Category Archives: STEAM

Build An Instrument: Part 4 – Compose & Perform

Build An Instrument: Part 4 – Compose & Perform

Whew! Here we are at part 4 of the Build An Instrument unit posts! 20150910_120232-1

Let’s look back at what we’ve done so far …

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – The Science of Sound

Part 3 – Building

and finally Part 4 – Compose and Perform!

Our principal came in when we were in the midst of composing and asked, “How do you teach a kid to compose?”  Luckily, I had an answer, but the truth is I taught many years before I figured out an approach. When I was in my undergrad theory classes and had to compose, the only guidance I remember is knowing some traditional chord progressions – and I wasn’t very successful.  I’ve found the key to teaching students to compose is starting with a very limited structure – the fewer choices the better.

For our middle school students, this meant composing in a modified Rondo form (ABACA) with 8 beats in each phrase.  Every student wrote a solo following this form.  They used traditional or non-traditional notation to indicate rhythm and where each note was to be played on their instrument.  Since we had a wide variety of instruments there were a lot of different sounds.  Another challenge was that most instruments didn’t play consistent pitches – so students notated pitches by labeling strings or making “fret” marks on their instruments and notating them in their music.

Once students wrote their solo, they teamed up in groups of 2, 3, or 4.  The group “sampled” their solos to create a new piece for their group.  This new piece also followed the Rondo form by adding “D” and “E” sections for the groups of 3 and 4.  Everyone agreed on a phrase for the group to play together for each recurring “A” phrase.  Then, each student chose their favorite composed phrase to play as a solo in each alternating section.  In the end, it looked something like this….

A – group

B – student 1 solo

A – group

C – student 2 solo

A – group

After a day of practicing with their group to perfect their piece, we celebrated with a day of performances!  Here’s an example …

Overall, the results of this unit were outstanding.  Students applied the science of sound to the instruments they built and more importantly, learned from trial and error.  Most students did not end up with the exact instrument they first conceived – but many of the results were even better.  Composing and performing was new for most kids, but many had very successful first attempts!  We’re looking forward to see what else they can accomplish throughout the semester!

Create An Instrument: Part 3 – Building

Create An Instrument: Part 3 – Building


Create An Instrument: Part 3 – Building

Let’s face it – this is the fun part!

Everything we’ve done so far led up to this – build your instrument!

We gave students a day to research what they wanted to build and how to build it.  (We’re lucky enough to have Chromebook sets so each student could do their own research.)  Most students went to a search engine or youTube and searched for things like “build your own instrument”, “diy instrument”, or “homemade instrument”.  Once they chose what they wanted to build, they found instructions or videos giving specific directions.

Students had a Engineering Design log to guide them through the process.  Ours was based on this Engineering Notebook (p. 6). Each student’s instrument had to be sketched and labeled with all needed supplies before they could start building.

Supplies – this is probably the biggest challenge to this entire project.  Luckily, our STEM teacher had been collecting cardboard since the start of school so we had an enormous supply.  That said, we went through an enormous amount!      

Tip: the most useful types of cardboard were computer keyboard and ukulele boxes.

Hard at work

Hard at work

Here are some of the supplies we our amazing STEM teacher provided:

  • masking tape
  • small rubber bands
  • large rubber bands
  • duct tape
  • paper clips
  • fishing line
  • construction paper
  • beads
  • straws
  • toothpicks
  • string
  • popsicle sticks

We also had various workshop tools, hot glue guns, box cutters, and exacto knives. Obviously, we used these or supervised student use.

We also encouraged students to bring in supplies from home.  In the end, we had a few students who built their instruments at home and brought them in.  These were mostly students who wanted to use wood or other materials to build and had all the supplies and tools at home.

Note to teachers: Storage quickly became an issue with this project – especially when you combine classes! Make sure you think about where you can keep work in progress!


The results…

Were pretty amazing!! Students with about 3 days to build.  Some would have gone longer but we eventually had to put an official end to building.  Just like adults we definitely had some “tinkerers” who enjoyed making adjustment after adjustment.  Scroll down to see some proud kids and their instruments!








Next up – can we actually make music with these instruments??

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.