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Exploring nature's silent symphony
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I'm reading
Exploring nature's silent symphony
Pass it on
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I'm reading
Exploring nature's silent symphony
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Articles
22 October 2019

Exploring nature's silent symphony

Dr Dominique Hes lifts the lid on the extraordinary relationship that plants have with sound and music.

Written by Dr. Dominique Hes

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A hundred of us sit crossed legged on the floor of a calm, dimly lit foliage-filled room, completely enthralled by a live music performance by electronic producer, Anatole. Raised amongst the dramatic natural surroundings of the Blue Mountains Anatole shifts the space into a soundscape of surreal ecosystems; drawing on the grand cinematic scale of big ecosystems and the fine beauty in the minutiae of the smallest organisms of our vast Australian landscape. Meditative, emotive, uplifting and restorative, everyone in the room connected through their love of one thing: plants. 

I am reminded of how a plant listens. It might sound weird, but really, it isn’t. Plants can hear. Their foilage tapping into the tunes and vibrations of the world around them. Us, nature, water, the harmonic waves of a song ringing through an atmosphere it lives and breathes. And just like plants take in carbon in a process invisible to the naked eye, those same plants will absorb surrounding sounds. 

When a plant needs a bee to pollinate it, but wants nothing to do with wasps or flies, it will keep an ‘ear’ out for the right buzz before releasing its pollen. It will also ‘listen’ out for munching caterpillars nearby, releasing a bitter chemical to keep them at bay.

Plants have evolved in a world brimming with light and sound but it’s hard to picture them reacting to such stimuli as they don’t have the typical ‘brain’ we humans understand as a control room. Regardless, plants are listening. And just like humans, they like and dislike different sounds – or vibrations if you will, just as they too like different types of music. 

Studies dating back to the 60s show that gentle music around 115-250 Hz stimulates growth in plants that use light to photosynthesise. And, that the optimum time to stimulate your plant is three hours a day – any more than that and the plants gets exhausted, kind of how I’m sure we’d feel after a late night boogie!

Studies have shown that harsher and stronger vibrations have a negative effect on plants, whereas mild vibrations stimulate a plants growth. Translating this to modern day music, rock with its harsher vibrations has negative effects, while jazz, classical, pop and East Indian will keep your houseplants happy.

So while we know that plants hear, do they make sounds?

Yes – and this is actually less of a stretch. It makes sense with water, nutrients, photosynthesis and all their responses to climate and the sun that there would be sounds made. The interesting part is whether these are deliberate and ‘intelligent’ – do plants create sound on purpose? 

When exploring this thought, two examples immediately come to mind; the first is a day plant as it wakes up, yawns and starts pumping water through its ‘body’ and making food. The second is a sound that comes from the tip of a plants root which is kind of like a type of sonar that helps the plant to sense rocks, other trees, and water. 

But what about all us regular folk, who wants to listen to this silent houseplant symphony? Modern day tech can detect slight electrical variations in a plant, like a lie detector, graphing it as a wave, translating it into a pitch, and then out into the world as a sound. You can imagine why these electrical variations occur: sun comes up, plant send messages around to open stomata, moves leaves towards the sun; plant is dry, it sends messages around to go into drought mode.

In 2012 Joe Patitucci and Alex Tyson set up tropical plants in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and connected them to this technology. What they found was not only did the music vary between plants and time of day but also, that the sounds or music made by the plant would completely transform as different people walked into the room. While I’ve searched for research to back this to no avail, the two found that the plants very obviously reacted and resonated to calm centred people who did reiki or yoga or meditation on the regular.

I look to the wall where visual artist Carla Zimbler has projected a cascade of colour and flora, moving and swirling in time with the music in a psychedelic scene. Visualising and exploring the intersection between plants and sound in a room of curious minds. While our naked-ears cannot hear our songs the plants around us are singing, it would appear that they are radiating with sound and music, and I could swear I saw the fiddle leaf figs in the entryway swaying along to Anatole’s ambient show.

Dr. Dominique Hes

Photo by Juliane Mergener on Unsplash

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