The effect of intra-operative compared to postoperative music on postoperative pain was evaluated in a controlled trial. In all, 151 patients undergoing day case surgery for inguinal hernia repair or varicose vein surgery under general anaesthesia were randomly allocated to three groups: group 1 listened to music intra-operatively, group 2 listened to music postoperatively and group 3, the control group, listened to ‘white noise’. The anaesthetic and postoperative analgesic techniques were standardised. Pain was assessed using a numeric rating scale (0–10) and patients requirements for postoperative morphine, paracetamol and ibuprofen was recorded. The effect of music on nausea, fatigue and anxiety was also investigated. The results showed that patients exposed to music intra-operatively or postoperatively reported significantly lower pain intensity at 1 and 2 h postoperatively and patients in the postoperative music group required less morphine at 1 h compared to the control group. No differences were noted in the other variables. This study demonstrates that there is a short-term pain-reducing effect of music therapy however, the beneficial effects do not differ if the patient is exposed to music intra-operatively or postoperatively.