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Some of the children I teach have expressed an interest in music and learning to play. I am thinking about how I can help them do a sort of arts-and-crafts music day, where we could make some instruments.

Do you know any fun instruments we could make from household items to help demonstrate essential musical concepts like strings, resonant bodies, and so forth?

Thanks-

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12 Answers 12

Different-sized bottles (for blowing across), filled with different amounts of water, are one of the easier home-made instruments to tune accurately. Plastic does work if you're worried about breakages, but the rims of glass bottles tend to be a better shape for getting a note easily.

You can also hit glass bottles (gently, with a light beater!) to get a note.

Suspending metal objects such as old saucepans or dustbin lids from a frame will make them ring much more satisfyingly when hit.

If the children are old enough, you could show them the trick of making a glass sing by running a wet finger around the rim.

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First one that comes to mind is a tea chest bass, as popular in the early '60s. Turn a tea chest, a broom handle and length of string into a playable 'double bass'. I tried to give an explanation of how it fits together and plays, but it's difficult. There are lots of youtube videos out there.

Cans filled with, pebbles, grain, rice, etc. will give the kids the chance to experiment with different timbres, etc.

Find some tubing, metal, and experiment making tubular bells. Easy to hang with bits of string or wire. Maybe an experiment in measuring and cutting. Small bore tubing will make some pan pipes

Shoebox guitars with rubber bands, maraccas made from big lightbulbs covered in papier-mâché, and bashed to break when dry and hard - the list goes on!

If you want to get really sophisticated, there's a rather large instrument made from many plastic pipes. Possibly called a plastiphone - I called it a tuber. It's played by hitting the tops of the tubes, which each make a different note. It's featured somewhere on this site with a question. Sorry, can't find it.

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An alternative to shoebox guitar: a bit of plywood with two rows of nails so the spacings increase down the row, stretch rubber bands to create a mini-harp. – Carl Witthoft Feb 29 at 15:45
    
@CarlWitthoft - Put it into an answer, why don't you? – Tim Feb 29 at 16:04
    
@CarlWitthoft yes the rubber-band based mini harp is a very neat idea. – sova Mar 1 at 4:39

Google "straw oboe". It is a perfect and fun way to teach the children about how woodwind instruments work, by blowing compressed air through a tube which vibrates at just the right frequency. :) You can even tune them by changing the length of the straws .

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lead me to find this fascinating and bizarre wonder: exploratorium.edu/snacks/bee-hummer – sova Feb 29 at 4:10
    
You could even make a set of "oboe-pan-pipes" – Carl Witthoft Feb 29 at 15:43

The Washtub Bass (instructions here) is a personal favorite:

So easy a kid can do it :-)

The string vibrations are visible, so it makes for a nice teaching tool. You can also have folks experiment with putting some pillows inside the washtub or trying it on different surfaces etc. to notice the change in the sound and hypothesize about why.

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My cousin, a professional musician, came over to our house once after some construction had been done. There was some excess PVC pipe around and he started playing it like a digeridoo. It was completely workable and loads of fun because you could play with the pitch and make different sounds based on how you blew into it.

Here's an article I found about making them: http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Didgeridoo-out-of-PVC-Pipe

We didn't add a fitting onto the end to ours, we just put tape over it so it wasn't sharp. I'm sure you could sand it down to accomplish this also -- and by doing that, you wouldn't need the extra fitting at the end if you didn't want to add it.

The difference in length of the overall pipe really changes the pitch of the instrument and the amount of breath and force required to play it. So, if you cut them to an assortment of lengths, you can allow for people to try whatever suits their ability and interest.

I know I had a lot of fun doing this as a kid, so I hope this helps! :)

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When I was backpacking in Australia, there were backpackers travelling round with real didgeridoos. It was just as common to see backpackers travelling round with lengths of PVC pipe, though. – Level River St Feb 29 at 2:48

I'll second the water-filled bottles and PVC digeridoo - some simple experimentation can get some extremely accurate notes from a set of four of five glass (preferably) or plastic bottles.

Along the same lines, although more tool-intensive (so perhaps not appropriate for your use-case, depending on age range), are PVC flutes or recorders. These require drilling holes in the PVC according to some simple measurements that you can determine yourself, or look up (sample). It's also very effective to buy some cheap plastic recorder mouthpieces to attach to the PVC, rather than drilling your own mouthpiece hole - just make sure the pipe fits well.

For a stringed instrument (similar to tea chest double bass suggested above), metal pie pans or plastic buckets with a wooden board run across and a few plastic or wire strings of different lengths, and/or tightened to different tensions, work pretty well (example).

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If you have a wood shop and you can purchase a guitar neck then building a electric guitar is not overly complicated. You can find plans for guitar building on the internet.

Building a banjo is also a neat project as it is less complicated than a acoustic guitar.

Just whatever you do don't go trough the rabbit hole that is acoustic guitar making. That rabbit hole will ruin your life.

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Banjos, are hollow, and have a skin covering; mine has 26 tensioners round it, less complicated? Maybe a very rudimentary one. Solid electric guitar is a better bet. – Tim Feb 29 at 9:39
    
I have made an edit that would hopefully make post more clear. – Neil Meyer Feb 29 at 10:12

Xylophones are pretty easy to make if you have scraps of wood and the kids are old enough to use saws. You can hang them on strings tied aroung the 1/4 length from the end. I've done this several times with school groups.

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There is a great TED video on how to make a clarinet from a carrot:

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absolutely amazing. – sova Mar 1 at 4:34

With some experimentation you could construct a set of plastic tubes like boomwhackers. These are great fun to play. Or you could just buy some - they're not that expensive. It depends whether it's the making of the instruments or the playing of them that you're focusing on.

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We made tuned bottles. It is relatively easy to do, most important is to try bottles of various size, as you may not be able to cover the full octave with identical bottles by just varying amount of water in them. The notes are generally rather high (up to C8), wine glasses sound lower. I used spectrum analysis program for a laptop to tune the bottles and glasses.

The instrument is fully playable and relatively easy. Notes usually require transposition few octaves up (or just imagine and see C7 as middle C).

Bottles sound much better if you hang them somehow rather than standing.

Another good instrument for small children are just two simple wooden sticks to beat one into another.

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At my school we all made oil-can banjos whcih was great fun.

Just need a bit of wood about the proportions of a guitar/banjo neck, an old oil (or antifreeze etc - basically any gallon / 5L bottle, plastic is best), and something for strings. We used thick fishing line I think, although maybe garden strimmer 'wire' might be better haha

You cut a hole for the wood in the bottle, so that the wood fits tightly through the hole and jams itself in place, near the flat end of the bottle. The flat end becomes the top of the body where the bridge will rest etc. Make a floating bridge out of a small piece of wood.

Put some nails in at the 'head' end of the neck (underneath, one for each string), and tie the strings one end to that, over end of the wood (= the nut), along the neck and over the bridge, around the bottle and to its handle to locate them. Tuning wasn't really considered but you could jam things between the string and the bottle to make them looser/tighter.

Frets are optional - we marked them with biro by working out where the octave was by ear, and then the 5th, 4th, etc,

I bet you could make a much better job with a few amendments, the main issue being how to tune them, but they were good fun to make, cost virtually zero and the best part was working out where the frets should be by ear. Learnt loads from that.

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