Music to mushrooms

Two fungi with thin stalks on the forest floor

Mushrooms, just like humans, have a remarkable way to respond to music. Image credit: Jannik Selz via Unsplash.

Amongst the non-human sciences, mycology, the study of fungi, has long been treated as an afterthought to the study of plants in the Western world. Although the mention of fungi brings only mushrooms to mind, the vast underbelly of fungal species shows a level of diversity that we have only scratched the surface of. We already know of their significant contribution to not only the evolution of our current ecosystem—with their role as decomposers and symbiotic partners of plant—but also as food and medicine in the human world. Yet, recent advances in research indicate that fungi are more similar to humans than previously thought as they sense and respond to sound waves in a manner akin to how we respond to music.

Fungi & sound waves

Like many other organisms, fungi sense and respond to different types of stimuli such as light, chemicals, and touch—but their relation to sound is a relatively new discovery. Sound waves affect their development in various ways by stimulating growth of certain species and inhibiting growth of others. Fungi can respond to sound waves in one of two ways: via a biochemical or transducive mechanism. The biochemical response involves the release of compounds such as melatonin and indole which are produced in times of stress and injury. On the other hand, fungi can convert sound to electrical signals, in a manner similar to our ears, which can be used to regulate fungal growth and development.

In some ways, fungi can be considered expert musicians—picking up on nature’s tones and interpreting them in the context of a grander opus of the ecosystem.

These electrical fluctuations of fungi have been measured by a pioneering group of musician-scientists in the Octopus Project using musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) biodata sonification devices. The Octopus Project, a kooky musical endeavour currently figure-headed by Yvonne Lambert, is known for its release of expansive psychedelic pop. The project’s recent venture into mycology in 2021 was showcased in an immersive performance with the Central Texas Mycology Society.

The MIDI devices were used to attach sensors to the organism and translate the data into notes to be played on computer software, reversing fungal transduction. Compared to plants which play a single note at regular intervals, they found that fungi give off a denser signal of biodata which is dynamic and changes over time. This dynamicity is significant as it shows the sentience of fungi in perceiving environmental fluxes which, in turn, influences their behaviour. In some ways, fungi can be considered expert musicians—picking up on nature’s tones and interpreting them in the context of a grander opus of the ecosystem.

Influence of fungi on tree root systems

Arguably, the most complex and best studied fungal species known are mycorrhizal fungi that live in symbiosis with plants. Think of them as the underground network and transportation system for trees, dubbed the “Wood Wide Web” by Suzanne Simard, professor at the University of British Columbia. This web is as expansive, if not more, than our Internet. It holds not only a treasure trove of nutrients that sustain 90% of plants, but also untapped potential for sustainable technologies towards possibilities yet to be understood.

These fungi grow long filaments, or ‘hyphae’, which interlink the root tips of different plants at a microscopic level. Hyphae make up a messy mass of branching, which gives rise to the vegetative mycelium. It is the mycelium that responds to sound waves. The sound waves draw out the miniscule fungal tendrils like a snake charmer luring out snakes with music. The fruiting body is not just for the nourishment of the fungus itself but also the entire forest ecosystem, carrying electrical and chemical signals between plants. This allows different plant species that are compatible with the same species of mycorrhizal fungi to be connected via one common mycelium, coming together like the strings of a piano that strike a single harmonic chord. This echoes the dense biodata signals detected by the Octopus Project as fungi are attuned to their surroundings to create a euphony of growth and development.

As Paul Stamets, a self-taught mycologist, author and entrepreneur with a major role in bringing mycology into the limelight, artfully says: ‘Mycelium is like strings on a violin… these are filaments [that] are sensitive to vibrations’. On a more profound, philosophical note, he argues how music which brings people together is only a more nascent, refined form of the sounds of nature that proliferate the natural fauna and flora.

Use of sound waves for fungi in human world

The transducing properties of fungi have major implications for various fields, including agriculture, medicine, and biotechnology. In agriculture, sound waves can be used to stimulate growth of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil to enhance plant growth—this could significantly increase crop yields and reduce the need for chemical fertilisers. In medicine, sound waves can be used to control the growth of pathogenic fungi and develop new growth-inhibiting therapies that target fungal infections, without the adverse side effects of current antifungal drugs. In biotechnology, sound waves may be harnessed to produce fungal metabolites such as antibiotics and anti-cancer compounds. Understanding the conditions in which fungi produce such compounds can be used to optimise their production using sound wave stimulation.

In 2013, a Korean group investigated whether frequency-specific sounds could be used as an alternative to chemical fungicides to control plant diseases. Their research has showed that high frequencies are capable of inhibiting growth of the mycelium, eerily similar to how high-pitched noises can deafen us. Further analysis has revealed morphological changes to the mycelium that underlie the mechanism of action. In this way, certain sound wave frequencies can create stressful growth conditions, which provides an environmentally friendly approach to manage noxious fungal pathogens.

Research has showed that high frequencies are capable of inhibiting growth of the mycelium, eerily similar to how high-pitched noises can deafen us.

On the other hand, low-frequency sounds seem to increase the productivity of certain fungi. Oyster mushrooms, known for their role in Asian cuisines, can be ‘sound treated’ and cultivated on sawdust, to increase their yield and rate of growth. With commercial mushroom producers in areas like Malaysia facing major problems in meeting the high demand of mushrooms, current agricultural practices contribute greatly to the greenhouse effect. Instead, using rubber tree sawdust and Kenaf, an indigenous species of Hibiscus, as a renewable source provides a new avenue of pursuit— high-quality nutrition but not at the expense of leaching the Earth’s resources dry.

Photograph of oyster mushroom fungi.
Pleurotus dryinus, and other Oyster mushrooms can be ‘sound treated’ to increase their growth. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Fungi and non-human perspectives

Potentially, the newest and most exciting prospect of using sound-treated fungi is in psychedelic research in understanding and even enhancing consciousness. Psilocin, an ancient compound used across many civilisations in spiritual rituals, has been rediscovered and championed by psychiatrists who foresee their potential in treating a wide range of illnesses such as anxiety, addiction, and clinical depression. After Timothy Leary’s polemical Harvard Psilocybin Project using LSD and psilocybin from Mexican magic mushrooms in the 1960s, a moral uproar forced psilocybin into the backseat. A few decades later, however, a 2006 John Hopkins study found that psilocybin proffered ‘mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance’ for terminally ill cancer patients. Perhaps, this ushers in a new era of accepting death and illness with a sense of sangfroid— a nonpareil for scientists wishing to study the ultimate boundaries of consciousness and mortality.

The mechanism behind this equanimous perspective seems to be down to a dissociation of the liminality between self and world, adopting a more non-human perspective of dissolving the ego and being one with the universe. This gradual relinquishment of the confines of identity which we as humans hold so dear echoes the evolutionary role of fungi in merging all individual organisms into one source of life that beats in unison. The psilocybin studies in cancer patients were seminal in their discovery of the spiritual effects of psychedelics, demonstrating significant improvements in their ‘personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behaviour change’.

Within sound and its progeny, music, lies the panacea to both worldly issues such as food security and medicine as well as issues of the self.

This not only provides a new course of action for rewiring faulty neural mechanisms that predispose and perpetuate mental illnesses, but also serves as a cardinal reminder of our fundamentally flawed approach to finding solutions to the current major problems that plague human society. The key to resolving these significant issues therefore lies not in seeing ourselves as humans versus the world, but humans as small pins holding the strings of the universe in place, tuned to the very frequencies we seek to control. Within sound and its progeny, music, lies the panacea to both worldly issues such as food security and medicine as well as issues of the self. Armed with new knowledge of how sound affects fungi, new solutions bud off from spores of the old, holding exciting promises for the future.

Fungal Futures

Sound-treated fungi can provide us with new innovations to tackle the universal theme of unsustainability which underpins many of our global concerns. Historical neglect of this field of study has finally been followed by a long-overdue renaissance in our interest in fungi, with spores of ideas dispersing through the field to contribute to the proliferation of our own understanding. With this quantum leap in mycology, we can develop new approaches to enhance plant growth, control fungal infection, and optimise the production of valuable fungal metabolites. Arguably, the most pivotal endowment fungi have to offer is a paradigm shift in our philosophy of empiricism and material constructs. For now, the only way to mould the world around us is to surrender to the branching filaments of fungi that lay down new frameworks of concepts, never imagined before.