Monday, February 15, 2010

Apologia pro Christian rock: Does rock music kill plants? (part 2)

Dorothy Retallack, the amateur scientist whose single, unrepeated 1973 experiment on plants and music is the source of the myth that rock music kills plants

So I have undertaken to defend the following two points:

1) That there is nothing wrong with the recreational use of Christian rock music.

2) That the theory that music is moral or immoral depending on its rhythm is based on pseudo-science and faulty premises.

Please note that I am not advocating for the liturgical use of Christian rock, nor for the recreational use of secular rock (or other forms of secular music), but for the recreational use of Christian rock, based on the idea that, while some forms of music are more aesthetically pleasing than others, these disputes ultimately come down to aesthetics and taste, at least where recreational use is concerned. I would be making a whole different argument altogether were we talking about sacred music.

Last time I stated that I would expose some of the pseudo-science behind the claims of Andrew Pudewa and Fr. Basil Nortz, who I have chosen to take as exemplary of those who oppose Christian rock because of its use of syncopation in the rhythm. What do I mean by "pseudo-science?"

Both Mr. Pudewa and Fr. Nortz reference the ill effects of rock music on plants, using the story of Dorothy Retallack's experiments on plants as their source. The story is told of an experiment carried out in 1973 by Dorothy Retallack of Denver, Colorado in which one group of plants were exposed to rock music, another classical music, and one to a more mild form of rock. During the experiment, the plants exposed to the rock music began to turn away from the speakers - by the end of the experiment, those exposed to the rock music had actually died, while those exposed to the classical music flourished.

This story is the foundation of many of the arguments against rock music, and its point is that music can affect living organisms. That music can affect us is not in question; everybody knows that music has an effect on the human person in some ways. But are the effects as profound as some would like us to believe?

In the first place, if we look to the field of botany, we see that there has been no consensus on the issue due to the fact that Mrs. Retallack (who was not a botanist and appears to have had no scientific background whatsoever) did not carry out this experiment under controlled conditions. When succeeding botanists attempted to repeat the experiment, they were unable to gain the same results as Mrs. Retallack, suggesting that the results of her experiment were due to something other than rock beats.

Eastern Connecticut State University professor of Botany, Ross Koning, has stated, in answer to a question about why there is not more scholarly literature on the connection between music and plant growth:

Plants have no ears to hear and no brain to process or develop musical taste or music any attempts to show relationships between music forms and growth or other responses have met with total failure in the hands of true scientists. This explains the lack of literature you find to read on the subject.

But what about those few articles and books that do make such claims?

Yes there are some quack "scientists" who have claimed that (in highly flawed experiments) certain kinds of music caused improvements in plant growth...but no such claims have met the rigor demanded for publication in respected journals. Such projects are often labeled "pseudoscience" because they fail to explain the control of critical variables, nor do they specify replication levels, nor do they show actual data or the results of statistical testing.

There really is not much good information about the effect of music on plants because all attempts to do controlled studies on plants and music result in "no difference". Any "differences" between a music treatment and a no-music control (or other-music treatment) in pseudoscience studies can almost always be attributed to some difference in other variables in the project which have not been suitably controlled (light, water, fertilizer, soil type, humidity, etc.) (source)
I was intrigued by this, because I had always taken the plant-music connection at face value. Therefore, I emailed Dr. Koning directly. I said to him:

I am preparing an essay attempting to rebuff the claim that certain styles of music are detrimental to the growth of plants. I am going to cite your 1994 statements on the matter, found online in the article "Science Projects on Music and Sound" [linked above]. I would appreciate any other insights you could provide - in particular, I am addressing in my essay the arguments of persons who claim that certain rhythms have a detrimental effect on the human body, and which cite the 1973 experiment of Dorothy Retallack of music on plants as an example to "prove" their hypothesis.

Here was Dr. Koning's response to me. Notice the problems he points out with the Retallack experiment:

Indeed I have not seen any information that changes my understanding of plant physiology in terms of any role for music in plant responses to environmental stimuli. Again, vibration is quite a different matter.

The photos [from the Retallack experiment] clearly show wilted plants...which are common results of excessive temperature or insufficient watering. While "seeing is believing" for many people, what we do NOT see is data from their growth chamber's temperature monitoring equipment, or records about soil moisture in the pots that were photographed. We need such data because growth chambers of that era often had cooling system failures that led to catastrophic results unrelated to the variables in the contained experiment. For sonic separation, the controls in this experiment were in a separate a failure in the treatment chamber would explain the observed results. Without monitored variables, we cannot know whether it happened that way or not. The watering was manual and a mistake in watering the plants in one chamber vs the other could also explain these photos. The conclusions drawn are not justified by the quality of information gathered.

The fact that this experiment has never been repeated should also give us pause before citing this experiment as "proof" that rock beats can somehow damage our body, let alone force us to become sexualized. More scientific attempts to repeat Mrs. Retallack's experiment have even come to opposite conclusions: recent work by four University of North Carolina scientists indicates that 100 to 110 decibel noise (the equivalent of standing 100 feet from a 727 jet) will cause 100 percent more turnip seeds to germinate in 10 percent less time than with a control group. This suggests, of course, that a healthy jolt of industrial-strength heavy metal may be just the thing to invigorate your rutabagas (source).

Another example: The Discovery Channel show, "Myth Busters" did a segment on this. They grew bean plants in different greenhouses. Some had silence, some had encouraging talk, some had discouraging talk and one had heavy metal rock blasted at them.E ven though the battery in the automatic watering system failed so all the plants basically died, the heavy metal rock house did the best by far before expiring. Go online and look up words like "Rock music kill plants" and you will see that many, many people have attempted to repeat the Retallack experiment and have actually found that the plants exposed to the loud music did better. One commentator on the forum remarked: "I tried a science experiment like that in high school. The plants I played heavy metal to flourished beautifully - far better than the other plants did."

Another commonly repeated story is that eggs placed on the stage at rock concerts became hard boiled by the end of the concert. Fr. Nortz references this story in his talk, and I think Mr. Pudewa does as well, though I could be mistaken. The story is that, during the 1960's, concert goers would put eggs on the stage of a rock concert near the speakers; by the end of the concert, the egg would be hard boiled.

This is particularly irresponsible of Fr. Nortz to say, since anyone who thinks about this for five minutes recognizes that decibels or rhythm have nothing to do with hard boiling an egg, which requires heat, not sound. Yet the story is repeated, both in Fr. Nortz's talk and by various Christian groups (like here) - as I said, I think Mr. Pudewa repeats this story, but I'm not certain.

At any rate, all of these claims go back to a single book: The Day the Music Died by fundamentalist Protestant Bob Larson. The story comes from page 116 of Larson's book, where he states:

A recent teenage fad was that of taking soft eggs to rock concerts and placing them at the foot of the stage. Midway through the concert the eggs could be eaten hard-boiled as a result of the music. Amazingly few rock fans wondered what that same music might do to their bodies.
Fr. Nortz quotes Larson's book throughout his talk, apparently granting it a great deal of authority. Who is this Bob Larson? Well, without going into too much detail, Larson was an evangelical preacher who gained popularity in the 1980's by performing exorcisms live on his radio show; click here to read the Wikipedia article on him in order to get a better idea of what kind of character this Larson is.

Larson's claims have never been verified; is there any record of anybody actially performing this experiment under controlled conditions? Of course one cannot duplicate this story in any way, for an egg needs to be heated for it to become hard boiled, and amplifiers cannot and do not emit that kind of heat. Two points are interesting here: one, Larson long ago renounced his position on Christian rock and has since embraced it, recanting all of his previously held opinions and (presumably) the pseudo-science behind them; second, the "egg cooking" myth endures to this day in a slightly modified form, this time regarding cell-phones, and is regarded as a "technophobia" (the sort of urban legend that has us believe that the technology we use daily is secretly killing us).

Basically, these plant and egg stories are urban legends, based on faulty science (Retallack), or on nothing at all (the egg story).

This brings up one more point: even if the egg story was true, that eggs placed in front of speakers at rock concerts could become hard boiled, it would say nothing about whether or not rock music was intrinsically bad, only that listening to music at high decibels would be unhealthy. The fact that an egg could be cooked at a rock concert is no argument why rock music could not safely be listened to in one's car at a modest volume. This story, even if it were true, would only tell us what we all already know: it is stupid to listen too very loud noises and very close proximities. This is an example of how those who attack Christian rock and "syncopated rhythm" tend to set up a straw man by shifting the ground of the discussion to matters that are irrelevant or that everybody already agrees on.

So much for the pseudo-science behind many of these warnings against Christian rock. Please understand that I am not endorsing "heavy metal" or any particular style of music; I am only pointing out some of the foolish things that people say in attempting to absolutize their tastes.

Next time I will look at some more scientific experiments, this time on rats, and examine their implications.


Unknown said...

As a biologist, I love this! As a science teacher I use the same examples you are using to teach proper science experimentation methods. Go Boniface - this is awesome, and as a plus could be a vehicle for bringing your blog into a public school science class.

Boniface said...

Thanks Jeanne! I appreciate any feedback you can give!

FriendoftheCross said...

Jesus be Praised!
Mary be Loved!

As an avid listener of Rock and Roll I couldn't agree more. I have never heard anyone say that Blues or Jazz was demonic or that it will destroy the soul but why is it that the music form that emerged from it, namely Rock and Roll, is somehow demonic. The father of Rock and Roll is Blues and yet Blues is never contested as evil but Rock and Roll is. Certainly some rock songs, stars, or bands are demonic and should be avoided but that does not mean that the genre is.

Is B.B. Kings version of "The Thrill is Gone" immoral? ( Or the Jimi Hendrix tune "Red House"? ( Red House is one of the bluesiest songs that I have ever heard. Both deal with lost love and the desire for new love but don't say anything immoral.

Is there something more noble about Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train"? ( Or his "It don't mean a Thing"? (

Now in regard to Rock itself what is the problem with Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower"? Or does the song only become evil when Jimi Hendrix gives his version of it? ( This song has incredible meaning and Fr. Robert Barron has an excellent commentary in which he interprets this song. ( There is nothing wrong or demonic about this song nor about the genre of Rock and Roll.

Certainly I can not deny that classical music like Rimsky-Koraskov "Sheherazade" isn't marvelous. ( Or that Holst's 'Jupiter' isn't very uplifting. (

But I personally like them all and think that all of them have there own intrinsic beauty. The blues lets you rock out, feel the beat, and gives you a very enjoyable energy. Jazz is more mellow but has the same uplifting and energetic quality that allows carries the soul with the tune. Classical music, especially the great works, lift the soul in a more epic and glorious way. But are not all three noble.

Consider books. Do we cast aside Shakespeare's plays and sonnets because they aren't as epic as the Lord of the Rings? Do we disregard Winnie-the-Pooh because it is to simple and only admire A Tale of Two Cites because it is so grand? Do we reject The Man who was Thursday because of the ease with which Chesterton writes because it isn't as complex as Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment or do we allow both because both are effective means to attaining the end, which is the proper telling of the story.

You can see a mix of the three aforementioned forms of music in what I believe to be the greatest rock band, namely Pink Floyd. The songs I would recommend for this discussion are: On the Turning Away (, Time (, Wish You Were Here (, Marooned ( or Shine On You Crazy Diamond (

I could list many more, if not all of Pink Floyd's songs, but those will give you a very good understanding of how Rock is a mix of Blues, Jazz, and Classical.

Boniface said...

Good point about rock coming from blues...and I think you are "Anonymous" from the other blog!

FriendoftheCross said...

Jesus be Praised!
Mary be Loved!


As I think I can't argue against you with humility, and, as nobody appointed me the "Devil's Advocate", I think I will refrain from making a defense. I will then, without any doubt, keep my personal virtue and piety intact.


apudewa said...

One question for you, before I attempt a full rebuttal: Do you hold the position that ALL Music (excepting lyrics to songs, of course) is amoral (or morally neutral)?

Or would you agree that some music could be intrinsically disordered and therefore harmful to the human soul?

Your response to this question would determine the direction of my response. No response would indicate to me that you have not thought into the question far enough.

One quick correction to your post: Dr. Retallack's and Dr. Rauscher's experiments have been reproduced by many people--I have even had a few students of my own who were able to get similar results with both plants and rodents.

Peace in Christ,

Andrew Pudewa.b

Boniface said...

Mr. Pudewa-

I knew it was only a matter of time before you hopped on here! Welcome!

I do believe that music has an effect on the body, which I think is undeniable. I just do not think that the effects are of such extremes as to render the music intrinsically evil.

I think that some music can be immoral, but I would not narrow it down to the syncopation as the source. I think it is a combination of things, including lyrics, but also cultural elements as well. I also think there is much more to take into account when talking about music's effect on the body than just the rhythm alone. I would say there is a spectrum, and rather than just saying, "This beat is disordered, this beat is not," there is more of a gradation, in such wise that it is difficult to pinpoint one single element that renders the music immoral or not (excepting the lyrics, which can transform a perfectly good song into a bad one by what they say).

So, no, I don't think music is neutral, but neither do I think it is as cut and dry as what you say in your talk, or for the reasons.

Before you make a response (and it's up to you), you may want to wait until I complete the series of posts to get the full argument. I'm planning about six or seven installments. The next one deals with the Rauscher tests).

As for Retallack's experiments being repeated, I would like to see the research on this. It appears, even if they have been repeated, to be inconclusive, because one can find just as many people who have not been able to repeat them, as well as botanists (as Dr. Koning, quoted above) who say Retallack's experiments are bunk. If there is no agreement among scientists and the experiments produce widely differing results, I think it is safe to say that Retallack's theory is flawed (at best) or completely false (at worse).