Botanical Harmony: The Interplay Between Plants and Music

There is a particular whimsical magic in Disney’s Fantasia – the classic animated film from 1940. The synchronistic relationship between music and moving image is particularly delightful when expressed during the film’s selection of musical compositions from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker. The music is danced to by a variety of fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves, in a personified depiction of the changing of the seasons.

The scenes commence with a cluster of tiny red-capped mushrooms, resembling little frolicking fellows cloaked in long robes and Asian conical hats, doing the Chinese Dance. Upturned multicolored blossoms then perform the Dance of the Flutes like elegant ballerinas in floating frocks. High-kicking thistles, dressed like whirling dervishes, and orchids, dressed like Russian peasant girls, join together for an energetic jig. And finally comes the Waltz of the Flowers with autumn fairies colouring everything they touch red and gold with their wands. Seeds and leaves freshly liberated from their plant hosts swirl and sashay across the screen before the winter frost arrives.

The captivating synergetic interplay between plants and music has long been explored through avenues both artistic and scientific.

Flash forward from 1940 to 2012 and Disney was playing with plants in an altogether different capacity. As it turns out, Disney has a dedicated research lab (who knew?) and in recent years they have developed technology that wires up living houseplants to allow people to interact with them by transforming them into a fully-functional musical instruments. The touch-controlled technology has been dubbed “Botanicus Interacticus” and means that one can essentially ‘play’ their potted succulent along with their banjo or harmonica. A single wire is inserted into the plant’s soil and it can detect frequencies of human touch and gestural movements and translate this into distinct sounds without causing any harm to the living plant.

The most obvious connection between plants and music is surely our reliance on plant-based materials for the manufacture of a variety of widely-played musical instruments – think all wooden string and wind instruments, seed-pod rattles and shakers, the didgeridoo and concussion sticks, to name but a few. But what about the inverse relationship?

We use plants to play music – but can playing music help to grow plants?

A number of scientists have researched and studied the various environmental responses of plants with the conclusion that plants and animals have much in common when it comes to being sensitive to external stimuli such as light, cold, heat, and noise.

Pressure from sound waves creates vibrations that travel through the air and are picked up by plants. Plants do not ‘hear’ music per se, but they do feel the vibrations of sound waves and this can hasten the protoplasmic movement within their cells. This stimulation, in turn, affects the manufacture of nutrients that help grow a stronger and better plant.

If you are wondering what genre of music your Ficus might fancy it is worth noting that different forms of music have different sound wave frequencies and exert varying degrees of pressure and vibration.

Louder, harder music, like rock, imparts greater pressure, which tends to have detrimental effect on plants – a bit like the effect of a strong wind compared to a mild breeze. So perhaps skip the Guns n Roses and opt for something softer and more melodic. Here’s a little plant-friendly playlist to get you started …

  • Chain of Flowers – Grinderman
  • Don’t Forget the Flowers – Wilco
  • Acony Bell – Gillian Welch
  • Flowers in your Hair – The Lumineers
  • The Gardener – Tallest Man on Earth
  • Orange Blossom Special – Johnny Cash
  • Small Poppies – Courtney Barnett
  • The Appleblossom Rag – Josh Ritter
  • Wallflower – Bob Dylan
  • Last Living Rose – PJ Harvey
  • Where the Wild Roses Grow – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds/ Kylie Minogue