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Archive for July, 2014

Is music the solution?

Monday, July 28th, 2014

If music be the solution to frost damage, mildew, water stress and especially esca, play on … (i)

Attempts to find an alternative and effective treatment for esca and other vine trunk diseases are beginning to echo something of the desperation that followed the first outbreak of phylloxera during the 1870s. Some French growers even talk wistfully about the merits of the toxic and highly unpleasant sodium arsenite, banned in France since 2001.

Research from Alsace published last year in Vitis suggested a link between a higher incidence of esca with late harvest dates, especially for the production of sweet wine, and with climate variables. More anecdotally some growers fear their vines are more open to attack by trunk disease if they suffer water stress, as was already beginning to be the case in some Alsace vineyards by the end of June this year. Daniel Ruff in Heiligenstein, for example, who subscribes to this theory, suggests that drip irrigation may help to lower the risk – an option, of course, which is not legally available to him in Alsace.

Whether or not this, or changes to the trellising and the pruning regime, as others have argued, or indeed biodynamic treatments offer any better hope of controlling a pest that has already imposed a huge practical and financial burden on many estates, it seems that French winegrowers will gladly try anything within the law that might just work.

Enter French physicist and singer Joël Sternheimer who has carried out experiments in a number of French wine regions, which have been widely reported in the French press and in New Scientist as long ago as 1994(ii). His thesis builds on work by a number of other researchers who have used music to illustrate the structure of the DNA sequence of proteins. Roughly speaking, each amino acid is thought of as a note and the whole protein as a melody. Each protein with its unique DNA sequence thus also has its own distinctive, individual melody.

But Sternheimer goes beyond the purely illustrative function of the unique melody of each protein and argues that it is possible to use specially composed ‘molecular music’ (or ‘protodies’ – part protéine, part mélodie) to stimulate a plant to produce more of a desired protein. Sound waves, he argues, can also be used to inhibit the synthesis of proteins.

Since 2008, through his company, Génodics, based in Paris, Sternheimer has provided a commercial service to wine growers and claims dramatic results, especially in helping plants to resist esca. By the end of 2013, according to the Génodics website, 53 vignerons had signed up in Alsace, Champagne, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux and on their total of 150 hectares, the rate of mortality caused by esca had dropped by an average of 60%, and even slightly further in those instances where the system had been in place for three years or more.

Not only this, but Sternheimer claims that trials primarily in Champagne and Burgundy show that molecular music may reduce the incidence of mildew in vines as well as improving their resistance to both spring frost and water stress. Further experiments this year will try to synchronise treatments with those weather conditions in which mildew is more likely to be prevalent. Oïdium is next on Sternheimer’s hit list along with botrytis, which he claims, has been significantly reduced on tomato plants by playing molecular music to them.

Sternheimer’s work does not stop in the vineyard. He claims that molecular music may prevent stuck ferments by stimulating enzymes, that it can facilitate the growth of a healthy layer of yeast ‘voile’ in the production of Vin Jaune and that it may yet prove to be an effective means of combatting Brettanomyces.

The relationship between each amino acid and its corresponding musical note is mathematical, based on the original frequencies that occur when the amino acids joins in the protein chain. Precise pitch is therefore significant as it the duration of that pitch. Only the often very short, specially composed molecular music ‘melodies’ corresponding to these mathematical and physical relationships will prove effective. It cannot be replaced by a short burst of grand opera or heavy metal.

Indeed it is probably unhelpful and misleading to describe the sound constructs ‘composed’ by Sternheimer as music at all. This is because from the perspective of musical theory Sternheimer’s approach is problematic, for music, contrary to what some might imagine, does not posess a universally intelligible meaning. In fact it is very clear, as many studies have shown, that any ‘meaning’ in music, however that might be defined, is specific to individual human cultures. For example, experiments have shown that anyone unfamiliar with western classical music is not able to detect a mood such as ‘sadness’ in a piece of music in the way that those who have grown up within that culture might do. Plants manifestly don’t hear or respond to music in the way that we do. Indeed, from a purely musical point of view, molecular music is strictly trivial as Philip Ball points out. It “amounts to nothing more than the making of codes out of series of arbitrary perceptual symbols.” (iii) But that, of course, doesn’t discount the possibility that it may be effective in the way that Sternheimer describes.

The danger of such a brief summary as this it that it may present Sternheimer’s ideas as a little vague and alternative, but the supporting science is at least plausible and it lends itself to empirical testing. The duration of molecular music at any one time is just a few minutes and the long-term costs have to be cheaper than, for example, repeated spraying, and it is an elegantly green option.

Now, if only it were effective against hail …

(i) A shorter version of this article appeared in Harpers, online, 11 July, 2014
(ii) Andy Coghlan, ‘Good vibrations give plants excitations’, New Scientist 1927, 28 May, 1994, 10
(iii) Ball Philip, The Music Instinct (London: Vintage Books, 2010), 396.