Hands-on Activity: Energetic Musical Instruments

Contributed by: Engineering K-PhD Program, Duke University, Pratt School of Engineering

A photograph of a kid wearing funny glasses and holding the neck of a six-stringed acoustic guitar.
How does energy transfer make music?
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=guitar&ex=1#ai:MP900431786|mt:2|


Students learn to apply the principles and concepts associated with energy and the transfer of energy in an engineering context by designing and making musical instruments. They choose from a variety of provided supplies to make instruments capable of producing three different tones. After completing their designs, students explain the energy transfer mechanism in detail and describe how they could make their instruments better.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers must understand energy transfer to design instruments that produce beautiful music. The understanding of energy transfer also applies to the design of all kinds of other products.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should understand the methods of energy transfer and be able to describe energy transfer in the context of a system (as explained in the associated lesson).

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Design a device that utilizes physical principles of energy transfer.
  • Give an example of an energy transfer process within a system.

More Curriculum Like This

Making Music

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

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Students gain a good knowledge base as to how sound and music are related, and what distinguishes them from each other. They come to understand that sound is a form of energy that travels through a medium. Through demonstrations and experiences with glass bottles, tuning forks and stringed instrumen...

Middle School Lesson
Simple Instruments

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!).

Elementary Activity
To Absorb or Reflect... That is the Question

Students learn how different materials reflect and absorb sound.

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.

  • Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Knowledge gained from other fields of study has a direct effect on the development of technological products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Design is a creative planning process that leads to useful products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Brainstorming is a group problem-solving design process in which each person in the group presents his or her ideas in an open forum. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Energy can be used to do work, using many processes. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Manufacturing systems use mechanical processes that change the form of materials through the processes of separating, forming, combining, and conditioning them. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Understand characteristics of energy transfer and interactions of matter and energy. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Understand forms of energy, energy transfer and transformation and conservation in mechanical systems. (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Explain how energy can be transformed from one form to another (specifically potential energy and kinetic energy) using a model or diagram of a moving object (roller coaster, pendulum, or cars on ramps as examples). (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

For a class of 20 (10 groups of 2):

  • 10 soap dishes (no lid necessary)
  • 10 plastic bowls (cereal bowl size)
  • 30 rubber bands (10 each of 3 different thicknesses)
  • 5 shoe boxes of any size (with or without lids)
  • 5 toothbrushes
  • 10 pencils
  • 5 pint-sized drinking glasses
  • three 8.5' x 11-inch notepads
  • tape
  • scissors
  • springs (available at hardware stores, educational supply stores or online; best are springs ~2-3 inches long)
  • (optional) other supplies suitable for construction of musical instruments


Have you ever wondered how an acoustic guitar produces the amazing sounds we hear? How neat would it be to go home and tell your parents you made a musical instrument in school today? You may not realize it, but the acoustic guitar utilizes principles of energy transfer to produce the sounds we hear.

What do engineers do? They apply scientific concepts to produce things of use - all kinds of useful items. Making an instrument based on energy transfer is one good example. Today your engineering challenge is to make a musical instrument. Let's get started!


kinetic energy: The energy an object has because it is moving.

music: Vocal or instrumental sounds possessing a degree of melody, harmony or rhythm.

potential energy: The energy an object has because of its position or condition, rather than motion. A raised weight, coiled spring or charged battery all have potential energy.

tone: A sound of distinct pitch, quality and duration; a note.

vibration : A rapid linear motion of a particle or of an elastic solid about an equilibrium.


  1. Divide the class into groups of two students each.
  2. Lay all the supplies out in the front of the classroom and explain to students that their engineering challenge is to use the provided materials to make a musical instrument capable of producing three different tones.
  3. Let each team meet for 5-10 minutes and brainstorm possible design ideas, which might range from plucking rubber bands over soap dishes to using pencils to hit notepads.
  4. After initial brainstorming, let two teams at a time choose the supplies they want.
  5. During the activity, walk around to help student and ask questions such as "How might these supplies be used to create sound?" Expect students to be able to come up with solutions to this problem on their own, but they need may need to better understand the problem. If students do not know what to do, help them better understand the problem rather than doing it for them.
  6. Give students time to design their instruments, perhaps 30 minutes. Estimating the time is difficult because projects will vary widely and thus groups will finish at different times.
  7. If some groups finish quickly, have them design another instrument using different materials.
  8. After instruments are designed and built, have each group write down an explanation of the energy transfer mechanisms involved. Then have each team present and explain their instrument in front of the class and describe possible improvements they would make if they made another design iteration.

Example: The most common type of design students create generally features rubber bands wrapped around a soap dish. By plucking a rubber band, a certain amount of potential energy transfers to the band by the finger that performs work upon the band. Upon release, the band begins vibrating and energy from the vibration is transferred to the soap dish. Together, the vibration of the soap dish and rubber band are heard as sound, which carries energy, and the hollowness of the soap dish serves to amplify the sound.

A flow chart: Work done by finger on rubber band > potential energy of rubber band > vibration of rubber band > vibration of body of soap dish > sound.
This flowchart describes how plucking a rubber band produces an audible tone.
Copyright © 2004 Adam Kempton, Duke University

Safety Issues

  • Ensure that students use rubber bands and scissors responsibly.

Troubleshooting Tips

If students have difficulty brainstorming ideas, remind them to think of how guitars and violins or other instruments work.

Investigating Questions

  • Why do some of the designed instruments sound louder than others?
  • (For students wrapping rubber bands around a six-faced cardboard box) How might the sound change if you cut a hole in the box? Does this change remind you of any familiar instruments?
  • How many different energy transfer processes occur within each instrument? For instance, rubber bands over a drinking glass involve the hand imparting energy to the rubber band and upon vibration the energy of the rubber band gets transferred to the glass, which also begins to vibrate.


As groups present their designed instrument, evaluate them by asking yourself:

  • Did students' instruments produce three different tones?
  • Were students able to explain the functioning of their instruments well?

Activity Extensions

Challenge students to investigate and research different musical instruments and write one-page papers describing how they work.

Challenge students to find more supplies around the house or recycling bins that could be used to make musical instruments capable of producing different tones.


Adam Kempton


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Duke University

Supporting Program

Engineering K-PhD Program, Duke University, Pratt School of Engineering


This content was developed by the MUSIC (Math Understanding through Science Integrated with Curriculum) Program in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0338262. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 16, 2017