ph.D., quips as he lectures on the historical ties between music and medicine. Conrad, an assistant professor of Surgical Oncology, explains to his audience that in the Middle Ages, popular prescriptions involved specific musical combinations. The example he offers involves alternating between playing the flute and harp to alleviate gout.
Despite the long-standing connection between music and medicine, there’s only a small body of scientific research that addresses how music impacts the body. This subject is of particular interest to Conrad, a practicing laparoscopic liver and pancreas surgeon with doctoral degrees in both Stem Cell Biology and Music Philosophy.
Music in place of medication
Music always has been important to Conrad, who came to Texas from Germany to study piano on a music scholarship.
“A mentor advised me to pursue other interests in parallel with being a pianist, and I was interested in pursuing medicine.”
During a surgical residency in Germany, Conrad completed an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) fellowship, where he discovered he could combine these two passions. He conducted a study on ICU patients as part of his doctoral thesis and discovered a novel stress pathway that mediates music relaxation. He was able to show that ICU patients might be spared sedative medication when listening to classical music.
Listening during work
Conrad later became a surgical resident and director of the Music and Medicine program at Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School, Boston.
Turning his research focus to physicians, Conrad studied auditory stress. His team analyzed four groups of surgeons for surgical accuracy and speed while they operated in a simulated surgery. One group was allowed silence, another performed math problems, one group listened to Mozart and a final group listened to two types of music at once – German folk music in one ear and death metal in the other.
“We found that, for some, performance was highly impacted by auditory stress, and that listening to Mozart enhanced surgical recall,” Conrad shares.
More recently, he’s studied music’s impact on patients’ family members, especially in high stress environments like the emergency room. He found a correlation between level of education, gender and the degree of music relaxation.
Currently, he’s studying what music can teach us about team dynamics in the high stress work environment of an operating room.
“Music has the ability to start communication between physicians, nurses, trainees – anyone in a shared environment,” Conrad says. “It drives conversations, helps us find common ground and can even synchronize people’s movements.”
Conrad says surgery is a team activity, so finding commonality among the diverse people on a surgical team is vital for optimal performance and the best possible patient outcomes.
90% brain, 10% hands
“People think of playing piano and laparoscopic surgery as things you do with your hands,” Conrad says. “But both are about mental translations: how the brain translates a two-dimensional image – music notes or the video of the patient – into three-dimensional movement.”
Conrad draws on his training as a concert pianist in the operating room, saying there are many similarities between the two environments.
“You want to be relaxed and receptive to the feedback the tissue or instrument gives you, while relying on your training.”
Conrad even uses exercises he learned as a pianist to advise his fellows.
“I ask my fellows to alternate brushing their teeth with each hand or change their watch from the left to the right hand daily to build muscle control and independent movement, as this is particularly important in minimally invasive surgery.”
He hopes to lead more music-based research at MD Anderson and explore music’s impact on a cellular level. Conrad also is involved in research to enhance minimally invasive liver and pancreas surgeries.
“I enjoy this research because it’s very patient-centered. Minimally invasive surgery has the goal of less trauma, faster recovery times and the best possible outcomes, as does incorporating music into medicine,” he says.
A positive perspective
And beyond his research, Conrad encourages everyone to listen to more music, regardless of what kind.
“My colleagues and I work in a high stress environment – we play a big part in other people’s lives at a difficult time and provide complex treatments and surgeries,” he says. “Music can restore our energy and help maintain a positive perspective on life.”
This story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s bimonthly employee publication.