Music is hardwired into life on earth.
The rhythmic pulse of your heartbeat and improvisational birdsong in the treetops share something in common with underwater whale operas and new plant growth: musical vibrations link living beings through language and movement.
Music is raw energy that can be felt even when it cannot be heard. Much like humans, plants respond to good vibrations through sound waves that affect their health and nurture their growth.
Research shows that music stimulates the human brain and sound waves that are imprinted on the body can help guide physical development, deepen cultural connections, and aid the body in recovery from injury, particularly brain damage and speech impairment (Mannes 2011). Plants are likewise transformed by the repetitive vibrations of music. These frequencies are felt in the plant’s stems and leaves where they spurn cellular growth and activate hormonal and enzymatic protection (Hassanien 2014).
Do Plants Give off Vibrations?
The short answer is yes, but how we hear these vibrations is an entirely different deal. So listen up because plants aren’t just music lovers, they are conduits for ethereal sounds in a new genre of music that is best described as organic electronic. It’s not so much that plants compose their own music, but that the aliveness of plants can be scored into improvisational concerts using sound design technology.
Here’s how it works: Sonic artists use generative algorithms to translate the activity inside of plants into music by harnessing the plant bio emissions. With these bio emissions, artists can transform the movement of plant water molecules into whimsical melodies for people. There’s more to it than avant garde soundscapes. Plant music opens up dialogue about how we can interact with plants as sentient beings in our shared ecologies.
Can you listen to your plants?
Plants use currents to communicate to their organs, and sometimes between other plants, an energy known as raw control voltage (Miller 2019). Their electrical signals can be channeled using special software that maps the plant’s data onto a grid, showing a visual representation of the movement inside of the plant. That data can be rerouted into a synthesizer that transforms those signals into other-worldly ambient music.
Music projects using plants are as much a feat of technical skill as they are philosophical quandaries. Since the time of ancient Greece, Western culture has deemed plants to be other than living, and our taxonomies demote plants and non-human animals beneath humans in a rigid hierarchical order. Making music that brings plants and people together in an artistic collaboration is one way to bridge that gap between our species.
The Secret Musical Life of Plants
Mileece, a sonic artist who pioneered organic electronic music, developed a software system to create aesthetic sonification, transcribing the bioelectrical currants of plants into interactive microecologies. Basically, she puts an electrode onto a plant’s leaf to conduct the current which gets channeled into an amplifier where it becomes computer code, then the software retrieves the data and gives it sound. The music that comes out on the other side isn’t a pre-written computer jingle, but an original generative melody—sort of like improvisational jazz made by plants. Plant music is the muse of Mileece’s art installations that serve as acoustic sanctuaries where people can freely interact with plants, wander barefooted and bask in the sonic playground, shielded from the honking horns, screeching trains, and roaring sirens of urban environments.
If you want to turn your own indoor plant sanctuary into an acoustic soundscape, PlantWave’s portable wireless gadget continuously streams the magical sound waves produced by plants on a Bluetooth device, offering a sonic portal into the inner realm of plant life beyond the stems and leaves.
The Healing Power: A Musical Check-up for You and Your Plant
Music isn’t only entertainment. It can spark joyful dance, facilitate quiet meditation, and lull you into peaceful rest. Plant music is like your plants making you a live mixtape while they go about their daily errands, sending water molecules to thirsty cells and stretching out for the light. Listening in on the soundwaves of your plant can give you insight into plant care.
Because the electrodes measure movement, they act like a stethoscope for your plant’s heartbeat. A happy healthy plant will be musically active, but the inverse is true: Dead plants don’t sing. Sick plants will only croak out weak tunes, so you can tell a plant is severely under-watered if you hear it play just a few notes. Whereas a thriving plant will cruise through the musical scales like a 90s pop ballad. When you water plants, you can hear new emotive sounds and when you touch the plants, they react.
Sound is a measurement of our life force. When people fall sick or slip into seasonal depression, often the first thing to dissipate is the power of our voice. When spirits are high, our joy can be heard without words in uncontrollable humming, whistling and dancing.
Plant musical expression reminds us that our nourishment is deeply intertwined with plants: Listening to plant music is healing for humans, soothing a need for musical connection that grounds us in our bodies and in our shared ecosystems. At the same time, we can be active listeners of plants, paying attention to changes in their songs and how that reflects their health. Finally, the music we play back to plants can spark new growth, feeding a cycle of magical musical regeneration, and (hopefully) prompting us to reevaluate our role alongside plants as creative co-inhabitants of earth.
Hassanien, Reda et al. “Advances in Effects of Sound Waves on Plants.” Journal of Integrative Agriculture. 13(2014): 335–348.
Mannes, Elena, and Aniruddh D. Patel. The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song. New York: Walker & Co, 2011. Print.
Miller, Paul. “Making Music with Plants.” YouTube, Duquesne University, 4 Nov. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=522FnMUeg5c.