Note to competitive men: when indulging in board games this Christmas, consider your background music carefully. Rock music could put you at a significant disadvantage if you are facing off against a female competitor.

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Cavity Sam, the long-suffering surgical patient.
Image credit: Imperial College London/Royal College of Music

In May 2016, at Imperial Festival in London, United Kingdom, an intriguing experiment was conducted.

Researcher Dr. Daisy Fancourt and her team set out to investigate the effects of rock music on surgical performance.

Rather than have eager but unqualified surgeons operate on live victims, participants were required to play the popular children’s game Operation.

For those unfamiliar with the game, it involves removing tiny plastic anatomical structures from tiny plastic incisions. If the surgical tweezers touch the sides of the incision, Cavity Sam’s nose lights up, a buzzer sounds, and the player loses. A steady hand is key.

In total, 352 people took part in the experiment; all were aged 16 or over and had an average age of 35. None had hearing impairments or previous surgical experience.

As they performed, each participant wore noise-canceling headphones and listened to one of three tracks: Andante, from Sonata for Two Pianos by Mozart, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, or the sound of an operating room.

The performance of the volunteers was monitored – specifically, the time it took to remove three organs and the number of mistakes made.

The findings, published in the Medical Journal of Australia‘s Christmas issue, are intriguing. Men who listened to AC/DC made more errors than those listening to the other two soundtracks; Thunderstruck caused an average of 36 mistakes, and the other two soundscapes caused an average of 28.

On the opposite side of the gender coin, women were not affected by any of the three accompaniments. Regardless of the auditory backdrop, women’s performances remained stable.

Overall, men completed the task slightly quicker on average, but they were more likely to make mistakes than women. Additionally, listening to either type of music slowed men down significantly, compared with the sound of the operating room. Women’s speed was not affected by any condition.

As the authors note, the findings related to speed of performance “fly in contrast to opinions expressed by music legends Britney Spears and, who believe rock and roll leads to people ‘going faster, we ain’t going slow-low-low.'”

The reasons for the apparent gender differences cannot be pinned down with any accuracy, but the researchers theorize that the rockier, more discordant music caused a higher level of auditory stress in men than in women. Of course, further research will be necessary.

The present study acted more as a way to promote the research team’s more serious day jobs, but music in the operating room has been a topic of hot debate for many years.

Although this study is clearly tongue-in-cheek, and was all performed in our spare time, it is part of our wider research into the effect of music on performance – particularly in a medical setting such as an operating theater.”

Dr. Daisy Fancourt, lead author

According to reports, music is played in the operating room 62-72 percent of the time. Most commonly, the musical genre heard during surgical procedures is classical music, followed by folk, rock, jazz, and blues. Whether this has a positive or negative effect is widely debated.

Earlier studies have shown that Jamaican music and hip-hop increases the speed of robot-assisted laparoscopic surgical tasks. Jamaican music also increased the speed of surgical instrument manipulation, while classical and jazz music showed no effect.

Although this study was “a bit of fun,” the implications for festive inter-gender board game battles are important. Further research will be necessary to either confirm or refute these findings, but for those men who plan on playing Operation against female opponents this year, is it worth the risk? Avoid rock music until further notice.

Learn about live musical performance and its impact on hormone levels, as investigated by Dr. Fancourt.