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How Music Works: does playing music for plants help them grow?

Jennifer Van Evra

It’s a theory that dates all the way back to 1848, when a German professor published a book about the soul life of plants, and London’s Royal Philharmonic even recorded a special album called The Flora Seasons: Music To Grow To.

But can sweet serenades really lead to perkier plants?

Turns out that, in the science world, it’s a heated debate.

The best-known experiment was in 1973, when a researcher in Colorado named Dorothy Retallack put groups of identical plants in two separate laboratories: one where the plants got a steady diet of rock music, the other with easy listening.

Retallack found that the ones that were raised on easy listening fared much better than their rock 'n' roll counterparts, growing tall and healthy, leaning in toward the speakers. The plants that got rock 'n' roll leaned away from the speakers and died prematurely.

Another study out of the University of Arizona involved sprouting seeds in four strictly controlled environments — one silent, one with music, one with "healing energy" (administered 15-20 minutes a day by an energy healer) and one with pink noise (like white noise but with more low frequency) — and they found that the seeds that got the music sprouted more quickly and more reliably than those that were not exposed to music.

And a paper out of South Korea’s National Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology asserted that even conversation-level music — they used Beethoven — actually alters two genes that are involved in plants' response to light.

But a study out of Penn State says it’s unlikely that music will help your plants grow. The researchers argue that plants definitely respond to external stimuli, so things like wind will induce changes in their growth — but that, for a plant, music is basically just another source of vibration. The Penn state researchers added that the most effective way to have your plant grow is to "provide them with light, water and mineral nutrition."

In other words: it might help, but not because it’s music. You could blow on the plant and it might just have the same effect.