• Musical Anesthesia

    Posted on April 30, 2014 by Jessica Ryan in Pain Management, PSO Programs.


    After PSO Violist Penny Brill discovered she had breast cancer, she used music, as well as many other tools, to manage her pain before, during, and after surgeries. Although music supported her in countless situations, the songs she found most helpful varied based on a number of factors, including her emotional state.

    For instance, when Penny underwent surgery so doctors could determine if she had more cancer than initially thought, she felt somewhat fearful. She found the music of the a capella group Take 6 especially comforting at this time. Penny recalls, “The people in the group were very convinced of what they were singing. They conveyed a sense of powerful support and being held up.”[i] The music provided exactly what she needed—a reduced heart rate and the sensation of being surrounded by warm, caring people during the surgery.

    Since she listened to different music in different situations, Penny recommends designing a playlist with a variety of music that you might find beneficial for pain relief. Include many styles, tempi, and instruments so you can always choose something that “reflects what you need at that time . . . This depends on the combination of emotions you have. Think about what you need to balance how you’re feeling. Pay attention to how music and sounds are affecting you in that moment. Think about if they’re appropriate for that particular case.”[ii] Note that what you find soothing in one instance may not work in another. For example, Penny occasionally enjoyed listening to the relaxing sound of ocean waves but couldn’t always listen to them because they sometimes made her feel too cold.


    Over the years, PSO Violist Penny Brill has brought music to patients in a number of settings, including surgery. Here she shows her instrument to a patient at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

    In addition to using music to alleviate her own pain, Penny has serenaded people in surgery. During our interview she told me about one person for whom she played several times. According to Penny, “When this person heard a G, it felt like a hand was on her collarbone. This quieted her down. It was effective because it made her feel reassured and peaceful.”[iii] Because of this, Penny tuned each of her two lowest strings to a G and improvised. The person started singing, and by using her voice to participate more fully in the experience, she had even less attention to give to the pain in the lower part of her body.

    Penny did things slightly differently during the next two visits so that “the person was staying in the moment. It’s harder to do this if everything is the same. A person might put music into the background or try to relive a previous experience.”[iv] So Penny brought different musicians to play with her the second and third times. Because the person became completely absorbed in the music every time, she found it very beneficial. During earlier surgeries, she had received general anesthesia, and it always took her about a day to fully recover. Once she started undergoing surgery with Penny playing, she only received local anesthesia and felt well enough to leave the hospital within an hour of surgery.

    If you’d like to try listening to music during surgery, note that the music you need to relax will differ from the music your surgeon needs to focus. Either you or the surgeon should use headphones so that you each can listen to the ideal music. Not everyone may want to listen to music, but Penny says, “If you’re willing to try things and see what happens—feel like you’re growing and learning because of what you’re going through—it makes you feel larger than the illness and the pain. That makes you feel more in control, which is also an issue with pain. You feel that you’re in control rather than it controlling you. That affects your perception of pain and how much you can tolerate it.”[v]

    So the next time you’d like to find a new pain management strategy, don’t be afraid to try music. If you’ve already used music for pain relief and have additional advice or stories you’re willing to share, please leave a comment below. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

    [i] Brill, Penny.  Personal interview.  17 Apr. 2014.

    [ii] Ibid.

    [iii] Ibid.

    [iv] Ibid.

    [v] Ibid.

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