Believe it or not, plants are much more intricate than given credit for. All my life I’ve instinctively aligned with phrases such as “plants are listening” or “plants have feelings.” This was without tangible proof to substantiate my beliefs of their larger existence.
Not until I began turning back the decades did I stumble upon the small plant music movement of the 1970s — Mort Garson’s album Mother Earth’s Plantasia. Designed “for plants and the people who love them,” the composition features the Moog synthesizer. Garson pioneered this device in music, cinema and even used it to compose the music broadcasted during the moon landings. The electronic experimental music made my body tingle and prompted me to dive deeper into the world of plants.
It became clear that Garson was inspired by his wife (an avid gardener) and authors Peter Tomkins and Christopher Bird, who released The Secret Life of Plants three years before Plantasia. The book’s pseudoscientific claims regarding plants’ emotions and intuitive capabilities negatively impacted the credibility of future plant studies. It took years of rigorous research and experimentation for plant behavior hypotheses to stand against scientific scrutiny.
Also in 1973, Dorothy Retallack of Temple Buell College in Colorado published a small book called The Sound of Music and Plants. While her studies were relatively general, they were indicative of the genesis of theories regarding positive and negative music. With modern knowledge, it can be understood that the plants of Retallack’s experiment did not prefer a specific song. Rather, they thrived when exposed to a particular frequency for a portion of time.
Plants begin to react around 115 Hz and 250 Hz, a range which emulates the vibrations of sound waves produced in nature like birds, insects, murmuring rivers and even human voices. Countless studies have evaluated the effects of certain sound waves on plants. As a result, it has been proven that plants perceive sound as a mechanical stimulus. Additionally, they translate these sounds into cellular and metabolic changes. Vibrations, similar to chewing leaves by herbivorous insects, elicit a chemical defense from plants while other frequencies have a physiological effect on growth. Like all living organisms, plants emit frequencies of their own.
Created by Joe Patitucci and Alex Tyson, PlantWave is a device that grew out of the company Data Garden which records quartets of plants. The device contains two electrodes that attach to leaves, detecting slight electrical variations in plant biorhythms. These variations are graphed as waves and translated into pitch messages that make different musical instrument sounds. With both Bluetooth and MIDI capabilities, you can listen to the music created by a plant on a hike, record the track and plug it into your computer at home to create a composition with a plant!
While bio-sonification device sales are booming, it’s important to note that the sounds projected are still human generated. Understandably, plants’ natural frequencies are far too faint to be picked up by a naked ear. Nevertheless, the sounds produced still represent internal changes in the plant, generated by algorithms and leaves. Suppose a plant is being watered — in effect, the audio will spike. If a plant is malnourished, only a faint hum is produced. If it is withered, nothing will play at all.
On my student budget, I will be sticking to free livestreams of the Data Garden Quartet. One day, I hope to obtain a plant translating device of my own!