An ear for music



[Oops–had to edit! Twice!] Ten years before the publication of The Secret Life of Plants (1973) and Dorothy Retallack’s The Sound of Music and Plants, guess which publication was exploring whether or not Rhapsody in Blue would make corn grow faster? Well, if you want old school geekery, you can’t do much better than Popular Mechanics. The following story (my condensation and paraphrasing) by Clifford B. Hicks appeared in the May, 1963 issue:

In 1960, George E. Smith, a farmer and botanist living near Normal, Illinois, heard from the farm editor of his local paper that experiments conducted in India showed rice plants exposed to classical music growing faster and higher. Smith immediately started his own music trials on corn and soybeans. In the greenhouse, plants exposed to Gershwin 24 hours a day grew faster and weighed more. In the spring, Smith tried it outside, again with Gershwin, as well as sustained single notes. At harvest time, the plots exposed to music yielded at least 20 bushels an acre more than those grown in nature’s usual ambience. Smith also found that plants did even better exposed to a single high or low note—thus suggesting that sound waves were warming the soil and stimulating growth. Plants too close to the speakers experienced some foliage damage, but there was a difference in yields of 30 bushels an acre between the “silent” plots and the plots exposed to a single low note.

Smith was convinced that sound waves had an effect on plant growth, but refused to voice any definitive conclusions, and, at the end of the article, was planning to experiment further.

One wonders what came of it all. I don’t hear Gershwin or any other sustained sound coming from our local corn fields; I think it’s safe to say that the practice never made it into the mainstream. Now that corn production is bigger than ever, I wonder if this or other eccentric means of increasing volume will be revived. I won’t mind much if they stick to Gershwin. Though for the single low note option, the minimalists would be the way to go: Arvo Part or LaMonte Young, maybe. Now, that would be interesting.

Couldn’t resist throwing in this handy illustrated garden tip from the same issue of PM: avoid edging problems by lining your garden beds with bricks. Cool shirt!:


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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Great find — I’ll be looking that article up! But — I’m pretty sure that The Secret Life of Plants came out in 1973….

    Ever see the Mythbusters play music for plants? It’s my favorite episode.


  2. Nice “flower bed” – LOL!
    Also anyone else think it is ironic that this experiental farmer is from “near Normal” – those PM editors have me in stitches. Had I known the content of their mag extended to gardening AND that they had such great senses of humor, I might actually have cracked open an issue!

  3. Yes, Jeff,for some reason,I am having major disfunction on the dates for this post. The feeders are going to hate me for all this editing. I’ll send you a copy! Email me your address.

  4. The mythbusters concluded that music did help stimulate plant growth — — and based on my own small studies and the research of others I tend to agree that sound does something to plants — But I remain unsure exactly what…or if it’s always beneficial…

  5. Now I have a good reason to play the fiddle outdoors – who knows, maybe that’ll encourage better tomato production.

    I love the illustrations!

  6. I’ve used brick edging in my garden for years. I like the way it looks. But, the grass does eventually grow over the bricks. Then the bricks need to be edged to keep the tidy appearance.

  7. I’ve just read your book, Jeff, and am thankful for your efforts. The Truth about Garden Remedies is a great read for anyone who wants the truth.

    Jeff actually found that plant stomates may close in response to music. Pretty odd.

    Thanks again Jeff for the book.

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