Quick – you're on a team of men about to enter a competition. Your team can either listen to "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC or "Andante from Sonata for Two Pianos" by Mozart during the contest. Which do you choose? Well, if the competition in question is a round of the classic board game Operation, you go for the classical, according to a new, lighthearted study from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music.

At a science showcase held earlier this year called the Imperial Festival, researchers slapped a pair of headphones on 352 attendees and played them either the AC/DC track, the Mozart composition or the sounds of an operating room. They then asked them to play a bit of the Operation game – which consisted of removing three plastic parts from small holes in a "patient" without touching the metal sides.

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What they found was that the men listening to the classical music (or the operating room sounds) made only 28 mistakes on average versus those listening to the rock track, who made an average of 36 mistakes. Interestingly, the reduction in errors was only seen when men reported enjoying the sonata, which might simply mean that listening to music you like – or avoiding music you don't – can assist in game-related performance.

Women tended to take longer than men to complete the game but made fewer mistakes overall and were not affected either way by the music or sounds to which they listened while playing. The researchers say they're not sure why music affected men and not women, but one theory is that rock music hurts men's performance in the game because it causes male-specific auditory stress.

While the study may have only been for fun, Fancourt says that her team is, in fact interested in finding out more about how music might affect real surgeons in real operating rooms.

"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 theatre," said Daisy Fancourt, lead author of the research from the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music.

Fancourt says that music is played the majority of the time in operating rooms and so it is important to understand just what kind of effect it has on performance. For example, one study revealed that Jamaican music and hip-hop – as directly opposed to jazz and classical – improved the speed of robot-assisted laparoscopic surgical tasks. On the other hand, music has been associated with 26 percent of anesthetists reporting decreased vigilance during operations and increased levels of frustration in the operating room.

The work of Fancourt and her team was published in The Medical Journal of Australia where it won a first place award for quirky research that is still scientifically rigorous.

While the study particularly pitted classical versus rock music, we have to wonder what would have happened had the researchers used the version of "Thunderstruck" being performed on cello in the video below.

Source: Imperial College London