Behind the Music: Plants

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog writing about the importance of plants. They are the energetic foundation of our biosphere. We use them for food, fiber, fuel and building materials. This is why it is so important to understand how they work to further extract useful work and energy out of them. Today’s post explores an area that plants have not been adequately exploited, and I have no idea why we haven’t jumped on this sooner. I’m talking of course about music production.

Before you can even utter LOLWut!?!, allow me to introduce Data Garden. They are a group dedicated to creating new electronic art and have successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund MIDI Sprout. It’s a cool idea with an even cooler logo (also true for Data Garden generally). MIDI Sprout is a device that allows users to create biofeedback art from plants. Huh? You attach the electrodes to the leaves of your houseplant and it records the changes in electrical signals emitted by the plant into an output readable by synthesizers and computers. So, basically it allows you to turn your plant’s existence into music. They’ve already had an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the recording is available for purchase on their website.

So many thoughts on this…

This may blow your mind, but so many of us plant scientists, photosynthesis researchers specifically, have been communicating with our plants using light and fluorescence to determine how healthy or sick they are. We haven’t been listening to them. Maybe I can finally get a Science or Nature paper if my methods include synthesized acoustics as an assay for plant fitness. Those journals just fall all over themselves when it comes to new methods. The evil scientist in me wants to hook up my lab plants to the MIDI Sprout electrodes and run all of my usual experiments and treatments- red light excitation, treatment with the herbicide DCMU, plant hormones, methyl viologen, DBMIB, or high or low CO2 conditions. I would also require an instrument with submersible electrodes so I can record my algal and cyanobacteria cultures as well. Why should plants be the only photosynthetic organisms to hit the top 100?

The MIDI Sprout is advertised as an instrument to listen to your houseplants, but I don’t think my singular Cristmas cactus will cut it. I’m sure it’s just because you need a pluggable power source, but a portable version can probably be developed with enough solid state storage capacity to cache recorded responses until you can get back to the studio and remix everything. Then you can listen to gardens, natural environments, GMO cornfields or whatever you want. Move over Sound Garden, here comes Garden Sound. Interestingly, there are already quite a few musical recordings close to the genre if you search iTunes for ‘photosynthesis.’ They Might Be Giants has a catchy song about photosynthesis on their ‘Here Comes Science’ album. There’s also a group called Carbon Based Life Forms experimenting in the new age genre with plant-related themes. There’s even a group called ‘Plants’ on the new age label Strange Attractors in the same spirit. However, these are all humans as far as I can tell- autotroph imposters or interpreters- and not actual plants.

Plant-based music could introduce entire new genres and bands. What could they be called? Well ‘photosynthesizers’ is a little obvious and hack and I use it for something else. Phonosynthesis is already taken (recommend the album BTW). I’m copyrighting the term ‘autotrophony’ today as this new music genre. I’m sure it will stick if I hashtag it up on the interwebz. Regardless just think of the possibilities… Chard in G minor, Cacti concerto, Solanum sonata, tulip tunes, floral phonics. Autotrophic American Idol. Move over Beyoncé, here comes Botanée. Producers could create the perfect plant boy band equivalent with different potted species with no chance of a break-up. Can’t storm off stage if you’re immobile! If you hated Monsanto as an agribusiness empire, just wait until they break into the music industry. They will surely negotiate for royalties on music made by plants their seeds produced.

I’m thinking we could kick this movement into the mainstream. Some of the plant-synthesized music has some potential. It just needs some help from our species, since we will be the ones purchasing it. Collaborations with existing artists are what we need. Just think- there could be actual black-eyed peas on The Black Eyed Peas album. Remixes are where it’s at, so I just need the Skrillex Ilex, Avicii Vitis or David Guetta Betula remix. I’m thinking clap tracks ala LMFAO and vocals by Pitbull and Ke$ha. There’s gotta be a hit in there somewhere. I really just need to be a one-hit wonder to fund my photosynthesis research for the rest of my career, but short of that I could probably just DJ weddings, parties and bar mitzvahs on the weekends to independently sustain my lab outside of federal funding dollars.

Dr. Z Scheme PhD Sigh, there were no female DJ clip art images.

Dr. Z Scheme PhD
Sigh, there were no female DJ clip art images.

Of course, there are other artistic experimental ventures I could do with this system. I could try something totally meta. Remember that Talk to a Plant museum exhibit aimed at influencing plant growth with sound? What if you played music to plants while you were recording them for their music? Would it sound similar to the music in the room? Would those recordings be different than the music plants make in silence? Yeah. Mind. Blown.

Why does it have to be just an auditory experience? Why can’t you record the music of your food plants then eat them while listening to their music. I’m also trademarking the ‘Salad Soundtrack Bistro.’ If you live in a state like Colorado, recordings could be made of certain plants used for other recreational purposes and they could be sold as a packaged altered experience. Note, it’s just a good business plan to put my Music Munchie Bodega next door.

Clearly, I have tons of creative ideas for future plant exploitation for the sake of the arts and making money. I’m very curious as to the general availability of the MIDI Sprout on the horizon. If any readers have connections in the music industry, tell them to contact me. Otherwise, I guess I will have to figure out how to start my own youtube channel to get noticed. My music mogul persona is Dr. Z-scheme PhD on my P680 Fluorescent label.* Let’s do this.



*My plant science nerd friends reading this will get it.

References and Links:


3 thoughts on “Behind the Music: Plants

  1. Sam Cusumano

    Hi, this is Sam the Lead Engineer with Data Garden. Thank you so much for your excitement and interest in the MIDIsprout and its possible applications. You really nailed it with your interest to utilize the sprout in conjunction with your experiments. While the MIDI data which the sprout produces can be used to drive sound synthesizers and computers, the information can also be logged and graphed as an experimental dataset. I have been working with a few bio-researchers, discussing how the use of the MIDIsprout (galvanic conductance detectors) could be utilized in the lab. It has surprised me that galvanic conductance is not a ‘standard’ lab tool when dealing with plants and other biological systems. We are planning to offer the MIDIsprout as an open source kit (besides the fully assembled sprout), which I hope can be used for expermientation and education by artists, musicians, teachers, biologists, botanists, philosophers, and florists. Please keep an eye out for updates on our project!

    1. johnnaroose Post author

      Thanks! Not sure how sensitive it will be as an instrument for scientific research. It’s always tricky to relate some measured output to a specific biological process. I’m a biochemist, so I want molecular-level details. Conductance is likely the sum of many simultaneous metabolic reactions. Other computational biologists may be interested in trying to tease apart contributors, but those questions are beyond my field and my pay grade. Still, I like the idea of leveraging the science-art aspect as an alternative funding model!

  2. Pingback: What’s not new under the sun? This blog! | New Under The Sun Blog

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