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The Secret Music of Plants

In the 1970’s a genre of music made specifically to help plants grow took the world by storm, but do plants actually respond to music?

This article on plant music is produced in collaboration with CANNA. To learn more about how CANNA can help your plants click here.

If you’ve just dumped another shriveled Ficus in the wheelie bin, and you’re starting to feel like some sort of botanical assisted dying clinic, there is one radical fix you probably haven’t tried. It all goes back to 1973 and a very strange book called The Secret Life of Plants, written by author Christopher Bird and ex-military spy Peter Tompkins. 

Secret Life of Plants became an international bestseller and spawned an entirely new genre. The book’s basis argument is that plants, for lack of a better word, like music. Bird and Tompkins argued that plants are sentient creatures. They can feel happy, or depressed, or scared – just like us. They also respond to music played at certain frequencies and volumes, and in fact grow better when exposed to particular sounds. The science was downright sketchy, and the authors also chucked in a lot of stuff about “a supernatural world of cosmic beings” (hey, it was the ‘70s). But the basic premise caught people’s imagination. 

It’s an unsettling thought, that your Monstera might be, you know, listening. But for many composers, the idea made a lot of sense. Just three years after Secret Life of Plants was published, the ‘Plant Music’ genre kicked off with Mort Garson’s psychedelic synth album, Mother Earth’s Plantasia. It was probably the first musical composition not intended for human ears. 

Garson had been working for ten years as a composer at this point – he handled the string arrangements on Glen Campbell’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” – but with Plantasia, he pushed his trusty Moog synthesizer about as far as synthesizers could go, creating a twinkly, tripped-out album specifically for the enjoyment of plants. Plantasia begins with a cheerful synth whistle, the sound a bluebird would make if you plugged into a Moog machine, before building to Holst-ian crescendo. It’s weird, but part of your brain thinks, “Yes, this does sound like something my Fiddle Leaf might enjoy.” 

Garson wasn’t the only one. In the spirit of pseudoscience everywhere, Plant Music swept through the 1970’s like a groovy, alternative virus, influencing all sorts of artists, including Stevie Wonder, who produced Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants in 1979 (widely regarded as not his best work). You can even see Garson’s influence in today’s modern ambient electronic scene. Kurt Attard of Australia’s Brainwave Power Music has clocked hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube with his “binaural beats and isochronic tones”, specifically geared towards plants. 

Some composers have taken Plant Music to its most technical extreme – not music for plants, but music from plants. LA-based indie record label, Data Garden, made a name for themselves with festival sound installations where they actually hooked plants into custom-built hardware (MIDI Sprout), which records the plants’ electrical impulses (or “bio data”) and translates them into musical notes. You can download MIDI Sprout on your phone and start listening to the pulsing rhythms of your favourite rubber plant, or the fading shriek of a dying Ficus. 

So, does the science stack up? Do plants really like music? Well, yes and no. Researchers at CANNA have noted a study by scientists at the university of California that found certain frequencies of sound can cause plants’ ‘mouths’ (also known as stomata) to open, which can help the plant grow and take in more nutrients. But there is a catch. If you play music to your plants for more than three hours, they can’t control water lost through transpiration and become dehydrated (a bit like if you left your own mouth open for three hours). There’s also some evidence that particular vibrations can help plants synthesise proteins better, and even germinate faster. But it’s hardly mainstream horticultural stuff.  

The aural sweet spot seems to be somewhere between 115Hz and 250Hz, as those vibrations mimic the ones found in nature. Jazz and classical music also seems to be plants’ music of choice. To our knowledge, there haven’t been any experiments done with thrash, death metal or RnB funk, but you’re more than welcome to give it a go. 

Still, most researchers agree that although plants respond to sound vibrations in different ways, it’s a bit of a leap to say they “like” music, or have any kind of musical preference. Plants aren’t sentient in that way. Your snake plant doesn’t have strong feelings about Drake or CCR. That kind of anthropomorphic, we’re-all-cosmically-connected-man thinking never really made it out of the 1970s. 

But whatever science might say, Plant Music lives on. In fact, it’s growing all the time. In 2020, the Barcelona opera re-opened after months of closure with a string quarter performing to a packed crowd of 2,292 house plants (they went with Giacomo Puccini’s “Crisantemi”; the plants seemed to dig it). So maybe the lasting legacy of Plant Music isn’t scientific, but spiritual. It’s a reminder of our two-way relationship with nature, and that all relationships, even botanical ones, require maintenance, care, melody and love. 

If you’re after ways to help your plants that is proven to work, CANNA has a wide range of products, grow guides and articles available to help you get the most out of your gardens. Visit CANNA to learn more.