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Can Plants be a Music Instrument?

October 8th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Make music with plants

During my research on Human Plant Interfaces I figured out music and sound is a very often used expression for this kind of interaction. As far as I know John Lifton and Richard Lowenberg are one of the first artists that used plants for creating a soundscape. Their installation "Green Music", created for the much discussed movie "The Secret Life of Plants" (movie), uses the approach of bio sensing and converts the signals to synthesized sounds. The visitors can interact with the plants via touch for changing the pitch level of a sound. Futhermore, the "Hashimoto Experiment" with a cactus by Dr and Mrs Kenneth Hashimoto caused some big attention, too. Their science oriented  presentation of their experiments and the same pseudo science language of the book "The Secret Life of Plants" damaged the image of bio sensing with plants very hard. It became very quite about Human Plant Interfaces. Nowadays, it seems that media and sound artists re-experience this technology for their artworks. I will give you a summary of projects ordered by characteristics of user interaction.

 Direct interaction with a plant:

Interaction with the fruits of a plant or with vegetables:

Technology review

In my opinion this list of projects summarizes nicely how plants can be used as an input device. The technology behind these projects reaches from super simple to pretty complex technology. A big number of these projects used the simple resistance approach. They measure how conductive the plants are. You can really easily rebuild it with an Arduino and a 1mOhm Resistor.

For more advanced interaction like (pressure sensitive) touch and simple stroking interaction, plants can be used as capacitive sensor. A capacitive sensor is also very easy to build and connect with an Arduino. Another option for detecting simple pressure senstive touches is the usage of a contact microphone. It is a great tool for measuring the vibrations inside a plant. These vibrations can be caused by a human or other external influences (e.g. wind). Contact microphones are a good solution if you are not familiar with Physical Computing (e.g. Arduino). The microphone signal can easily be used in sound environments (mixers and synthesizers) or the audio input of your computer.

The technology behind the gesture driven interaction, which is used by Botanicus Interacticus and Mogees, is much more advanced. Both systems depending not only on hardware, they also use a pretty complex gesture recognition software. In my opinion the gesture recognition software is the key, and not really the hardware. However, I will give you a short introduction into these two different approaches. The technology behind Botanicus Interacticus is called Touché and was developed by Ivan Poupyrev and Chris Harrison. Touché uses an advanced capacitive sensing approach, which is called Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing. They measure a predefined range of frequencies from an object and then the gesture recognition software determine if the gesture or interaction is correct or not. Luckily, some great DIY Hackers rebuild the system with Arduino. The Arduino solution is not as accurate as Touché - it does not have such wide frequency range - but it is still very useful. The tutorial on instructables and the videos (1 | 2 | 3) are a very good motivation for rebuilding it. In contrast to Touché, Mogees analyzes vibrations instead of a complex capacitive sensing. A small piezo-transducer (contact microphone) converts the vibration of the physical object into an electric signal. This electronic signal is analyzed by their own developed gesture recognition software. I am sure they are analyzing the Frequency Spectrum of the sound signal. If I am wrong, please let me know. The advantages of the vibration approach are the low costs and it is easy to map to sound driven outputs.

All yet mentioned techniques for sensing plants are not really specifically related to plants. They also work great on other common objects. For this reason, the signals are not really send from the plant itself. The signal is influenced by the form and the kind of plant. It is not the real bio sense metabolism the plant sends when it is touched. These touche signals of a plant are normally very weak and difficult to measure. Furthermore, it is more interesting to understand the approaches, which Leslie Garcia used in her installation Pulsu(m) Plantae (article). It seems she is somehow measuring the plant reactions on environmental influences, like light and noise. Luckily, she made the whole documentation open source, which makes the whole approach more transparent. Unfortunately, I am not able to understand Spanish. For this reason, I don't want to say anything wrong about it with my half understanding via Google translator. It looks very promising to me and I will investigate it further.

The End

I tried to give you an overview about muscial interfaces with plants. This is my link collection of the last 2-3 years. If you know some more interesting projects related to Music and Human Plant Interfaces, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I will appreciate it!

  1. October 9th, 2013 at 01:22 | #1

    Great article, thx a lot for sharing your research here!
    I noticed some typos:
    “You can really eas*ily* rebiuld it”
    “The microphone signal can easily *BE* used in sound environments”
    “The Arduino solution is not so accu*rate as Touché”
    “For this reason, I don’t want *to* say anything wrong”

  2. admin
    October 9th, 2013 at 19:17 | #2

    Hey Nicolas,

    thanks a lot for your feedback! Very appreciated! I corrected my typos 🙂


  3. admin
    December 26th, 2013 at 12:03 | #3

    Miya Masaoka applies Electrodes to plants for creating a new musical expression experience (video).

  4. admin
    September 29th, 2014 at 19:07 | #4

    Another Plant Orchestra (2009) project was built by Luke Jerram and the sound artist Matt Davies. A very similiar project and approach with the name Singing Plants & Plant Musicians (since 2010) was developed by Jo SiMalaya Alcampo.

    The artist Mileece used plants as an instrument in her music performance Bio-Electricity (2013) at the MoMa New York.

    In relation to environmental sensoring and the mentioned “Tree Listening” project by Alex Metcalf, the research about trees: Rendering Ecophysiological Processes Audible by the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK looks interesting, too.

    More information for sensing with plants is available in this blog post

  5. admin
    March 2nd, 2015 at 09:42 | #5

    Another sound/music installation Beet Box (2012) with plants that uses the capacitive sensing approach is created by Scott Garner.

    The sound installation Biopilot v1 (2014) by Mirjana Batinic detects electromagnetic changes for manipulating sound. For this reason, I suggest electrodes are used detecting these changes.

    The sound installation “Invisible Forest” (2013) by Augustine Leudar using electrodes for sensing plants in an art context.

  6. May 22nd, 2015 at 15:20 | #6

    The German artist Karl Heinz Jeron creates also Sound installations with plants. His installation Fresh Music For Rotten Vegetables uses any vegetables as a battery, which generate an unique soundscape. Another installation by him is called Singende Jungpflanzen. This project takes over the function of a field mill analyzer and outputs the electromagnetic field data surrounded by plants.

  1. November 21st, 2013 at 13:05 | #1
  2. December 26th, 2013 at 13:42 | #2