Monday, March 14, 2016

If Plants Could Sing - Serenading the Marigolds (Part 1) - Dorothy Retallack

The Story of Dorothy Retallack and her Experiments with Music and Plants
by Don Robertson

© 2005, revised and first published March 14, 2016

     “Please send me more information about the experiments where that lady was playing music to plants. I’m duplicating this for a high school project,” said the voice on the phone.
     It was another call, and like the many email messages and phone calls that I had received for almost a decade, the caller was interested in my article on the experiments where various kinds of music were played to plants, which were then observed to determine if and how the music affected the plants' growth and health. Apparently a number of young people were interested in these experiments and were attempting to duplicate them in school projects.
     Why were they interested?
     During the late 1960’s, the lady who had conducted these experiments discovered that the music of certain rock and roll records appeared to nearly kill the plants in her experiments!
     I told the caller that I knew very little more than what I had written in the article on my educational website, and that a lot of scientific work on the subject had yet to be done.
     For some people, these experiments are laughable, but they interested me. If they were reproducible, they would provide substantiation for what I have been saying and writing about for decades, that music has a powerful effect on all life, either for good or not.
Dorothy Retallack
Dorothy Retallack working with her plants

     Dorothy Retallack was the wife of Denver, Colorado MD, Dr. Louis L. Retallack, and the mother of three children. A singer and an organist, after raising her children she enrolled in the Temple Buell College in Denver, majoring in music.
     One of the requirements for a degree was a biology class where she was required to perform some kind of an experiment. Her teacher suggested one involving her major, which was music. She had read about the experiments of George Smith involving the effect of music on the grown of corn that had been conducted in the early 1960’s. In those experiments, Mr. Smith found that corn seed that had been subjected to music sprouted earlier and grew into greener and bigger plants than had plants not subjected to music at all.

The First Experiment
     Mrs. Retallack decided to see what the effect of sound would be on plants. For her first experiment, she teamed up with a classmate. It was the spring of 1968. They planted philodendron, corn, geranium and radishes and played a tape recording that Mrs. Retallack had made where she played just two notes on her piano over and over. The tape was played for 12 hours each day. By the end of the 21st day, the plants were not doing so well.
    The school had just purchased three biotronic control chambers. Dorothy decided to continue her experiments that summer, this time using the control chambers. The chambers would isolate the plants from other sounds and disturbances. For the next experiment, she provided the same kinds of plants, and again used the same repeated notes, but she didn’t learn anything new.

Bring in the Radios!
     In the fall, a classmate who had been interested in Dorothy’s experiments teamed up with her to use the school's biotronic chambers to conduct further experiments. She put some squash plants into two chambers, and a radio in each chamber. One radio was tuned to a classical station, and the other to a rock and roll station. 
     After eight weeks, Dorothy and her friend were amazed at the results. The squash exposed to the classical music had grown toward the radio and had begun to wrap itself around it. But in the chamber with the rock music, the squash vine had grown in the opposite direction.
     Intrigued by the results, Dorothy conducted more experiments during the summer of 1969. She placed corn, squash, petunias, zinnias and marigold plants in two chambers. In one chamber she placed a radio tuned to an “easy listening” station with “soothing” music, and in the other chamber, a rock station. She turned the radios on for three hours every day. Dorothy watched the chambers in anticipation. She had no idea if she would achieve results similar to those she had conducted with her classmate.
     On the fifth day, Dorothy was surprised to see that in the chamber with the easy-listening music, the plants had begun to bend toward the radio, and they were leafing and budding normally, while in the rock chamber, half of the plants had grown taller, but they had smaller leaves. The rest of the plants were stunted in growth!
     On the ninth day of the experiment, about eighty percent of the plants in the easy-listening chamber were leaning toward the radio, and the plants in the rock chamber were “bending into grotesque shapes.” 
     By the fourteenth day, most of the blooms of the flowering plants in the easy-listening chamber were bending toward the radio, but in the rock chamber, the very tall plants were drooping, the blooms having become faded, and all were turning away from the radio. 
     On the sixteenth day, all but a few marigolds in the rock chamber were dying. Just six feet away in the other chamber, the plants were blooming beautifully.

It's Time For Jimi and the Zepp
     Dorothy repeated the experiment with the same results. At this point, she decided to replace the radios with tape-recorded music.
     For this experiment, she used three biotronic chambers. Three reel-to-reel tape machines were set up, with only the speaker in the chambers themselves. In the first chamber she played what was at that time commonly called “acid rock” music by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the rock group called Vanilla Fudge, who were popular at the time.
Vanilla Fudge

     In the second chamber, she would feature percussion music, and the third chamber would have music without percussion. For the percussion music, she used a recording of steel drums alternating with excepts from an album called Persistent Percussion. The music selections for the third chamber were taken from albums by Earl Grant that were performed by strings, piano, organ and clarinet.
     The result was that the plants in the rock music chamber leaned away from the speaker, the plants in the percussion-music chamber were leaning away, but not as much, and the plants in the third chamber were leaning toward the speaker.
This is what the plants in the rock chamber ending up looking like

     For her next experiment, Dorothy chose two types of classical music. In one chamber she played North Indian classical music, notably from Ravi Shankar’s Sounds of India album, and in the other, a recording of J. S. Bach’s "Orgelbüchlein," which were chorale preludes performed on a pipe organ. The plants “liked” the North Indian classical music the best, leaning so close to the speaker that they were almost at a 60-degree angle with lush and abundant growth and strong roots. The plants in the organ chamber leaned toward the speaker about 30 degrees.
Ravi Shankar's Sounds of India album

     She began experimenting with other kinds of music.  She tried country music, using recordings of Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Nancy Sinatra, Roger Miller, Ray Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. She found that this was the only music to which the plants appeared to have absolutely no reaction, leaning neither toward or away from the speakers.
     She tried jazz music, providing the plants with recordings of Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, the Original Ten Dixieland Rhythm Kings, Al Hurt, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck and Pete Fountain. She assumed that since rock and roll music was said to derive from jazz music, that there would be similar effects, but the experiments surprised her. A little over half of the plants leaned toward the speaker about 15 or 20 degrees.
    In the spring of 1970, the college informed the Denver's evening newspaper, the Denver Post, of Dorothy Retallack’s experiments. The post asked her to perform an experiment that they could photograph and feature in the paper. For this experiment, she used the same ‘acid rock’ of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge as before in one chamber, and then in another chamber she decided to try something new. She would play discordant 20th century classical music.      For the discordant music, she selected sections from Arnold Schönberg’s forth string quartet, "Five Movements for String Quartet" by Anton Webern, Alban Berg’s "String Quartet Opus 3," "Zyklus" by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and works by Harvey Sollberger and Harold Faberman. This is all very discordant music.
This is what discordant 20th-century classical music sounds like!

    The plants in both chambers, the discordant classical chamber and the rock chamber, grew leaning away from the speakers, more pronouncedly in the rock chamber. The Denver Post published a four-page article on June 21, 1970. Soon after, the article appeared in over 500 newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe through a syndication service.

Going National
    The article attracted national attention and soon Dorothy Retallack was contacted by CBS news asking if she would perform an experiment using time-lapse photography. Since the North Indian classical music and the acid rock had had the most profound effects so far, she decided to conduct another experiment using these two musics in two chambers and a third chamber that was silent. The time-lapse cameras from CBS would be trained on all three. The result, broadcast on the Cronkite Evening News on October 16, 1970, was spectacular.  She said that the plants performed “almost like they knew they were on camera.”
     Soon after the telecast, I got wind of Dorothy’s experiments. I was living in California at the time, but being a Denver native, I called her on my next trip to my home town. I was extremely interested because her findings completely matched my own personal discoveries about music: discoveries I had been making since 1968. 
     My discoveries were entirely subjective, and so I was very interested in something that could be demonstrated. It made perfect sense to me that plants would react to music, just as my own personal energy system reacted so very much to music. On a personal level, I cannot tolerate being in the room where hard rock or discordant "classical" music is being played. It completely shatters the harmonious energy fields in my body, something I happen to be very conscious of, throwing them out of balance. I was using North Indian Classical music for meditation purposes at that time, and that was having an extremely positive effect on me.
     Talking with her on the phone, she lamented that little follow-up work had been performed.
     She published her findings in a small book called The Sound of Music and Plants.

     In 1973, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird published a book called The Secret Life of Plants. It addressed the earlier plant and the music experiments that Mrs. Retallack had performed.  

Other Experiments
     The knowledge of the effects of music that we have been describing had actually long been known, but not by many people. Years before, T.C. Singh in India stated that he had proved beyond all doubt that “harmonic sound waves” affected the growth, flowering, fruiting and seed-yields of plants by his experiments of playing traditional South Indian ragas to plants. During the 1960s he had performed ragas in rice fields and had obtained 25 to 60 percent higher yields than regional averages. 
     Arthur Locker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin piped music into his greenhouse in the late 1950s and found that his plants grew straighter, germinated quicker, and bloomed more abundantly. About the same time, Canadian Eugene Canby broadcast Bach violin sonata to a plot of wheat, producing a crop that was 66 percent greater than normal, with larger and heavier seeds.
     In 1979, as I began collecting more data and had begun lecturing on the subject of positive and negative music, I created my own experiment. in my Santa Rosa, California backyard I put together a wooden frame on top of a small table and covered it with clear plastic sheeting. First I played Arnold Schönberg's discordant opera "Moses and Aaron" to the plants during the day from a boom box inside of my 'chamber,' then after they had all died, I put in new plants from the same stock and played the completely concordant sacred music by 16th century composer Giovanni da Palestrina during the day. These plants flourished.
     Since the historic experiments of Dorothy Retallack, very little followup appears to have been performed. The bulk performed by school students. 
     For example, a 10-year-old Augusta, Georgia boy named Daniel McElmurray, created a prize-winning science fair project where he demonstrated the effects of classical, country and rock music on his father’s 500-cow dairy herd.  After listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Shania Twain and non-twentieth-century classical music, the cows demonstrated that they preferred classical to country and rock by producing 1,000 pounds more milk for Daniel’s father.
     In another experiment, reported in the The San Francisco Examiner of Sunday, August 19, 1979, Chris Johnson, a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, reported that with experiments that he had performed at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, Dolphins were indifferent to Pink Floyd, but swam in a synchronized whirl to the music of Bach.
     I have found in my almost 50 years of work in this area that many people are absolutely afraid of discovering that perhaps the music that they cherish and listen to could actually be something that is negative. 
     It's time to reexamine the changes in culture that took place during the 20th century.

Part Two of "If Plants Could Sing" is the concluding article in this set and will be posted next.
© 2005, 2016 by Don Robertson