From Music to Medicine: Are Pianists at an Advantage When Learning Surgical Skills?


  • Gilles Comeau University of Ottawa
  • Kuan-chin Jean Chen University of Ottawa/The Ottawa Hospital
  • Mikael Swirp University of Ottawa
  • Donald Russell Carleton University
  • Yixiao Chen University of Ottawa
  • Nada Gawad University of Ottawa
  • Habib Jabagi University of Ottawa Heart Institute
  • Alexandre Tran The Ottawa Hospital
  • Fady Balaa University of Ottawa/The Ottawa Hospital



Background: The acquisition of procedural competence is of vital importance in the training of physicians. It has been observed that medical students with extensive musical backgrounds often learn surgical techniques more rapidly than other students, raising the question of motor skill transfer from one area to another.


Objective: It is the aim of this project to explore whether musicians can learn and perform surgical skills more rapidly than non-musicians. This study explores the claims that musicians’ proficiency in playing their instrument can translate into benefits when learning complex and refined motor skills in another domain. Even basic surgical skills, such as suturing, become difficult in cognitively demanding environments such as the operating room, containing a barrage of multisensory stimuli where the surgeon must triage and respond to clinically salient information.


Method: Participants with piano expertise and participants with no formal music training learned how to do a surgical knot and sutures. They had two practice sessions and were tested after each session. The two test parameters measured were time to complete the task and an OSATS (Objective Structures Assessment of Technical Skills) score. Results for each group (musicians and non-musicians) were analysed and compared.


Results: Musician participants performed the surgical tasks faster and received higher scores than the controls; for knot tying, the difference between the two groups was statistically significant. Gender and proficiency using chopsticks also exhibited some influence on test times and scores.


Conclusion: Musical training in piano appeared to be of benefit in the initial stage of learning new simple surgical skills. This indicates that at least some aspects of a musicians’ skillset (such as fine motor control, bimanual dexterity and good hand-eye coordination) might be transferrable to an ostensibly disparate domain, and may be important for incorporation in surgical training where the skill of suturing can impact both surgical outcomes, patient safety, and patient satisfaction.


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