It's often said that music can feed the soul, but could it possibly feed the plants as well? London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra have been trying to find the answer to just that question recently. In March they played a unique concert at the Cadogan Hall in London where, instead of the usual rows of humans, the auditorium was filled with more than 100 varieties of potted plant.
To massed lines of blooming garden favourites, 33 of the orchestra's musicians played a three-hour recital that included Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and his 40th Symphony. The object of the concert was to determine if being stimulated with live music might help the plants flourish over the next few months.
The image of musicians giving their all for the benefit of a shrubbery is certainly amusing. As the orchestra's conductor Benjamin Pope said: "The audience was the most fragrant we have ever played to, although it was slightly unnerving to see row upon row of bowed heads instead of applauding human beings." While the image this conjures up is so pretty and surreal it justifies the experiment alone, there was also a slightly more serious bent to the project. "Hopefully the sound of classical music resonated with the plants and will result in a genuine growth spurt over the spring months."
If the whole project sounds like it is vaguely lacking in scientific rigour -the three hours' worth of exposure the concert gave the plants is surely a little brief to meaningfully affect their growth - that's because it is. Rather than being commissioned by a university or research institute, the project's funder was none other than that beacon of the scientific community, the shopping channel QVC. The channel also arranged a 45-minute recording of the performance. Titled The Floral Seasons: Music to Grow To, the album is available to download free of charge from QVC's website.
So is there anything more to the Royal Philharmonic's experiment than an amusing little stunt? Not necessarily at first glance. The study mentioned by QVC to support the idea of classical music's greater benefits was performed in the 1970s by a certain Dorothy Retallack, who attempted to demonstrate at the same time that loud rock did plants harm. A cursory look at the paper she wrote reveals such obvious value judgements about the relative noxiousness of rock music that it's hard to credit her impartiality. She seems to have decided that a few stray chords of Led Zeppelin damaged the development of both humans and plants long before she exposed her conservatory to a diet of soft orchestral strings.
Looking a little deeper, however, there are other, arguably more reliable studies out there affirming classical music's effect on brainless organisms. While plants' response to musical stimulus has long been discussed anecdotally by amateur gardeners, there is in fact a body of scientific study that suggests that music can indeed alter plants' health and rate of growth. A 1971 study by the University of Ottawa's Pearl Weinberger discovered that germinating wheat grains exposed to music played at humanly audible levels weighed two to three times more than grains that had been given no musical encouragement. More recently, Weinberger's findings have been confirmed by a 2007 study from South Korea's National Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology. Playing a selection of classical pieces to rice plants, the institute's staff discovered that sounds played at 125Hz and 250Hz stimulated growth.
It seems that plants not only respond to music, they even react differently to various genres, according to a study by students at Pennsylvania's Allegheny College (the calibre of researchers into the subject, it should be admitted, is not always particularly high). Their study suggests that exposing recently germinated sunflower seeds to music altered their levels of some isoenzymes, with differing results for classical and heavy metal music. The study hypothesises - but does not confirm with conclusive proof - that exposure to classical music in particular may boost levels of growth-inducing auxins. Plants, it seems, not only feel, they may also have good taste.
Exactly why music stimulates plants is a moot point - it's been suggested that, rather than providing "enjoyment", the sound waves created by music actually create a stress response in the plant, one which encourages them to "fight back" by growing as a defence. This inevitably begs the question of whether plants might in fact be just as stimulated by the sound of a dripping tap or distant pneumatic drill as by that of a classical orchestra.
Whatever the true reason for the potentially positive influence of music on plants, its actual use as a growth booster has not yet made it into the mainstream of common agricultural techniques. But while the world's wheat fields are not yet throbbing to the sound of Beethoven, there are in fact a few musically enhanced fruits and vegetables already out there on the market. For the moment, these seem to be mainly fringe, luxury products sold for their novelty value as much as for any unique quality they might possess. With its national appetite for luxurious, heavily wrapped produce and unusual gifts, Japan is the centre of these experiments, and already has a sizeable market for such musically enhanced perishables. For some reason, Mozart remains the preferred musical "food" for these products, just as with the Royal Philharmonic's concert - perhaps this is because there is plenty of music in the Austrian's oeuvre that neatly balances lively stimulation with a sense of peace and order.
Among Japan's Mozart-stimulated offerings are such specialities as the Chuo Seika company's "Mozart bananas". These are Filipino fruit ripened for a week in a chamber filled with the sound of the great Austrian's music. Whether this week of sonic pampering genuinely improves the banana's flavour is a moot point, but at a price of around Dh13 a bunch (a reasonably moderate one for Japan), it certainly isn't deterring customers. Using music to improve ripening is not the only Japanese innovation in this area - a company called Harada Tomatoes has also had success playing Mozart in its greenhouses. Exposing its tomato plants to 10 hours' worth of Mozart's music daily, the company produces a smaller, especially sweet fruit it calls "star drops". These have been selling well, though the grower Hiroko Harada admits that the music's main positive influence is probably on the staff rather than the plants. As she commented in The Japan Times: "The most important thing is that the music creates a relaxed and comfortable environment for us to work in, and that rubs off on the tomatoes."
Of all the comments about music and plant growth, this is perhaps the wisest. While studies do indeed suggest that certain sound frequencies boost growth, there seems to be little persuasive evidence that these frequencies need to be produced by anything humans would recognise as music. But when gardeners and farmers have their nerves soothed by beautiful, harmonious sounds, they are surely far more likely to tend their plants carefully and more often, treating each pot as precious cargo to be coaxed and cosseted.
The Royal Philharmonic's charming experiment aside, the best means to help plants with music is by playing some to the people who tend them.