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Can plants hear music?

Dear Doctor Plant,

One month ago my boyfriend moved in with me, and we’ve changed our home interior to match both our tastes. There’s just one thing: my plants. I have been collecting them for years now and I am very proud of my collection. Most of my green babies are in the living room where my boyfriend has installed his speakers which he uses to listen to techno music on weekends – at high volume. I’m worried that this will have a bad impact on my urban jungle. Can plants hear music and are they affected by this?

Jeremy (29)

Dear Jeremy,

What’s happening in the minds of our cats, dogs and babies? Our fascination with the thoughts and feelings of the creatures we care for but cannot directly communicate with is perfectly understandable. Your question is one that scientists have been asking for decades.

I’ve recently read about an Italian winemaker who is convinced that classical music helps his trees grow better, so he plays Mozart in his vineyard. And a popular 2014 survey cited on many blogs suggests that certain roses grow faster when exposed to classical music and Vedic chants. In the groovy seventies this was also a popular subject. The Secret Life Of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, became a bestseller. In the field of science, however, there has been skepticism – even disapproval – of this line of thought.

To answer your question we have to look at plant neurobiology, a field of study which investigates whether plants are able to sense sounds, touch and gravity. Plants do not sense things in the same way humans do. They have evolved to be eaten and therefore have become desensitised to physical pain or pleasure, says Stefano Mancuso, director of the International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology.

According to some studies however, plants do react to certain sounds. Researchers at the University of Missouri discovered that Rock Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) could recognise the sound of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf. After it was exposed to the recording of a chewing caterpillar the plant produced a more poisonous chemical as a means to defend itself. In another test carried out by the Institute of Mancuso, the roots of young maize plants hung in the water were visibly seen respond to noise disturbances.

Jeremy, to come back to your question: Are your plants (negatively) affected by your boyfriend’s techno music? Probably not. Or perhaps to a minor extent if your boyfriend’s music resembles the sound of a feeding caterpillar. But if you need more reassurance, start an experiment! Split your plants between the techno room and a quiet room, and give them the same amount of light, water and attention. Who knows, maybe you are plant neurobiology’s next superstar.

Dr. David