Thriving with the sound of music

By Joost Galema | June, 2023
Do plants bloom to beats? A question that can be answered with a ‘yes’ after a century of research. Still, plenty of mystery remains. Why do they like Ravi Shankar’s sitar and not Jimi Hendrix’s tearing guitar?

In his famous Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid turns demigods, mythical creatures and humans into plants, pools or streams. In ancient times, nature possessed a soul and a consciousness. Thus, in the tenth book, Ovid relates how the singer Orpheus lures the trees to himself with his lyre, listing some twenty species – from the tender hazel to the noble plane – but also ‘a berry-blue snowball bush, the winding ivy, and even bunch-heavy vines’.

Dorothy Retallacks The Music of Plants

The scene is reminiscent of research described by the American author Dorothy Retallack in the book The Sound of Music and Plants. In the late 1960s, with the children out of the house, the organist and mezzo began studying musicology at Temple Buell College in Denver. Inspired in part by the musical The Sound of Music, in which she had sung countless times, Retallack decided to study the influence of music on plants. The motto of the first chapter of the resulting book, ‘Melody’, was the first line of the title song: ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years.’

In different chambers, Retallack had plants ‘listen’ to music, with varying and surprising results. With the heavy rock of Led Zeppelin, Vanilla Fudge and Jimi Hendrix, the stems not only grew away from the speakers, but even crept up against the farthest wall, as if looking for escape routes. In contrast, with music performed by the Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, the plants bent towards the loudspeakers, and some even twisted around them.
For the past fifty years, scientists have criticised Retallack’s research. Not without reason, because she speculated wildly about what the results of her experiments might mean. Nevertheless, the response of plants to her experiments remains remarkable. Retallack was neither the first nor the last researcher to develop a great fascination with the influence of music on nature.
Even Charles Darwin sat down in front of a sensitive plant (Mimosa Pudica) at home one day and tried in vain to stir its leaves with his bassoon playing. And in the 1950s, the British biologist Julian Huxley – brother of writer Aldous and first director of the UN scientific organisation UNESCO – visited the Indian botanist T.C.N. Singh in Madras, who, looking through a microscope, discovered that the protoplasm in plant cells moved faster when he sounded a tuning fork.
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header image: Michiel Blumenthal, Bíetola, 2023

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