Musical Greenhouse

Musical Greenhouse, near completion

Musical Greenhouse, located at a middle school in San Diego

David Lipson has a long history of collaborative educational science-art projects with San Diego school teacher and artist, Jason Rogalski. These include exhibitions such as Van Gogh’s Ear in Redding, CA (2009), Microbial Knot (Oceanside Museum of Art, 2013), and Root Rhapsody (San Diego Public Library, 2015). Lipson and Rogalski have continued in this theme, to collaborate on a Musical Greenhouse. This is a 128 square foot greenhouse on the grounds of the middle school where Rogalski teaches science and art classes. The greenhouse will serve as a facility for students to design and conduct experiments on plants. The musical aspect is intended to engage students in this learning environment and also demonstrate basic principles of physics and math.

Students play musical planters

Students playing musical planters (garden boxes suspended by guitar strings)

For example, planters are suspended by guitar strings, and the pitch of the strings depends on the water content of the soil. Students will be able to determine the water content of the soil by comparing the pitch to a standard chime, tuned to the optimal water holding capacity of each pot.


This waterharp is built from a small bicycle wheel. When irrigated, water turns the wheel, plucking 5 guitar strings

Greenhouse without plastic film

View of greenhouse before the plastic film was added, showing the structure of the musical bike-wheel turbine

Garden beds are irrigated through a system that turns water wheels that pluck strings and ring chimes, and a windmill also causes strings to be plucked.

Students playing with musical planters

A jam session that spontaneously arose while students were filling planters with soil

Another positive consequence of the project is that the greenhouse creates a collaborative environment in which the students can improvise music together. For example, while students were helping to fill the planters with soil, a spontaneous jam session developed, allowing students who might not normally associate with each other to interact in a respectful and constructive way.

Students at greenouse

The students who helped move about half cubic yard of soil into the greenhouse

Below are a couple of sound samples I made during the development of these instruments (my apologies if these are broken). Having the tones determined by gravity allows for a lot of pitch-bending and tremolo:


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