People have always been fascinated with the question of whether plants respond to sound, be it talking or music. When we hear music that makes us want to dance and soft soothing music that makes us peaceful, we feel more happy and content and therefore more healthy. Could the same be true for plants? While plants do not have ears or a nervous system to hear sound, can they feel and respond to vibrations from sound waves? Well some botanists believe this to be the case.
Plants transport nutrients, proteins and organelles through the fluid of the cytoplasm. This is called cytoplasmic streaming. Scientists theorise that this cytoplasmic streaming is affected by certain types of music and sound. In nature this could be bird song, vibrations and sounds from insects and strong breezes. Scientists think that these stimulate cytoplasmic streaming, making more nutrients available to all areas of the plant, resulting in increased growth.
As early as 1950, Dr. T.C. Singh, the head of Botany at Annamalai University, studied this streaming through a microscope. He asked his assistant to play the violin while he looked at the cytoplasmic streaming and found that it increased when she played at a certain pitch. He then went on to experiment on the growth of plants. Dr. Singh exposed balsam plants to ragas played on the Veena. After 5 weeks these plants showed increased growth both in height and in the number of leaves as compared to plants that had not been serenaded. Encouraged by this success, he decided to play classical music through loudspeakers to rice paddy in fields. He repeated this exercise over a period of 3 years and found that rice harvests were 25 – 60% higher than the national average. Dr Singh also found that the rhythmic foot movements of the Bharatnatyam dance produced increased growth and earlier flowering in annual flowers such as Michaelmas daisies, marigolds and petunias.
An American florist, Arthur Locker got similar results when he piped music to his greenhouses. The plants in the greenhouses also grew straighter and flowered more abundantly, with blooms that were more intensely coloured and longer lasting than normal.
Eugene Canby, a Canadian engineer, reported results similar to Dr T.C. Singh’s when he exposed fields of wheat to classical music. He found a huge 66% increase in yield!
Another American researcher, Dorothy Retallack went so far as to claim that plants respond differently to different types of music. She reported that plants preferred classical and Jazz over rock music. In fact she claimed that they disliked it so much that they grew away from speakers playing rock music.
A popular TV show called Myth Busters set up 6 greenhouses with different sound conditions to see if plants indeed have musical preferences. The first greenhouse had no sound, the second had classical music, death metal was played in the third, the fourth had recordings of positive speech and the fifth and sixth had transmissions of negative speech. Their results contradicted Retallack’s in that plants exposed to death metal music grew the best! Those having exposure to classical music came second, followed closely by the positive and negative speech, which both showed similar growth. Sadly plants grown without sound came last and showed the least amount of growth.
More recently, studies in South Korea have shown that classical music helps increase the growth speed of plants. They found that sounds at a frequency of 125 Hz and 250 Hz made genes that respond to light more active and sounds at 50 Hz made them less active. These researchers feel that their discovery could enable farmers and gardeners to switch genes on and off and potentially take charge of when their crops grow and flower.
Interestingly, a study in Australia suggests that plants can sense the sound vibrations from running water and will move their roots towards them.
Many botanists, however, have criticised these experiments as scientifically flawed and non – replicable. They feel the variables such as light, water, air pressure and soil conditions need to be controlled, in the way variables are controlled in other scientific experiments, such that only one variable remains, in this case sound. They suggest that gardeners who talk to, and play music to their plants are in fact giving them more attention and this is what makes them grow better.
At the moment there is no definitive answer to the age-old question of whether plants respond to music, but there is certainly much more room for research. Whether plants grow better to the sound of music or not, one thing is certain, there is no harm in trying it out on your plants. So go ahead and talk to your plants, play them your favourite music and certainly you will be happy and I’m sure your plants will be too.