Designing Musical Instruments

By Catherine Macaulay, December 29, 2008

Grade Level

  • Elementary School


  • Product Design

Subject Area

  • Science

Lesson Time

4 periods


Many students play musical instruments or enjoy listening to music, but rarely do they get a chance to examine musical instruments as an integral part of the science study of sound energy.  In this lesson, students will learn about the elements of an instrument that cause sound to be created and design a unique musical instrument incorporating elements from the lesson.

National Standards


  • Students will be able to recall from previous lessons that sound is created by vibrations and vibrations create sound.
  • Students will be able to explain that sound can vary in pitch and volume.
  • Students will be able to explain that the length and tightness of an object affect its pitch.


Virtual Music Museum  Sound Books: Ardley, Neil.  The Science Book of Sound.  New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991. Domnauer, Teresa.  Moo Moo Went the Tuba.  Ohi School Specialty Publishing,  2006. Domnauer, Teresa.  Music Around the World.  Ohi School Specialty Publishing,  2006. Gerstein, Mordicai.  What Charlie Heard.  New York: Frances Foster Books, 2002. O’Brien, Eileen.  Introduction to Music. London: Usborne Publishing Ltd, 2002. O’Brien, Eileen.  The Usborne Story of Music. London: Usborne Publishing Ltd, 1997. Spence, Keith.  The Young People’s Book of Music.  Connecticut: Millbrook Press, 1993. computer with projector/SmartBoard access to your school's music room


  • pencils
  • clip boards
  • handouts
  • clean, found materials from home: bottles, boxes of all sizes, tubes, wine corks, cups, coffee cans, tuna fish cans, chopsticks, oatmeal containers, bobby pins, the more materials the more possibilities for interesting homemade instruments.
  • fishing wire
  • rubber bands
  • hot glue gun
  • tape: duct, masking, packaging
  • scissors
  • box cutter
  • beans
  • rice
  • balloons


pitch: how high or low a sound is musical instrument: any device that produces musical tones or sounds  


Day 1:  Introduction: 1. Have students recall that objects make sound because of vibrations. 2. Ask, “Why don’t all sounds sound the same?” (Explain that sounds can be high or low and that this is called pitch.) 3. Ask, “How do you think sounds are made to be higher and lower?”  (Take all student suggestions.) 4. Explain that today the students will be observing several musical instruments.  Some of these instruments may be familiar to them (violin, xylophone) while others may not look like instruments right away (a line of different sized bottles or rulers). **It is important that the instruments have obvious different sized parts or parts that change in tightness 5. Explain that as the students observe the instruments they should listen for high sounds and low sounds.  The students should sketch what they see and hear on the observation sheet (see attached sheet). 6. Show the students the observation sheet and use an available instrument to model a student observation.  If you have a SmartBoard you can upload the attachment to a Notebook File. 7. Hand out an observation sheet, a pencil, and a clipboard to each student.  Take the students on a tour of the instruments, giving them ample time to observe and sketch.  Some of the best conventional instruments are: xylophone, piano with open top, guitar with pegs adjusted, drum set, or recorder with open and closed holes.  Some of the best unconventional instruments are: 3+ rulers taped on a table at various lengths that can be plucked, 3+ glasses or bottles of different sizes that can be tapped, 3+ metal containers that can be tapped or hit, fishing wire stretched between two screws that can be loosened or tightened and plucked, cardboard tubes of varying sizes that can be hit. 8. Collect the student observation sheets and review their work.  Pick out sketches and observations that students made and copy them onto an overhead acetate or scan them into a computer so that they can be projected.  You can use the students’ examples tomorrow to explain the concept of pitch. Day 2:  Discuss and Brainstorm: 1. Have the students recall their experiences with the musical instruments.  Say, “Raise your hand if you were able to feel or see vibrations that were causing sound.” 2. Say, “Raise your hand if you were able to hear sounds that were low and high.” 3. Hand out the student observation sheets from the previous class. 4. Ask, “What did you notice about the instruments that changed pitch, made low and high sounds?” 5. Ask, “Did you notice any similarities between instruments that changed pitch, made low and high sounds?” (The shorter/smaller objects made higher sounds than the longer/larger objects.  The tighter objects made higher sounds than the looser objects.) 6. Use the projector or SmartBoard to show some of the student observations.  As you put the work up explain that shorter/smaller objects make higher pitched sounds than longer/larger objects. Play an instrument to demonstrate this point. 7. Say, “You will be designing and building an instrument that makes sound and can change pitch.  You will be able to use any of the found materials that have been brought in to school.” 8. Ask, “What qualities will your instrument have to have in order for it to change pitch?” (Different sized parts, or parts that can change tightness.) 9. Allow the students to take a tour of the found items and explain that that will have access to glue, tape, string, balloons, and other community items. 10. Say, “Today you will begin to brainstorm ideas and sketch some of those ideas.  Remember that YOUR instrument doesn’t have to look like an instrument that already exists.  It can be a new invention!” 11. Show the students the “Master Plan” sheet and have them begin to sketch and brainstorm ideas. Day 3:  Build, Test, and Reflect Prior to the lesson, set up stations around the room (taping, gluing, cutting, etc.) and separate out like building materials (bottles, boxes, can, etc).  I invite parent volunteers to work at the gluing, taping and cutting stations to help the students with these tasks. 1. Say, “Today you will be building your instruments.  You will be experimenting.  If your original plan doesn’t seem to work see what changes you can make to create an instrument that can make sound and change pitch.” 2. Orient the students to the stations set up and explain that all materials that are not being used should be returned to their proper station so that other students can use them. 3. Hand out the “Master Plan” sheets. 4. Give the students ample time to build.  Sometimes this may take more than one class period.  As students finish they can become “Design Consultants” and assist other students who would like help. Day 4:  Test and Share: 1. Have a few students share where they are in the process.  Ask, “Who would like to share what they have so far?” 2. Ask, “What has worked for you and what has not worked?  What has been easy and what has been challenging?” 3. Explain to the students that as they finish, they will be testing their instrument by playing it for themselves and filing out a self-evaluation (see attached sheet).  If the instrument works, then they will play it for at least two peers.  Their peers will each fill out an evaluation form (see attached sheet).  If the instrument fits all the criteria then the student will bring their instrument to the teacher.  If the peer evaluation states that the instrument needs more work, then the student will have to continue to build. 4. Once you feel that the class is ready to begin sharing and presenting say, “It is time to begin presenting your instruments to the class.  First you will tell us the name of your instrument (if there is one).  Next you will explain how your instrument makes sound and how it changes pitch.  Then you will play your instrument for the class.  You will then be able to take three questions or comments from the class.” 5. After each presentation ask, “If you had an infinite amount of time and supplies, would you make any changes to your instrument?  What would they be?” 6. As each student presents, fill out an evaluation on the student’s instrument and explanation of their instrument (see attached sheet). 7. As each student finishes presenting his or her instruments, they should go on display in the class. 8. Once all students have had a chance to present, ask the class, “What did you notice about all of the instruments?”  “What did you learn from seeing everyone’s designs?” “What would you do differently next time you design and musical instrument that can make sound and change pitch?”


The teacher will observe students as they work. The teacher will listen to student to student interaction while they work on their instruments. The teacher will ask questions of the students as they work: "Why did you choose this particular material?"  "How is your instrument coming along?"  "How are you working to create an instrument that will make sound and change pitch?" Each student will fill out a self evaluation. Each student will play their instrument for two peers and they will each fill our a peer evaluation. Each student will play their instrument for the teacher and explain how and why it can make sound and change pitch. The teacher will compare the student's original observation sheet from Day 1 with the content of their presentation on Day 4.  

Enrichment Extension Activities

Students can compose music with their newly created instruments.
Work with a local music shop to use a transducer microphone to amplify the instrument sounds.
Go to a local museum to view related exhibits.  Here are some examples:
Attend an open rehearsal of the local orchestra.
Visit an audiologist at a local hospital or doctor's office.

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