I’ve written before about the surprising role that music can play in the medical world, and today I come to you with another part of this continuing story.

Studies into the effect music has on the healing process have been going on for decades, if not longer. But for the first time ever, The Lancet has published a sort of meta-study that combines the findings of these previous inquiries. The result is one of the most complete collections of data we have so far on this fascinating subject.

As published in The Lancet, this body of research contains data from hundreds of smaller studies, all of which suggested anecdotal evidence for music’s healing powers, but which now appear much more convincing when assembled en masse.

The impetus for the studies goes back more than one hundred years, to 1914 and the days of Florence Nightingale. NPR covered one of the most recent of these studies back in June, which was just one of 73 clinical, randomized trials used to assemble the data.

What does the evidence say?

So the most important question is, naturally, What does the evidence say? The evidence has, heretofore, been scattered and insubstantial. But the 73 assembled studies paint a different picture.

Dr. Catherine Meads, who calls Brunel University home, is ready to report that patients who are free to listen to music before, during, or after surgery are better off in a host of ways. These include reduced pain levels, less severe anxiety, and greater overall satisfaction with the experience.

If you’re looking for a real-world way to test this, you can look no further than patients’ use of pain medication. Patients who listened to music had a tendency to use much less pain medication than their counterparts. According to Mead’s findings, access to music helped patients reduce their pain by, on average, two full “notches” on the official ten-point pain scale.

hospital bed recovery

What kind of music is best?

Right now you’re probably imagining operating and recovery rooms brimming with the dulcet tones of something stuffy, like your Mozarts or your Bachs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But it’s important to note that the positive findings made here didn’t point to any particular genre. In fact, in most of the studies assembled, patients were free to choose their own music, whatever that may be.

Best of all, says Mead, music—unlike pain medications—has no demonstrable side effects. That’s good news for anyone with a history of sensitivity to certain medicines.

The only side effect reported—and that’s using the term loosely—is the same kind of problem music aficionados might have anywhere else music is being played. Operating rooms—as noted by some of the studies—can be busy places. Having music playing over speakers can make it more difficult for doctors and support staff to hear directives the first time they’re given. Doctors will sometimes need to repeat commands before they’re carried out, ever so slightly increasing the likelihood of misunderstandings, errors, or worse. It should be noted, though, that doctors frequently listen to music while performing surgery, and as of this writing, no formal evidence has drawn a clear line between musical distractions and medical malpractice.

So for now, your doctor’s orders might include directions to bring your favorite tunes when you report to your next appointment.