Category Archives: Music Units

Create an Instrument: Part 2 – The Science of Sound

Create an Instrument: Part 2 – The Science of Sound

As a music teacher, I have NO experience teaching labs.  This is where you can really benefit from turning to your colleagues for help.  If you don’t have a formal STEM teacher in your school, try teaming up with a science teacher for an interdisciplinary unit.  If not, do not fear – you can do it!  The internet is full of resources to help!  Do a quick search for “science of sound lesson plan” and you’ll find a wealth of information.

Students comparing tuning forks

Students comparing tuning forks

Part 2 – The Science of Sound

After the challenge of creating an “instrument” with limited supplies, students spent a day learning about the science of sound.  This day (or the entire unit) wouldn’t have been possible without the expertise of our STEM teacher – who very conveniently used to teach sixth grade science.  She provided two great labs for our students to see, hear, and create sounds while making connections to the science behind them.

Tuning Fork Discovery

This lab, from Explore Sound allowed students to discover how frequency effects pitch. (Note: We only did the activity portion of the lesson plan)  Each student had his/her own tuning fork to record the frequency and listen to.  Students LOVE playing with tuning forks – something about SEEING and FEELING the vibration against various objects fascinates them!  After recording the data about their own tuning fork they compared it to the forks of five other students, noting if the length was longer/shorter and if the pitch was higher/lower.  The students then drew conclusions about how length and frequency effects pitch.  Finally, they dipped the tip of a ringing tuning fork into water for a surprise!

Measuring water in the test tubes

Measuring water in the test tubes

Ringing Test Tubes

Students were given 8 test tubes and poured varying amounts of water into each one, measuring for accuracy.  They then blew across the top of each tube and arranged them in order from the lowest to highest pitch.  Students concluded the less water a tube held, the lower the sound, due to the longer column of air for vibration.

The basis for this lab came from the school’s old science text book series.

Students completed lab sheets for each lab where they made predictions, collected data, and drew conclusions. These labs provided a basis for student understanding the science of sound when they start building their instruments.


Create An Instrument: Part 1 – Introduction


Combined classes for our first meeting in the STEM room.

This week the Music + STEM class teamed up with the STEM class to create an instrument, compose, and perform.  This combo meant a lot of kids, noise, materials, and most importantly – learning!

We packed a lot into this unit, so the posts describing it will be divided into four posts:

  • Part 1 – Introductory Challenge
  • Part 2 – Science of Sound Lab
  • Part 3 – The Building Process
  • Part 4 – Composing and Performing

Introductory Challenge

We started our first day together with this video about the Landfill Harmonic project.  Students were asked to notice the materials used to create the instruments and the effect the instruments and music had on the people involved.  Hopefully, this helped students realize that making instruments from found materials isn’t just a fun activity – it could change someone’s life.

We then presented students with a challenge: In 10 minutes, create an instrument out of any or all of the provided supplies. Pairs of students were given a cup, 2 straws, 2 paper clips, a rubber band, and an index card.


The supplies

When students were finished creating, we had a short presentation on categories of world instruments.  These categories were chosen in the hopes they would shift thinking from traditional Western instruments to the possibility of unfamiliar instruments.  Students then shared their instrument, demonstrated it, and shared which category their “instrument” fit into…

  • Chordophone – instruments that produce sound from strings being plucked, strummed, or bowed
  • Aerophone – instruments that use air to produce sound
  • Membranophone – Instruments that make sound from a vibrating membrane (or substitute) stretched over an open container
  • Idiophone – An entire instrument that vibrates when hit, shaken, or scraped

Students created a wide variety of instruments …

  • Drums created by covering the cup with the index card
  • Cutting the straws into pieces and putting them into the cup made shakers
  • Wrapping the rubber band around the cup made two different sounds – a “twang’ over the open end and a “snap” over the sides or bottom
  • Clipping the tip of the straw created a lovely squealing noise

This was a sometimes noisy day (as you’ll see in the video clip below) but a great intro to the creative thinking process that will go into creating something bigger and better!

Build A Speaker Challenge


This week the students in Music +STEM participated in the Build A Speaker Challenge!  

The scenario for the challenge was one many of us have experienced ….

A new song/video just came out that you want to share with your friends but all you have is your phone to play it on. You turn it on but it’s not loud enough for everyone to hear. Turning it up all the way distorts the sound, but you don’t have a extra speaker to plug it into.


Here’s the challenge students were given:

Hard at work designing and creating their speakers

Hard at work designing and creating their speakers

Build a speaker using only the supplies provided in the allotted time. 

The supplies consisted of

  • Up to 2 cups
  • Up to 2 sheets of construction paper
  • Up to 12 inches of masking tape

The goal:

Create a speaker that increases the decibel level of the audio of a phone

Students spent a day building their speakers.  They were allowed to work alone or in a group of two or three.  By the end of the day our classroom was filled with their inventions!


Day 2 was spent testing their speakers!

Here is the process we used:

  • We will measure a control level of decibels on a phone at a specified volume
  • We will then measure the level of decibels of the same sound being played using the speaker you create

Since it is difficult to find music that stays at the same volume, we used the “white noise” of a recorded hair dryer as our control sound.  We also made sure that everyone used the same phone at the same volume level. Decibels were measured with a decibel meter app.  We took a five second measurement for each speaker and used the average level provided by the app.

Testing their speakers with the decibel meter

Testing their speakers with the decibel meter

Of course, success was measured by the amount of increase in decibels, but students answered reflection questions to show more evidence of learning.

Questions like…

  • Is this the original design you created?  If not, what did you change along the way?  Why did you make those changes?
  • What improvements would you make to your speaker with the same supplies?  
  • What improvements would you make with more supplies and/or time

These questions help students focus on the process and the possibility for continued improvement in a project.  We found these questions to be especially important for students who had very little increase in sound – or even a decrease.  Most were able to suggest improvements from their own experience or by observing other students’ speakers.

The Results! 

The best results of the day were an increase of 6.5 decibels and 6.3 decibels.  The tension was high in many classes as students became silent to test their speakers and wait for the results.  Kids were truly impressed when they saw classmates achieving high numbers.


This was a great first building experience for our Music + STEM class.  Stay tuned to see us “toot our own horns” about what we make next!