The Effect of Music on Plant Growth
Do Plants Like Music?
Do plants have feelings? Can they hear sounds? Do they like music?
To the skeptic, the idea that plants have feelings or feel pain is ridiculous. Over the years, several studies have indicated that plants may respond to sound. However, the subject is still hotly debated in scientific circles.
Below, I describe several of these studies and their findings in detail, along with the critics' views, so that you can weigh the evidence and draw your own conclusions. First, we'll discuss the studies that support the idea that music helps plants grow, and then we'll look at the opposition.
Studies Find Positive Effects of Music on Plants
If plants respond to the ways they are nurtured and have several sensory perceptions, then how do they respond to sound waves and the vibrations created by musical sounds?
Several studies have looked at this question, specifically how music effects plant growth. In 1962, Dr. T. C. Singh, head of the Botany Department at India's Annamalia University, experimented with the effect of musical sounds on the growth rate of plants. He found that balsam plants grew at a rate that accelerated by 20% in height and 72% in biomass when exposed to music. He initially experimented with classical music. Later, he experimented with raga music (improvisations on a set of rhythms and notes) played on flute, violin, harmonium, and reena, an Indian instrument. He found similar effects.
Singh repeated the experiment with field crops using a particular type of raga played through a gramophone and loudspeakers. The size of crops increased to between 25 to 60% above the regional average.
Through his several experiments, Singh concluded that the sound of the violin has the greatest effect on plant growth. He also experimented on the effects of vibrations caused by barefoot dancing. After exposure to dancers performed Bharata-Natyam, India's most ancient dance style, with no musical accompaniment, several flowering plants, including petunias and marigold, flowered two weeks earlier than the control.
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, an Indian plant physiologist and physicist, spent a lifetime researching and studying the various environmental responses of plants. He concluded that they react to the attitude with which they are nurtured. He also found that plants are sensitive to factors in the external environment, such as light, cold, heat, and noise. Bose documented his research in Response in the Living and Non-Living, published in 1902, and The Nervous Mechanism of Plants, published in 1926. In order to conduct his research, Bose created recorders capable of detecting extremely small movements, like the quivering of injured plants, and he also invented the crescograph, a tool that measures the growth of plants. From his analysis of the effects specific circumstances had on plants' cell membranes, he hypothesised they could both feel pain and understand affection.
Luther Burbank, an American botanist and horticulturist, studied how plants react when removed from their natural habitat. He talked to his plants. Based on his horticultural experiments, he attributed approximately 20 sensory perceptions to plants. His studies were inspired by the work of Charles Darwin's The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1868.
You can read more about this research and its pioneers in The Secret Life of Plants, (1973) by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. The book has short description of the experiments with a brief biography of these scientists. It should be mentioned that some, including botanists Arthur Galston and Leslie Audus, consider the book to be a piece of fiction, not science. A lot of the science in The Secret Life of Plants has been discredited, but nevertheless, the book has made its mark on our minds and culture.
The Effect of Music on Seed Development
Dr. T. C. Singh also discovered that seeds that were exposed to music and later germinated produced plants that had more leaves, were of greater size, and had other improved characteristics. It practically changed the plant's genetic chromosomes!
Working around the same time as Singh, Canadian engineer Eugene Canby exposed wheat to J.S. Bach's violin sonata and observed a 66% increase in yield. Canby's research reinforces Singh's findings.
Do Plants Like Rock Music?
In a 1973 experiment by Dorothy Retallack, then a student of Professor Francis Brown, three groups of plants were exposed to various types of musical sounds.
For one group, Retallack played the note F for an 8-hour period. For the second group, she played similar note for three hours. The third controlled group remained in silence.
The first group died within two weeks, while the second group was much healthier than the controlled group.
Fascinated by Retallack's findings, two other students went on to do their own test. Plants exposed to Hayden, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert grew towards and entwined themselves around the speakers. Another plant group grew away from a speaker that played rock music. That group even tried to climb a glass-walled enclosure in what appeared to be an attempt to get away from the sound.
Retallack later replicated the experiment with rock music (like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix) on a variety of plants. She observed abnormal vertical growth and smaller leaves. She also observed the plants to have damage similar to that associated with excessive water uptake. In the experiment, marigolds died within two weeks. No matter which way they were turned, plants leaned away from the rock music source. These findings were documented in Retallack's 1973 book The Sound of Music and Plants.
Strangely, plants’ musical tastes show a remarkable congruence with those of the humans reporting them.— Daniel Chamovitz
What About Country and Jazz?
Plants that are exposed to country music have the same reaction as those who are subjected to no sound at all, showing no unusual growth reaction.
According to some studies, jazz music appears to have a beneficial effect, producing better and more abundant growth. The science television show MythBusters did a similar experiment and concluded that plants reacted well to any type of music, whether rock, country, jazz, or classical. Their experiments however, were not thoroughly conducted and are highly debatable.
Music for Plant Growth in Practice
DeMorgenzon wine estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa, uses baroque music to enhance the ripening processl. They believe the vibrations help not just of the plants but also in the soil and produce good fungi and bacteria in the soil that are vital for healthy vines, which encourages better and stronger root development, resulting in vigorous growth and better fruit. Many commercial growers play music for their crops, regardless of the fact that there are no reliable studies to support the idea.
How Can Plants Hear?
How could music affect plant growth if plants don't have ears? To explain how it may work, let us look at how we humans receive and hear sound.
Sound is transmitted in the form of waves that travel through a medium, such as air or water. The waves cause the particles in this medium to vibrate. When you switch on your radio, the sound waves create vibrations in the air that cause your ear drum to vibrate. This pressure energy is converted into electrical energy for the brain to translate into what you understand as musical sounds.
In a similar manner, the pressure from sound waves create vibrations that could be picked up by plants. Plants would not "hear" the music, they would feel the vibrations of the sound wave.
Protoplasm, the translucent living matter of which all animals and plant cells are composed, is in a state of perpetual movement. The vibrations picked up by the plant might speed up the protoplasmic movement in the cells. This stimulation then could affect the system and improve performance, such as the manufacture of nutrients that develop a stronger and better plant.
Different forms of music have different sound wave frequencies and varying degrees of pressure and vibration. Louder music, like rock, features greater pressure, which some people think might have a detrimental effect on plants. Imagine the effect of strong wind on a plant compared to a mild breeze.
Playing Music in Vineyards for Grape Production
In 2008, a 91-hectare vineyard, DeMorgenzon wine estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa, experimented with two vineyard blocks, exposing one to baroque music and the other to no music at all. This allowed the vineyard owner to monitor and observe any differences in the production.
The musical repertoire consisted of 2,473 pieces of classical baroque music. With this vast collection, they could play the music nonstop for 7.5 days without repeating.
Despite the outcome of the experiment by Dorothy Retallack, where plants exposed for an eight-hour period died two weeks later, the DeMorgenzon wine estate played the music around the clock with no negative results, not just in the vineyard but also in the wine cellar and tasting room.
Another vineyard, Paradiso di Frassina in Tuscany, Italy, uses classical music to get better production from its vineyards. They observed that plants mature faster when exposed to the soothing sounds of Mozart, Vivaldi, Haydn, and Mahler when compared to a controlled site.
This project to wire the vineyard for musical sound started in 2001 as an attempt to keep pests away. However, when they saw better and improved plants and fruits, the project continued as a 'productivity tool'.
Just like DeMorgenzon wine estate, the music is played non-stop 24 hours a day with no negative results.
In both of these vineyard examples, there were no negative results noticed after extensive exposure to music, and the benefits of the music remain anecdotal.
Music is not ecologically relevant for plants, so we shouldn’t expect them to be tuned in to it. But there are sounds that, at least theoretically, it could be advantageous for them to hear. These include the vibrations produced by insects, such as a bee’s buzz or an aphid’s wing beat, and minuscule sounds that might be created by even smaller organisms.— Daniel Chamovitz
Are You Still Doubtful?
If so, you're not alone. It is true that the positive effects of music on plant growth is still highly debated among scientists. Because the scientific community only values results that can be repeated, and thereby verified, there are many skeptics who regard the studies mentioned above as bad science since most of them were unreplicable, meaning that when others tried to re-do the study as described, their results did not match those of the original study.
If a study's results are not scientifically significant or can't be supported by independent verification and replicable studies, they are no longer considered relevant. In some cases, upon further analysis, the original studies themselves were found to be faulty.
It was reported in the The Telegraph that scientists from National Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology in Suwon, South Korea played classical music in rice fields, and concluded that plant genes can "hear" and had improved yield. The research was published in the August, 2007 issue of New Scientist. This finding, however, received negative comments from some quarters which cited external factors such as wind that might have drowned out the experiment's effects. Others say too few samples were analyzed for it to be conclusive.
Linda Chalker-Scott, author of The Informed Gardener, questions the authenticity of Dorothy Retallack's findings. She listed several concerns, including:
- Citing the works of professors in physics and theology, but not in biology.
- Lack of relevant references.
- Poor reasoning and biased expectations.
- Insufficient number of samplings.
- Poor experiment tools.
- Publisher that does not specialize in science.
- Journal not peer-reviewed.
Another skeptic, biologist and author of What a Plant Feels, Daniel Chamovitz, criticizes both the Retallack study and The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (both described above) as not only perfect examples of bad science but for being detrimental to science as a whole. He also says that "Although research in this area has a long history, most of it is not very scientific and, if you think about it, experiments studying music and plants were doomed from the start. We don’t judge a plant’s vision by showing it an eye chart and asking it to read the bottom line." He cited one study that involved the effect of rock music (Meatloaf) and classical (Mozart) on corn and noted that although the results seemed to show slightly positive affect for both types of music on the growth of corn, when researchers redid the study but this time used fans to remove the heat generated by the speakers playing the music, they found no difference in the effects of Mozart, Meatloaf, and silence.
In his article "The Intelligent Plant" (published in The New Yorker December 23 & 30, 2013), Michael Pollan—author, journalist, professor, and critic of the book by Tompkins and Bird—said, "in the view of many plant scientists The Secret Life of Plants has done lasting damage to their field." He calls the book a "beguiling mashup of legitimate plant science, quack experiments, and mystical nature worship that captured the public imagination at a time when New Age thinking was seeping into the mainstream."
Studies have not been able to prove emphatically that music has any effect on plant growth whatsoever. This is why you can't find any recent studies on the topic published in any reputable science journals and why music isn't used universally by commercial growers.
Can Music Affect Our Brain?
If music can change how plants grow, will it also affect our brain? I wrote this article on the effect of music on the brain. Check it out and see how it helps you to stay focus and even improves your memory. http://hubpages.com/education/Effect-of-Music-on-the-Brain
Professor Daniel Chamovitz, Ph.D., Tel Aviv University
Science Projects Involving Music, Sound, and Plants
If you'd like to do an experiment on this subject—or if you simply want to mess around with your own plants to see what happens—consider designing an experiment around one of the following questions.
- Test to see if you can detect any difference between plants that have been exposed to classical, heavy metal, punk, or Indian sitar music by exposing plants to different genres. (Don't forget to take the variable of the heat emitted from the speaker into consideration!)
- Try talking to some of your plants but giving others the silent treatment. (What if you spoke only insults? Would that make any difference?)
- What about the other sounds that plants might respond to, for example vibrations (like those produced by bees) or the sound of caterpillars chewing?
- If you place a plant in a noisy area, does it seem to respond differently than a plant in a quieter spot? (This works best if all other variables are the same: same type of plant, same sun and water exposure, etc.)
- What about the effects of different instruments (guitar, piano, kazoo) or non-musical sounds (traffic, baby crying, machinery)?
Remember, your experiment will be more meaningful if you use the scientific method and try to...
- Keep track of the information by recording data.
- Use a control group (a plant that is not exposed to the noise).
- Use reliable tools for measurements.
- Try to control the variables as much as possible.
- Pay attention to how your wishes or preconceived ideas may be skewing your experiment.
Share Your Experience
Have You Tried Playing Music to Your Plants?
What Say You?
What is your take on this? Do you agree with skeptics that believe that the benefits of music on plants are just a myth? Or do you strongly agree that music has a positive effect on plants?
Share your views here!