Create a musical ensemble using everyday materials you can find around your house and yard.
Guest blog by Roger Keane
Elementary Music and Band Teacher, Midway Elementary School
It’s been a little tough for all of us this summer because, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we might not get the chance to go out to visit places and do the kinds of things we’re used to doing. Fortunately, this is also a great opportunity to use our creativity to come up with really neat stuff to do with whatever might be laying around.
When most of us think about a musical instrument, we think about something like a trumpet, saxophone, or violin. They're fancy, expensive, and might take a lot of lessons to learn how to play. Those instruments are really fun, but way back before any of these instruments were invented, people were still making music.
The first musical instrument was invented thousands of years ago when one of our ancestors figured out that he or she could take a rock or a stick or a hollow log, and hit it or blow across it or shake it, and it would make a really neat sound. That’s all music is – organized sound. There are hundreds of things laying around your house or apartment or the woods or the street which you can take and make into musical instruments. Today, I’m going to show you a few of those.
The first thing we’re going to need for our at-home instrument is a base. We need something big and boomy and thumpy. Look around your house and yard for big, hollow things like:
a rain barrel
a plastic or metal bucket
an upside down trash can or recycling bin
an empty coffee canister
I used a rain barrel and was able to make three different base sounds depending on where I tapped it with my hand. Tapping on the side with the palm of my hand made a low, hollow sound. Tapping on the rim, where the plastic is thicker, with the metal of my wedding ring made a slightly different sound. And drumming on the top, where there is a mesh cover, made a sort of snare drum sound.
For mid-range sounds, try making a kitchen drum set. It doesn't have to be made from kitchen items, but I think the kitchen is where you find the best stuff for making musical instruments. There are things that are wood, things that are plastic, things that are metal, and even things that are glass – but you want to be careful with those! Each of those things makes a different kind of sound, and the word for that is timbre. Timbre is the kind of sound something makes. The timbre when I hit plastic is a different timbre than when I hit metal. Musicians have invented lots and lots of different ways to create different timbres, or sounds. For your kitchen drum set, you can use:
a plastic cutting board
a set of measuring cups in different sizes (I used the 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, and 1 cup from a metal set)
2 "drumsticks," such as pens, pencils, markers, chopsticks, skewers, twigs, scrap wood, spoons, etc.
Set up your measuring cups from left to right, biggest to smallest, on the plastic cutting board. Drum a few times on the cutting board and on one of the measuring cups to experiment with the different timbres they make. Then see how the different sizes of measuring cups make different sounds. We can hear that our big full size cup makes a lower sound than our ¼ cup. Play around with that! Try to make up a little song that goes up and then down. Then add in whatever you are using for your base. This demonstrates one of the most basic rules of music: the smaller something is, the higher its pitch will be, and the bigger something is, the lower its pitch will be. This is true no matter what instrument you're using, whether it's a stringed instrument, a wind instrument that you blow into, or a percussion instrument like this kitchen drum set.
The last component of our build-your-own musical instrument project is to create a melody, which means that a song has more than one note. If you were to sing your favorite song but only use the same note over and over for every word, that's just a monotone chant and not very interesting, is it? But if you sing it with all the different notes going up and down, suddenly you have a real song that you can sing or hum or whistle.
Making things play different notes is a little trickier than just finding something to make a really neat timbre like we did with our base and middle sounds, but there is a way you can do that at home with no training at all. Here’s what you need:
a few stemware glasses (such as wine glasses that have stems)
2 "drumsticks," such as ceramic or metal measuring spoons, chopsticks, pens, pencils, a whisk, etc.
You want to be careful while you do this, because obviously this is the most fragile of all the things we’ve done. Your glasses could break easily if you hit it too hard. But as long as you use something that’s not too heavy or thick -- and tap gently -- it will be fine.
Remember that different amounts of something creates different pitches, higher or lower. Fill your stemmed glasses with different amounts of water, with the most water on the left, and the least water on the right. Then use your "drumsticks" (I used two ceramic measuring spoons) and play very lightly on the rim of the glasses to see what happens.
It’s kind of a weird sound isn’t it? It’s a little bit different and jangly but also kind of neat. You can play around at the sink with as many glasses as you have, filling them up with different levels of water and finding different notes. You can make up your own song, or try to tap out the notes of a familiar song like "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Then put it all together with your base and middle drum set.
What we’ve done is create a musical ensemble using just stuff that’s laying around. The cool thing about this particular project is that it is one possibility out of 1,000. Each one of you has different things in your yard, your house, your apartment, or laying around your neighborhood that you can put together to make your own instruments. The possibilities are endless! I hope you guys have as much fun with this activity as I did, and I hope you spend some time this summer using your creativity to make your own music.
Did you try this at home? Share your music with us on social media using #ilearnbecause
Inspired by this activity? Check out these additional resources:
Music: takes a look at the history of music, how instruments are made, and how they have evolved today
Can You Hear It?: illustrated with works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection, this title celebrates the world of sound while also introducing young readers to important works of art. It also includes a CD of classical music
Playing Musical Bottles: features step-by-step instructions on making a set of musical bottles while encouraging further exploration on the topic
Vic Firth Drumsticks: In this episode of Curiosity Quest, professional child drummer Cole Marcus travels through the Vic Firth manufacturing facility to learn how drum sticks are made. Watch as Cole tries to teach Joel drumming tips and technique (Kanopy Kids streaming video)