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Do Plants Like Rock or Bach?

From "Rock or Bach an Issue to Plants, Singer Says" by Anthony Ripley, The New York Times, February 21, 1977

1976/77, The New York Times Company


We have known for a long time that plants respond to subtle changes in their environments.  But do plants respond to music?  And if they do, do they respond differently to different kinds of music?


It's certainly not pure science, and Mrs. Dorothy Retallack is the first to concede it as she roars enthusiastically forward playing recorded music for her plants at Temple Buell College.

It seems that the plants cringe and die when she plays them a regular diet of acid rock by the Led Zeppelin, the late Jimi Hendrix, or the now-disbanded Vanilla Fudge.  The plants lean sharply away from the sound and die in a few weeks.  Even their roots grow aslant, rejecting the music.

When she plays them Bach, or ALa Paloma,@ or, especially, Ravi Shankar's classical Indian music, they flourish, with petunias turning their trumpet-like flowers toward the source of the music and even reaching their leaves out to hug the loudspeakers.

Also cringing and dying are some of the professors at Temple Buell, the former Colorado Women's College that was renamed to honor one of its benefactors.  They find the whole thing an excruciating embarrassment.

AWe have been ridiculed professionally,@ said one biologist in an emotional telephone call.  Each time a national television network or newspaper or magazine writes of Mrs. Retallack's plants, the whole thing boils up again.

The plants, which include beans, squash, grape ivy, primrose, aluminum plant, corn, and annual flowers, sit inside controlled environmental chambers at the liberal arts college in northeast Denver.  This week they were listening to country and Western music in one chamber, which they seemed to like a little bit, and Ajazz@ in another.

Mrs. Retallack, whose husband, Louis L. Retallack, is a Denver physician, has 16 grandchildren and is a professional singer, a mezzo-soprano performing at synagogues, churches, and funeral homes.  She entered college in 1964 after rearing three children and five stepchildren and found she had to take a year of science to graduate.  She began putting music and plants together in 1968 in a biology course and has been at it ever since.

She is full of laughter and enthusiasm: AI love life.  I love people.  I love music.  I find life terribly exciting.

AI=m a musician, wife, mother, a grandmother,@ she said and laughed.  AA scientist?  I=m trying to do things the way they should be done in this kind of an experiment.@

She concedes that scientists can poke holes in some of her methods, but she has been through almost 20 experiments.  She said the plants all seemed to agree with her personal music tastes, preferring classical, light classical, and swing.

Thinking that perhaps her personal likes and dislikes may be perceived by the plants, she had someone else visit them to rewind the tapes and tend them.  The results were the same, she said.

A similar story was told by the Rev. Franklin Loehr, of Princeton, N.J., who identifies himself as Aa Congregational minister with a Presbyterian ordination--rather eclectic.@  Mr. Loehr was the author of a 1959 book called The Power of Prayer on Plants.

AVery definitely, a person can reach out invisibly, immaterially, and can affect the growth of plants for good or ill,@ he said in a telephone interview.

Prayed over seeds seem to sprout better and grow more quickly, Mr. Loehr said.  He added that a few persons have the power to inhibit plant growth by prayer.

He agrees with Cleve Backster, of New York City, who hooked lie detectors to plants and said that readings indicate that plants had a wide range of emotions and could sense human attitudes.

Dr. Cleon Ross, a plant physiologist at Colorado State University, will discuss the subject reluctantly until it gets into plant responses to human thought.  Then he bales out.

APure garbage,@ he said.

At Utah State University, Dr. Frank B. Salisbury of the Plant Science Department is a bit kinder.

AI don=t know what to make of it all,@ he said.  AIt=s been going on since 1950.  There was a report at the 1954 International Botanical Congress by a man from India who played violins to plants.

AI hate to just out-and-out say it=s all baloney, but there=s been an awful lot of pseudo-science in this field for years.  Most of this stuff just doesn=t have the right kind of experimentation.@

He said that as a graduate student at California Institute of Technology, he and other students got some of Rev. Loehr=s prayed over seeds of both kinds and planted them.  Both types--those that were supposed to grow fast and those that were not--grew at the  same rate, he said.

What is needed most in the field, he said, is solid scientific experimentation.  Until that comes along, AI don=t believe any of it,@ he said.

Thinking about the acid rock music and about the young who listen to it, Mrs. Retallack wondered if the music that destroys plants might not destroy people, too.

ASome of those plants look like the people who attend rock festivals,@ she said.


Click Here for Answer Sheet


RETENTION  Based on the passage, which of the following statements are True (T), False (F), or Not answerable (N)?


1.______     Dorothy Retallack=s research is considered to be pure science.

2.______     The plants actually seem to turn away from music they dislike.

3.______     Mrs. Retallack has only worked with flowers.

4.______     Oddly enough, Mrs. Retallack=s plants agree with her own musical tastes.

5.______     Everyone at Temple Buell is proud of this plant research.

6.______     One minister is sure that plants respond favorably or unfavorably to prayer.

7.______     Hard-rock groups never travel with live plants.

8.______     Lie detector tests were used to show that plants have emotions.

9.______     The music and plant research goes back to 1968.

10._____     Mrs. Retallack is herself is a musician.


1.______     Which of the following statements is probably most accurate?

(a)   The plants seem to respond to the desires of the researchers.

(b)   The whole thing is nonsense.

(c)   Most of the researchers do not even like plants.


2.______     Which of the following statements is probably inaccurate?

(a)   More careful research is necessary to prove that plants like music.

(b)   Pseudo-science has many amusing aspects.

(c)   Mrs. Retallack is making vast claims for her research.

COMPLETION     Choose the best answer for each question.

1.______    One kind of music the plants seemed to like a little bit was: (a) country and Western. (b) waltz music. (c) polka tunes. (d) lieder.


2.______    The first report on plants and music was written by: (a) Mrs. Retallack. (b) a famous rock star. (c) a violinist from India. (d) a payer group.


3.______     Mrs. Retallack wonders if the music that destroys plants might: (a) be silly.

(b) destroy people. (c) energize the soil. (d) be violin music.


4______      One tune the plants liked was: (a) AWooden Ships@. (b) AFifty Ways to Leave Your Lover@. (c) AC-Jam Blues@. (d) ALa Paloma@.


5.______     Mrs. Retallack is married to a: (a) physician. (b) violinist. (c) minister. (d) plant physiologist.


6______      One biologist at Temple Buell claimed that the biologists had been: (a) robbed.

                    (b) underrated. (c) stunned by the research. (d) ridiculed professionally.



DEFINITIONS     Choose the definition from Column B that best matches each italicized word in Column A.


Column A                                                                  Column B

1.  excruciating embarrassment                                           ___a. thrive

2.  excruciating embarrassment                                           ___b. vivid

3.  renamed to honor a benefactor                                        ___c. unwillingly

4.  she roars enthusiastically                                                ___d. see, observe

5.  plants flourish with Ravi Shankar                                     ___e. donor, helper

6.  she concedes the point                                                     ___f. detect

7.  the plants might perceive her                                            ___g. stop

8.  plants sense human attitudes                                            ___h. excitedly

9.  reluctantly discuss the subject                                         ___I. accepts

10. power to inhibit plant growth                                           ___J. intensely painful

___k. austerely

___l. shame

___m. clandestinely

___n. admits