Putting the Synth in

The science and pop culture behind the theory that plants enjoy music

Text Mirabella Shahidullah

In 1976, with the help of a Moog Synthesiser, Canadian composer Mort Garson self-released the first album where the market audience was not people, but plants. Entitled Plantasia, copies of Garson’s album were obscure and only one store carried it in California; the Melrose Plant Store (though you could also score a free copy if you ordered a Simmons mattress from Sears.) Plantasia was never widely released and remained pretty obscure for decades; it wasn’t until the early 2000s when listeners rediscovered its psychadelic sounds. In the last twenty years the album has  grown a cult following, with the value of the original copy selling for upwards of $600. 

Plantasia by Mort Garson was the first album where the music was conducted for plants, not humans. Image: Sacred Bone Records

At the time however, Plantasia was more of a a passion project for Garson than a business venture, it was released at a time when the idea that plants could benefit from music was growing in popular culture.  Just three years earlier, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Birds had published their New York Times bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants which was later reowned for theorising that plants enjoyed certain sound frequencies to the point that some musical genres could actually encourage plant growth and biomass. Despite its bestselling status, The Secret Life of Plants was controversially recieved by botanist communities and was regarded as pseudoscientific by many. Botanist Leslie Audus regarded the book as outrageous and famously asserted that it should be regarded as a work of fiction. Despite its controversy however, the book became an overnight success and inspired the 1979 documentary of the same name, notable for its soundtrack by Stevie Wonder. 

Although The Secret Love of Plants perhaps found its audience in the growing niche of hippies who were immersing themselves into the world of seventies mysticism, Plantasia was inspired by Garson’s wife, Peggy who was described as an ‘avid gardener’ and passionate about teaching her children the connection between nature and humans. Garson’s exploration into the world of music for plants was a more creative pursuit than scientific. In an interview with NPR, Garson’s daughter said, ‘I don't think he sat and put a plant in front of him while he was creating the music and measured it every day to see if it was growing an inch or so, I think it was purely conceptual.’ 

Though Plantasia was largely idealistic, the theory on which Garson based his album is still contested within scientific circles. In one of the earliest studies in the 1950s, Dr. T.C. Singh experimented with music and plants by playing Western classical music through loudspeakers in his lab, the audience was six different varieties of rice. His research concluded that he was able to increase growth by 20% in comparison to his control group. Singh also found that the rice plants didn’t just like Western music but also Indian classical music or raga, which promoted in between 25%-60% more growth. Violin was found to be the most successful instrument to promote plant growth and the study was also conducted in Canada by engineer Eugene Canby. Canby found that playing Bach’s baroque violin sonatas to fields of wheat brought a 66% increase in growth.

Presently, scientists are still researching the effects of music on plant growth. In a 2013 study conducted by the St Francis College in India, researchers divided rose plants into groups and exposed them to different musical genres. Interestingly, Indian classical music and Vedic chants showed exhibited strong growth in the roses with the actual plants growing toward the source of the music by the second week. Western classical music instead, showed incremental growth and plants continued to grow straight up rather than bending towards the music. They found that rock music was the least successful and actually detrimental to the plants; the roses bended away from the music source and leaves decreased significantly, interestingly, though the rock listening roses flowered the least, they were also the plants to grow the most thorns (turns out roses really aren’t fans of Hate Eternal’s ‘Bringer of Storms.’)

Though such studies naturally compel us to believe that plants do respond positively to certain kinds of music, other institutions have pointed out that the sheer quantity of variables with plant growth and music exposure makes this theory difficult to actually prove. In 2007, the University of Santa Barbara pointed out that the growth increase could actually be an outcome of the caretakers being exposed to music; perhaps music that increases positive reactions in humans allows for them to take care of their plants better, allowing for the plants to reach new growth levels.

With such evidence on each side, the theory remains somewhere between fact and fiction for scientists and gardeners. Although we may never fully be able to prove if plants are really classical music fans, plant lovers still might find listening to the soothing sounds of the synth as a relaxing way to take care of their beloved shrubs.

Agave Plant (right) by Katie Trifo 

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