Do Plants Make Music?

Do plants make music? This is a question that composer/theorist and Pitt doctoral candidate Brian Riordan and Paul Miller, a music theorist and Assistant Professor of Musicianship at Duquesne University, have been addressing in their research. The short answer to that questions is a resounding no! Miller and Riordan point out that commercial products purporting to provide consumers with the opportunity to experience the music of plants are heavily mediated through music technology and myriad creative choices made by the product designers. But they also make it clear that since plants generate voltage they can interface with music technology and thus provide a creative resource for musicians.

Miller and Riordan connected plants to a Scion interface module and an audio interface which was in turned connected to a Max/MSP patch written by Riordan. The Max patch was used to record changes in voltage when the plants were tested under various stimuli (such as changes in the amount of light, touch, or burning a leaf). As the two researchers hypothesized, output voltage from the plants changed significantly depending on stimuli. The changing voltage output can be used in real-time or after the fact as a controller for a synthesizer as part of a musical performance. However, Riordan and Miller are adamant that they are not exploring the music of plants, but rather engaging in heavily mediated data sonification.

Riordan and Miller presented their research with a poster at the Annual Conference of the Society for Music Theory in 2019. Their poster presents, among other aspects of their research, several intriguing graphs of how the plants responded when subject to different stimuli. They also lay the groundwork for how plants can provide a resource for creative and, if you like nutritional collaboration. As Miller points out, “It’s not typical that after the performance you eat your collaborator.”

You can enjoy an in-depth discussion with Brian Riordan and Paul Miller about plants and music creation on the Music at Pitt Podcast.