How Polymers Make Music

piping Paul!

Use these activities to learn some of the basics of how musical instruments work and what polymers are used in them to change or improve the way they sound.

Straw Oboe

You can see how a double-reed instrument like an oboe or bassoon works by using a simple drinking straw and a pair of scissors.

  1. Get a nice big straw at some place like McDonald's or Sonic. Keep the straw in the wrapper until it's time for this project, to make sure it stays clean.
  2. Open the straw and flatten it out by pressing it between your fingers until the sides are sharply folded.
  3. Take the scissors and cut one end of the straw into a point (about a 90 degree angle, not too sharp.)
  4. Hold the pointed end of the straw gently between your lips and blow through the straw. It should vibrate and make a sound like a high-pitched duck.

How do reeds work?
What instruments use reeds?
What kinds of reeds are there?
What does this have to do with polymers?

Comb Kazoo

This is an old favorite that's easy to make. All you need is a comb and some tissue paper.

  1. The best comb to use is one of those short pocket combs.
  2. Take a small piece of tissue paper - the kind people put in clothing boxes or gift bags during the Holidays. Fold the paper around the teeth of the comb.
  3. Hold the comb gently between your lips, making sure not to let the peper get wet, and hum.
  4. The vibration of your voice should cause the paper to rattle making a kazoo sound. Hum a tune you know and see how it sounds.

What is timbre?
How is it affected by materials?
What does this have to do with polymers?

Bottle Xylaphone

This one should be fun to experiment with. All you need is a few glass soda bottles or jars, preferably all the same size.

  1. Use tap water to fill up the bottles or jars. Use a different amount in each one.
  2. Line the bottles or jars up from the most to least amount of water.
  3. Use a wooden spoon or table knife to gently tap the sides of the bottles, near the top. Each jar should make a different pitch.
  4. If you have at least eight bottles, you can experiement with different amounts of liquid until you get them to sound like a scale on the piano. See if you can figure out how to play a simple tune on them, like "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

How does size affect pitch?
What is making the pitch in each bottle?
What does this have to do with polymers?


Drums can be found or made of various things. A cardboard oatmeal box, makes a good drum. So does an empty coffee can, or pots and pans. You can also try a margerine tub or a big plastic water cooler bottle. Find different sizes of drums aroud the house and try them out. Use the end of a wooden spoon as a drumstick. The way drums work is that the flat part you hit vibrates and the sides of the drum carry the vibration and amplify it. You will also notice that different size objects make different pitches.

Why do some instruments need resonators?
What besides size affects the pitch of a drum?
What does this have to do with polymers?

Grass Blade Whsitle

This is one that a lot of kids learn in the summer. All you need is a nice thick blade of grass.

  1. Take a nice flat blade of grass from the yard. The flatter the better. St. Augustine grass works very well. Pull the grass apart lengthwise down the "fold" in the middlle.
  2. Use the smoothest half of the grass blade, and pull it tight between the outsides of your thumbs.
  3. There should be a narrow gap btween your thumbs where the blade of grass is pulled straight. This is the "windway." Blow between your thumbs into this gap, but not too hard, or you can damage the blade.
  4. This "instrument" has to be learned and practiced. It's rare to get a sound on the first try, so keep at it. The hardest part is to get the blade of grass straight and tight between your thumbs. Once you get it, you'll be amazed at how loud a blade of grass can be.

How does a blade make sound?
What kinds of instruments use this idea to make sound?
What do polymers have to do with this?

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Copyright © 2003 | Polymer Science Learning Center | Department of Polymer Science | University of Southern Mississippi