Hands-on Activity Simple Instruments

Quick Look

Grade Level: 4 (3-5)

Time Required: 30 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $1.00

Group Size: 2

Activity Dependency:

Subject Areas: Physical Science

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle


Students work with partners to create four different instruments to investigate the frequency of the sounds they make. Teams may choose to make a shoebox guitar, water-glass xylophone, straw panpipe or a soda bottle organ (or all four!). Conduct this activity in conjunction with Lesson 3 of the Sound and Light unit.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Four young girls play stringed instruments on a stage.
Students investigate the frequency of instruments
Copyright © U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Kazakhstan, U.S. Embassy, U.S. Department of State http://kazakhstan.usembassy.gov/news120412.html

Engineering Connection

Acoustic engineers help design effective auditoriums (and other spaces) so that everyone in the audience can hear the music that is being produced on stage. They also design music-related equipment such as recording equipment, music players, public address systems, microphones, speakers and headphones. To design these items, they must understand music and the frequencies at which different notes are formed.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to explain that high frequencies produce high-pitched sounds, and low frequencies produce low-pitched sounds.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

4-PS4-1. Develop a model of waves to describe patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength and that waves can cause objects to move. (Grade 4)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Develop a model using an analogy, example, or abstract representation to describe a scientific principle.

Alignment agreement:

Science findings are based on recognizing patterns.

Alignment agreement:

Waves, which are regular patterns of motion, can be made in water by disturbing the surface. When waves move across the surface of deep water, the water goes up and down in place; there is no net motion in the direction of the wave except when the water meets a beach. (Note: This grade band endpoint was moved from K–2.)

Alignment agreement:

Waves of the same type can differ in amplitude (height of the wave) and wavelength (spacing between wave peaks).

Alignment agreement:

Similarities and differences in patterns can be used to sort and classify natural phenomena.

Alignment agreement:

  • Explain how various relationships can exist between technology and engineering and other content areas. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Design solutions by safely using tools, materials, and skills. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Describe the energy transformation that takes place in electrical circuits where light, heat, sound, and magnetic effects are produced (Grade 4) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Note: Each of the four instruments requires a different set of materials. Student teams may make one type of instrument, or each student can make all four, depending on your available time and budget. These instruments were selected because they can make notes of different pitches (frequencies) and most should be ready to play in about 5-10 minutes if all the supplies are available.

Water-Glass Xylophone:

Straw Panpipe:

  • 4-8 straws
  • tape (masking or cellophane)
  • scissors
  • Instrument Construction Worksheet, one per student

Bottle Organ:

  • 5 same-sized plastic soda bottles
  • water
  • Instrument Construction Worksheet, one per student

Shoe Box Guitar:

  • sturdy shoebox
  • 8-10 rubber bands of varying widths
  • pencil
  • Instrument Construction Worksheet, one per student

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_soundandlight_lesson3_activity1] to print or download.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Basic understanding of frequency (Lesson 3 of this unit).


Now that we have learned about frequency and how different notes have different frequencies, it's time for you to create your own musical instruments. Remember, sound is energy that moves through a medium (for example, air) in a wave pattern. While you are making them, I want you to think about the different frequencies your instrument is creating. The frequency of a sound is directly related to its pitch. That is, the more waves per second hitting your ear, the higher in pitch the tone is, and subsequently, the smaller the wavelength. Ask yourself if the sounds your instrument makes have high or low frequencies. And, make sure to check out some of the other instruments – they all are going to sound a little different! See if you can figure out what some of the differences are. Furthermore, note that some instruments are louder (higher amplitude) because they can compress the air to a greater extent.

And, one more thing you should know before you begin: sometimes, when we hear a noise, it sounds really good to our ears, like beautiful music, and other times, it sounds awful, like a horrible noise. The sound waves for a pleasant sound and a noisy sound look very different – does anyone have an idea about how they might look? The pleasant sound wave is very smooth, like this (draw it on the board) while the noisy sound wave is rough, like this (draw it on the board). The noisy wave actually looks noisy, doesn't it? (see Figure 1 for these two waves.)

Drawing of a pleasant sound wave as compared to a noisy sound wave. The pleasant sound wave is smooth, while the noisy sound wave is rough.
Figure 1. Illustration of timbre.
Copyright © 2005 Chris Yakacki, ITL Program, University of Colorado Boulder



This is a fairly unstructured activity. Be sure to give students plenty of time to experiment and explore their instruments. If you like, bring in an electric tuner, so that students can investigate the frequencies that their instruments are creating. Also, a free, easy-to-use tuner app, gStrings Free, is available for smartphones.

Before the Activity

  • Gather materials.
  • Make copies of the Instrument Construction Worksheet, one per student.
  • Make an example musical instrument of each type to show the class before the activity begins

With the Students

  1. Divide the class into teams of two students each.
  2. Have teams spend a few minutes deciding which instrument they wish to construct.
  3. Hand out the worksheets. Provide groups with the materials for their chosen instruments.
  4. Direct students to begin designing and creating their instruments. Help with construction when necessary. Instrument instructions are listed below.
  5. Once students have completed their instruments, give them time to practice playing them.
  6. Ask students questions regarding the frequency of the created sounds. For example: Do you think that your panpipe is making high or low frequency sounds? (Reminder: Higher frequency sounds are higher pitch sounds, while slower frequency sounds are the lower sounds.)

Instrument Instructions

Water-Glass Xylophone:

Materials: 4-5 same-sized glasses, water, spoon

Instructions: Fill each glass with a different amount of water.

How to Play: Tap each glass lightly with a spoon.

Straw Panpipe:

Materials: 4-8 straws, tape, scissors

Instructions: Cut the straws so that each one is one-half-inch shorter than the next one. Lay the straws in order by height (so one side of the lined-up straws is even and the other is angled) and tape them together.

How to Play: Hold the straight (even) end of the straws against your lower lip and blow across the top of each straw to make sounds.

Bottle Organ:

Materials: 5 same-sized plastic soda bottles, water

Instructions: Fill the plastic bottles with different amounts of water.

How to Play: Blow across the top of each one to make sounds.

Shoe Box Guitar:

Materials: Sturdy shoebox, 8-10 rubber bands of varying widths, pencil

Instructions: Cut a circular hole in shoebox lid. Place rubber bands of different widths around the shoebox, with thicker ones at one end and thinner ones at the other end. Place a pencil perpendicularly underneath all the rubber bands on the end near the shoebox hole, similar to the bridge on a guitar.

How to Play: Pluck the rubber bands to make sounds.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Frequency Review: Review some of the key ideas from Lesson 3, Making Music, to determine how much students remember. Ask students: Why do engineers need to know about frequencies? (Answer: Acoustical engineers study musical frequencies so that they can create auditoriums and concert halls with excellent acoustics. However, different kinds of engineers need to know about various types of frequencies for many different applications.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Student Discussions: As you assist students with creating their instruments, ask them what they are learning about frequency. Have students discuss any patterns they see. 

Post-Activity Assessment

Strike Up the Band!: Gather the class together and try to play a song as a class. Afterwards, talk about why it was so difficult. Talk about the importance of tuning. (Note: musicians tune their instruments so that they can create specific frequencies that match up with specific notes.) Since our instruments are not tuned, it's hard for us to play the right notes – another reason why frequency is so important.

Investigating Questions

  • How many different kinds of instruments are in an orchestra?
  • How long does it take to build a piano? A guitar? A harp?
  • What does an acoustical engineer do?
  • What did you notice about the different sounds the instruments make?
  • Do higher pitched sounds have frequency, or greater wavelength, or both? (Answer: Higher frequency = higher pitch = smaller wavelength)
  • Are some instruments louder than others? Why? (Answer: Greater air pressure is created by the louder instruments, resulting in higher amplitude, or loudness.)
  • Can you control the loudness of your instruments? How? (Answer: By blowing harder into an instrument or plucking strings with more force, you are exerting more energy and thereby creating more pressure.)

Safety Issues

Assist students using scissors to cut straws, as needed.

Troubleshooting Tips

If students have trouble getting their panpipes to play, ensure that at least one end of the straws matches up, leaving the opposite side—staggered ends—uneven. Students should blow through the matched up sides of the straws to make their instruments play.

If all materials are ready, it is possible to make and play all of these instruments in 25 minutes. However, if more time is available, students can decorate their instruments and even create their own band.

Activity Extensions

Have students learn about engineers who are instrumental (pun intended) in the music industry. Have students visit the following websites and report back to the class what they learned about engineers and music: http://www.engineeringk12.org/students/engineer_spotlight/engineer_george_stetten.htm and http://www.engineeringk12.org/outreach/Making_Engineers_Cool/search.cfm.

Have students make their own instruments at: http://www.mudcat.org/kids/. Assign student groups to a different instrument and form a class band.

Activity Scaling

For upper grades, spend more time creating instruments, tune them using tuners, and play a song together.


Get the inside scoop on all things TeachEngineering such as new site features, curriculum updates, video releases, and more by signing up for our newsletter!
PS: We do not share personal information or emails with anyone.

More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
Making Music

Students learn about sound with an introduction to the concept of frequency and how it applies to musical sounds.

Middle School Lesson
Filtering: Extracting What We Want from What We Have

Filtering is the process of removing or separating the unwanted part of a mixture. In signal processing, filtering is specifically used to remove or extract part of a signal, and this can be accomplished using an analog circuit or a digital device (such as a computer). In this lesson, students learn...

Upper Elementary Lesson
The Energy of Music

Students are introduced to sound energy concepts and how engineers use sound energy. Through hands-on activities and demonstrations, students examine how we know sound exists by listening to and seeing sound waves

Upper Elementary Activity
Pitch and Frequency

To further their understanding of sound energy, students identify the different pitches and frequencies created by a vibrating ruler and a straw kazoo. They create high- and low-pitch sound waves.


ASEE Engineering K-12 Center, Educators, Making Engineering "Cool," Stories From Engineering: Go For It, "Behind the Beat," 2004. Accessed February 1, 2007. Formerly at http://www.engineeringk12.org/educators/making_engineers_cool/stories.htm

ASEE Engineering K-12 Center, Students, "Engineer Spotlight: Music Man," 2004. Accessed February 1, 2007. http://www.engineeringk12.org/students/engineer_spotlight/engineer_george_stetten.htm

Mudcat Café, Kid Stuff, "Make Your Own Instruments." Accessed February 1, 2007. http://www.mudcat.org/kids/


© 2007 by Regents of the University of Colorado


Jessica Todd; Brad Dunkin; Luke Simmons; Brian Kay; Frank Burkholder; Abigail Watrous; Janet Yowell

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: March 21, 2021

Free K-12 standards-aligned STEM curriculum for educators everywhere.
Find more at TeachEngineering.org