For centuries, philosophers have compared songwriting to cultivating a garden. The metaphor is simple - they say a melody is like a seed that you water it until it grows into a song. Over the past decade, technology has pushed this metaphor further than anyone ever expected!
One company in particular, called PlantWave, has made it their mission to quite literally generate music from plants. In this article we’ll cover the brief history of plant music, before diving into the most popular hardware and software in this niche.
The plant music devices we'll be covering all utilize a similar technology. They use two electrodes to measure the conductivity of plants, turning the biorhythms into pitch messages. This biodata is fed through a synthesizer and into your phone, speakers, or digital audio workstation.
Whether you're a music producer or just want to listen to the sounds your house plant creates, we'll make sure you find what you're looking for here. If you know what you're after, you can click through to the section that interests you using the overview section below.
A brief history of plant music
Long before plant music devices like PlantWave were on the market, musicians were already writing songs inspired by plants. Before we dive into any commercial products, let’s have a look at where this stuff came from.
During the 1300-1500s, medieval composers penned devotional tunes like The Rose, The Lily and the Whortleberry. This trend continued and climaxed in the late ‘60s and ‘70s with hit songs like Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme. Rolling Stone went so far as to use the name plant music to describe this period.
Songs about plants only represent one facet of plant music. A famous documentary titled The Secret Life of Plants was released out in 1973, citing controversial scientific methods that claimed plants responded to music. The movie’s soundtrack was scored by Stevie Wonder, propelling the film into mainstream popularity. It has been referenced in New Age texts ever since, as proof that plants respond to music.
Despite some of the films more outlandish claims, it’s important to mention that major agricultural operations do in fact use sound to control the biorhythms of their crops. Recent studies on plant signaling and behavior have continued to validate that plants have a mechanical response to acoustic stimulation. It turns out healthy soil is a noisy place, due to the variety of insects and microorganisms that live there.
Plants are likely to respond to sounds that closely resemble their natural habitats. Whether they respond better to Bach than Death Metal, as The Secret Life of Plants claimed, is still up for debate.
Biodata Sonification: The music our plants make
The expression plant music has taken on a third meaning in modern times, as technology companies release plant sonification tools as commercial products. Instead of writing songs for plants or singing to them to stimulate growth, these tools let plant owners do the opposite. They give you a chance to hear the songs that your plants are singing.
Using PlantWave to generate MIDI
PlantWave is currently the most popular biodata sonification product on the market. Its history spans more than a decade. It all started with an art experiment by Joe Patitucci and Alex Tyson, of the record label Data Garden.
How to use PlantWave
PlantWave measures electrical variations in a plant using electrodes that are placed on the plant’s leaves.
These electrical signals are translated into pitch messages performed by virtual instruments stored locally on the hardware.
User the PlantWave app to see how these wave forms change over time and listen as new textures emerge in real time. They recommend connecting to a bluetooth speaker or headphones. These android and ios apps are free to download.
Music producers have the option to connect PlantWave to a MIDI synthesizer using a 1/8” MIDI cable. Integrate with your digital audio workstation and explore the power of generative music.
Data Garden: PlantWave’s backstory
An early prototype of Plantwave was picked up by Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012. The tool measured electric conductivity on a plant’s leaves and plotted it on a graph. This biodata was passed into hardware and software synthesizers to generate what they called the Data Garden Quartet. Four plants were set up in a room, generating a steady stream of ambient music for the museum visitors to enjoy.
The art installation was so successful that the Data Garden team decided to test the waters with a product that could be sold commercially. They initially came out with a tool called MIDI Sprout, but when PlantWave received more than $83,000 via their Kickstarter fundraising campaign, they pivoted and absorbed MIDI Sprout under the new company name.
Best Alternatives to PlantWave
PlantWave is arguably the most advanced plant music device, but a few other competitors exist. We’ll share them here to give you a full picture of your options. This way you can make an informed decision if you decide to buy something. PlantWave is retailing for $299 at the time that this article is published.
Music of the Plants
Music of the Plants caters to the same demographic that consumes content like The Secret Life of Plants. They trace their roots back to an Italian New Age commune founded in the late 1970s, called Damanhur. Known for experiments with biofeedback and plant sonification, Damanhur did in fact lead some of the earliest experiments in this field.
The plant music device itself, Bamboo M, is shaped like a small iPhone (or an iPod with a bamboo case). It uses electrodes to measure external influences like wind and touch. According to one of the site’s marketing page, your thoughts and feelings can even cause the plant music to respond. This triggers a change in the plant’s musical output.
Users can pick from a variety of musical instruments, root notes and scales. These parameters give you some control, but ultimately the plant is responsible for generating the melody. Just like PlantWave, the Bamboo M can send its musical data to a MIDI synthesizer using a MIDI cable.
At the time of this article, the Bamboo M is marked down to $438 USD.
If you’re looking for a low cost alternative to PlantWave and the Bamboo M, check out PLANT Choir. Like the other plant music devices, it sends a small amount of energy through your plant using two conductive clips. The device measures fluctuations in the plant and sends that data to your mobile device via Bluetooth.
Users have the same freedom to select an instrument, scale, and tempo to generate music with their plants. The small, white circular device lacks some of the visual character of PlantWave, but at the retail price of $199 USD, you’ll save a hundred dollars.
Plants Play combines the bamboo aesthetic of Bamboo M with the circular design of PLANT Choir. Their website doesn’t provide a lot of information about how the device actually works, but it depicts users taking it on hikes and attaching it to wild plants. It uses the two-electrode model and integrates with mobile apps, but doesn’t offer the same control over musical parameters like scale and tempo. At 376 Euros, Plants Play is on the pricier side.
Synplant plugin for sound design
This final tool, Synplant, is not actually a plant music sonification device, but we couldn’t leave it out of this article. Synplant is a software synthesizer that offers a unique interface for generating sounds. Instead twisting dials and knobs, Synplant lets users plant virtual seeds that grow into an assortment of synth patches.
At the center of the plugin is a virtual seed, surrounded by a circle featuring the twelve notes of a chromatic scales. Users can pull on small sprouts emanating from the seed and extend them out toward the circle to design their sounds. Parameters like tuning, effect, release, and atonality impact the timbre of your virtual instrument. Explore the DNA strand of your musical seed in a double helix design where each rung corresponds to a sound parameter.
Synplant is a cult classic among sound designers. It flies in the face of traditional interfaces and combines ease of use with a rich spectrum of sounds that even the most advanced audio engineers can use.
Well, that pretty much covers it. We hope you enjoyed this collection of unusual plant music generators. Check out our articles on melody generators and chord generators for more ideas on how to get your songs started.