Plants that Sing

Original Art by  Jon McCormack .

Original Art by Jon McCormack.

This episode was written and produced by Rachel Ishikawa.

Have you ever wondered what your dog or cat would say to you if they could talk? How about your plant? In this episode we explore the world of bioacoustics and cognitive ecology. Featuring MIDI Sprout creator, Joe Patitucci, and ecologist, Monica Gagliano, who is the author of Thus Spoke the Plant.


Petite Suite II by Sunshine Recorder
Piano Sonata no15 by Sunshine Recorder
I Wanna Start a Fire (No Oohs and Ahhs Instrumental) by Midnight Riot
Falling by Hey Lunar
Twangling by Hey Lunar
Refractor by Hey Lunar
Chumley Giles by Uncle Skeleton
Shufflin Instrumental by Dancia Dora

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[SFX: Data Garden Quartet Philadelphia Museum Exhibit Clip]

You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... I'm Dallas Taylor.

Many of us keep plants in our home. We give them water and sunlight, and then pretty much leave them alone. But some people form a deeper relationship with their plants. They give them names and treat them like they’re part of the family. They may even sing to them. Of course, plants don’t sing back, or do they? Actually, the music you’re hearing right now was composed entirely from the biodata of plants.

Exhibit VO - Welcome to a special exhibition recording of Data Garden Quartet, recorded live at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Exhibit VO - The music you’re about to listen to was generated by four living plants.

Exhibit VO - On lead synthesizer, a philodendron.

Exhibit VO - On rhythm tone generator, schefflera number one.

Exhibit VO - Bass synthesizer, schefflera number two.

Exhibit VO - Controlling ambience and FX, snake plant.

Wait a second, this all sounds really nice but how does it work? Last time I checked, plants sound nothing like synthesizers.

Exhibit VO - To produce this recording, electronic sensors were placed on plant leaves to measure conductive biorhythms in real time. These fluctuating rhythms were translated into data, allowing each plant to play a range of notes and textures.

So basically, electronic sensors are placed on the plant leaves and these sensors record the plant’s biodata. Then, through a process known as data sonification, a sound designer assigns a range of pitch, rhythm, timbre, and texture to this raw data. Sounds pretty cool right? Well if that was it, we’d expect to hear a very consistent musical piece. I mean plants really just kind of do the same thing all the time. They just sit there and grow and grow and grow. But plants seem to change depending on who or what is around them.

At times, museum goers affected the compositions by touching and interacting with the plants. The combination of these dynamic interactions between plants, humans, and technology have resulted in this recording.

Joe: I am founder of Data Garden and we make music from bio data.

[music in]

That’s Joe Patitucci and he might very well have the best title ever. He’s a multimedia healing artist working to foster connection to intuitive states and the natural world.

Joe: I do not sing to my plants. But I'll go and just hang out with them and I'll exchange energy with my hands. I'll just hold my hand a couple of inches away from them and just tune into that.

Joe believes that plants and sound are deeply connected. He even created a tool that let’s plants sing.

It’s called the MIDI Sprout. It’s a small pocket-sized device that’s relatively simple. It takes the electrical impulses or “bio data” of a plant and uses it to control sound.

For some people, the MIDI Sprout taps into a simple desire: if plants could talk... what would they say?

[music out]

The idea for the MIDI Sprout was inspired from Joe’s music.

Joe: At that time I actually didn't even have any plants in my house. My relationship with purely one of like going out to experience it and then coming back with a feeling and then using that as my inspiration to express musically.

[SFX: Nature field recording]

Before the MIDI Sprout, he would often go on long nature walks and take a little hand held recorder with him. He would record sounds and then take these sounds back into the studio and use the recordings to make music. He really wanted to capture the feeling of those walks in his music. The feeling of a quiet forest or the feeling looking out from a mountain top.

[SFX: Field recording out]

But after a certain point that wasn’t enough for Joe.

Joe: What if I could just connect directly to this natural force and have the vibrations or just the ... have some kind of data or something coming from this natural environment and having that expressed as music in real time.

Joe began researching the history of electronic music that used plants. Turns out there’s a bunch of artists and musicians who have been inspired… one way or the other… by plants.

[SFX: Plantasia music]

Take for example this album from the mid-70’s called Plantasia by Mort Garson. The album describes itself as “warm earth music for plants and people who love them.”

With it’s whimsical, joyous songs, the album as one of the premiere compositions in early electronic music. But the subtext of the album overshadows the music itself. The album was made to help plants grow - and some plant lovers believe it works.

[SFX: Richard Lowenberg -Secret Life of Plants]

Another artist from the 70s, Richard Lowenberg, created strange, arrhythmic analogue synth music… also with the help of bio data from plants.

Joe Patitucci wanted to create a more modern way of using plant biodata. One that didn’t only run through analogue instruments, but could work digitally, running MIDI.

[SFX: Midi Sprout - Computer Dance]

Joe: MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It's really just like data notation. It's like musical notation for computer software or synthesizers.

And so the MIDI Sprout was born.

Joe: It's very similar to a lie detector circuit. How it works is that you have like two probes on the skin and there's a small electrical current being run into your skin and then we're measuring the variation in the conductivity on your skin, so if you think of the graph that comes off of the lie detector and think of that wave, what we're doing is we're taking that wave and then we're translating that into pitch.

Just imagine giving the plant a lie detector test. One probe on one leaf, one probe on the other. You can then program these waves to sound like a flute or wind chimes, or maybe a synth pad.

[music in]

Joe: I just feel like it sounds like ethereal, angelic, just really chill music that just sounds dreamy.

Joe: What's really interesting too is that at first we just thought about this as a product for artists and musicians and designers and people that would take this raw, midi stream and then design for it so that it could be expressed as music. What we found later on is that yoga teachers, meditation teachers, all these other people want to have this experience as well.

[music out]

But Joe found that the MIDI Sprout was more than just an instrument. Normally when a plant is hooked up to the MIDI Sprout, the sound it produces is relatively consistent.

[SFX: MIDI Sprout music example]

But that sound occasionally changes.

[SFX: Midi Sprout music shift]

Joe: Primarily that change is happening because there is a change in the amount of water between two points on the plants. Now exactly why that is happening is for a whole host of reasons, some of which we can perceive and some of which we may not be able to perceive… As a human, we have a very small, visible light spectrum compared to what plants are absorbing and what is important to a plant's health.

[music out]

Even something as simple as moving a plant into a warmer room could trigger a change in the music. But Joe noticed another trigger. Not only were temperature and light changing the sound of the MIDI Sprout, certain people were, too.

[SFX: Nature of Now music track]

Joe: It wasn't like they were touching the plant, they were just near it and I was just reading a book and I just heard it and I was like, “What the heck's going on over there?” I get up and go over to the person just say, “Excuse me, I had this experience. I just heard this plant just completely changed when you walked in,” and they just say, “Oh yeah, that makes total sense.” ...And they're like, “Oh yeah, I'm a, I'm a Reiki master or I'm an energy healer, I'm a botanist or I'm a florist.” These were people that had a really deep connection to plants or biology or also these were people that had really cultivated a deep relationship with energy, with vibrational energy and things outside of what we can perceive.

It felt like Joe was tapping into something much bigger. The plants seemed like they were reacting.

Joe: After experiencing that, that's when I was like, “Okay, I need to keep sharing this because there's clearly something happening here.”

To Joe, the MIDI Sprout revealed that plants were aware of the humans around them. What started as a passion project, became a way of life. Not only did the MIDI Sprout bring him closer to plants, but it also taught him how to become more aware of his surroundings.

[music out]

But Joe isn’t a scientist. He’s a musician. The MIDI Sprout at its core is an artistic expression.

[music in]

Joe: Sometimes people will jump on our Instagram or something and like be and get like troll us like, “Plants don't sound like flutes! You guys are crazy!” All this stuff and I'm just like, “Yeah, I know plants don't sound like flutes and clouds aren't actually green,” but the weather channel has a way of visualizing the data of weather and we have a way of sonifying the data from plants and we design it in a specific way that creates space for people to tune into what's happening in it.

The MIDI Sprout can make us feel more connected to plants and our surroundings, but is there any science to backup Joe’s ideas? Can plants react and communicate with us? We’ll find out, after this.

[music out]


[music in]

Joe Patitucci created the MIDI Sprout. A device that uses the bio data from plants to create music. Using the MIDI Sprout, he noticed that sounds would change depending on who was interacting with the plant - as if the plants were reacting to them. But is there any science to back this up?

[music out]

In the early seventies Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird wrote a book called The Secret Life of Plants, which argued that plants could feel emotions. They suggested that plants felt happiness when they listened to rock music…

[SFX: rock music play]

...or that they felt sad when shrimp were cooked in the same room as them.

[SFX: boiling water sound]

The book was later adapted into a documentary entirely scored by Stevie Wonder. It became a cult classic.

[SFX: The Secret Life of Plants, Stevie Wonder music clip]

Scientists on the other hand denounced Tompkins and Bird’s theory as pseudoscience.

[music in]

Monica: Many scientists would not touch this area at all, exactly because they don't want to be labeled anything like that, and they don't want to be associated to any of that stuff.

That’s Monica Gagliano.

Monica: I am a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, and I'm just about to open a new lab, called The Biological Intelligence Lab.

Monica: I still feel that we need to have the courage to ask the questions that need to be asked. And if that means that some people will feel uncomfortable, well, let's feel uncomfortable, and then we'll see. At least we're testing, and that's the role of science.

[music out]

While researching fish along the Great Barrier Reef, she developed a relationship with these fish. But in order to research them, she had to kill some of them to analyze their organs. After a certain point she just didn’t want to do that anymore. She was worried this would be the end of her career in science… but then one day she was gardening when she realized…

[music in]

Monica: “Oh, you can take leaves from us. We don't mind. You can work with us. You don't have to kill us to be able to take your data and do your studies.” And so I kind of embarked in that exploration not really knowing what I was really going to get into.

Now, Monica's one of the leading scientists in cognitive ecology which is all about...

Monica: ... decision-making, learning, communication, and all these processes occur in different systems.

[music out]

There is a lot of research that documents plant communication using chemicals. Take tobacco plants. When caterpillars eat their leaves [SFX], the plant releases an airborne chemical. [SFX: Munching sounds] This chemical then attracts other bugs, who swarm to the area and then feed on the caterpillars. Using their own chemical defense, tobacco plants effectively eradicate the threat of the caterpillars.

There’s a lot less research, however, on the ways plants interact with sound. And that’s where Monica comes in. Monica is interested in the sub field of bioacoustics.

[music in]

Monica: Sounds is everywhere, sounds travel really well. Amongst the various systems of communication, it is relatively cheap, because it doesn't require the production of a particular receptor or a particular chemical to be able to be, the information to be transferred.

Monica was curious if plants could detect sound vibrations.

Monica: I conducted an experiment where my question was like, "Well, can the plants find, or at least locate the direction where the water source might be if it doesn't have access to water, and there is no water around really, it's just the sound?"

[music out]

[SFX: Stream sound]

In her experiment Monica put two tubes underneath a container holding a pea plant. She then attached small speakers to the tubes, one which played the sound of running water. Monica found that the pea plants could sense the sound vibrations. Their roots would grow down into the tube with the running water sounds - even though there wasn’t any water there.

And plants don’t just respond to sound. In an experiment using laser technology, Monica discovered something very strange in the roots of a corn plant.

Monica: We're just literally detecting movement through light basically. And when you do that, the returning signal, which is obviously a frequency, can be amplified, and then you can hear it within our range. The best way for us to describe it was a clicking sound, because it is a series of, it seems like a series of clicking noises.

[SFX: Clicking sound]

Monica: The walls of plant cells are rigid, they are hard, so plants have an enzyme that literally break the wall so that the cells can grow, and then they rebuild. That's how they grow. So there is this constant breaking and rebuilding, breaking and rebuilding, and we thought maybe that's what the clicking sounds that we are detecting are representing.

But that’s just a theory.

Monica: There are lots of possible ideas and explanations, but the truth is that we don't really know.

[music in]

There isn’t enough research to show how and why plants use sound. Monica doesn’t have any romanticism around the relationship plants have to sound.

Monica: I receive a lot of emails from people commenting on, "Oh, here is the plant singing," and that's not what I do. My plants don't sing, especially not in a lab. But they do admit sound.

[SFX: Data Garden Quartet Live 4/15]

Monica is referring to instruments that use bio data. Instruments like Joe Patitucci’s MIDI Sprout.

Monica: On one side I think it helps people to connect, and to come closer to the plants and the plant experience. But at the same time, it's dangerous. Underneath, what that story is really saying or is doing is the human is the most important reference point. So, for the plants to be communicating with us, they need to do it in our terms. So they need to speak and play music that we appreciate, and we can hear. There is always the human as the golden standard.

[music out]

But, to be fair, we are humans. And humans have a hard time listening to each other, let alone plants and animals. Joe’s work using the MIDI Sprout is centered on the human experience. He’s using data sonification to provide an accessible way for people to grow deeper connections with nature.

Joe: I love the kind of work people are doing in bioacoustics, but at the end of the day, it's not something that most people are going to listen to you for a period of hours every day of their life. [SFX: Clicking sound]. For now, this is a way of tuning into data and being able to tune into something that's happening in a plant, in real time.

[music in]

Monica: Science has got all its own little problems, but when the scientific method is applied correctly, it's a beautiful method to explore the world, And in the case of the bio acoustics, especially for plants, this is very important. Otherwise, we have the risk of dismissing it, because that's too fanciful, or believing in things that are not real.

It's not very different from like an artist, or a musician. We are listening all the time with our bodies, no matter what we are listening and looking at. And then we apply a particular method, and mine filters through the method of science.

Joe: We're not going to judge people for being like, “Hey, you know what, when I tuned into my third eye, all of a sudden these angel sounds came on.” Like, “Hey that's awesome. Maybe there's a relationship there. Maybe there's not.” We wouldn't be able to have a hypothesis if we didn't have the space to actually say what we were experiencing and feeling.

At the end of the day, it’s about empathy and understanding of our world. We’re really used to data visualization, but our visual sense gets a lot of attention. Data Sonification gives us a glimpse into something we can’t see. And using our ears instead of our eyes may give us some new insight and perspective on information. It may even help us form deeper bonds with our plants, animals and each other.

[SFX: Sounds for a Secular Sabbath music track]

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team that makes television, film and games sound incredible. Find out more at defactosound.com.

This episode was written and produced by Rachel Ishikawa. And me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound edited by Soren Begin, sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger. Thanks to Joe Patitucci, Founder of Data Garden for allowing us to use their plant music throughout the episode. Check out more at datagarden.org. You can also buy your very own MIDI Sprout at midisprout.com. Thanks also to Monica Gagliano, a Senior Research fellow at the University of Sydney. Additional music in this episode is from our friends at MusicBed.

You can connect with me and the rest of the 20K team on Twitter, Facebook, or by writing hi @ 20k dot org. You can also find t-shirts, pins, transcripts and all of our other episodes at 20k dot org.

Finally, if you know a plant lover in your life, be sure to share this episode with them.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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