Tips for using this guide: This guide is meant to be self-guided for students above grade 8. Students between grade 3-7 might need some guidance (download activity worksheet), and students under grade 3 will need teacher/parent assistance (download activity worksheet). For future challenges, visit the activity series page or sign up for the outreach newsletter to receive email reminders.
A musical instrument is something made to produce music. Building one is a great way for you to explore the physics of sound, and learn a little bit about music along the way. We’ve put together an explanation of some of the physics behind musical instruments, and will show you lots of suggestions for instruments you can make yourself. Using what you learn, you can also make your own creative design!
Questions? Contact UBC physicists and astronomers if you have any physics questions about building your own musical instrument. We will also showcase your design on this page or via social media – you can share using a drawing, a video of your device, or any other creative ways you would like!
Some musicians even choose to build their own instruments with everyday materials – check out the examples below!
Things you need for creating your own instrument:
- This webpage. We’ve chosen a few key concepts in physics that will help building your instrument. To show these concepts in action, we’ve provided explanations on how common instruments produce music.
- Decide what type of instrument to make: Choose among string, wind, and percussion instruments.
- Pen and paper to design your instrument. Think about the physics behind what makes a good instrument!
- Supplies. You can use just about anything to make your instrument. We provided some examples below to get you started, but you can use what you can find!
- Safety first. Make sure you use safe materials, and that your instrument is safe to play! If you are not sure, ask adults for help.
- Make it a group project? Connect with friends online and coordinate a group performance! (thank you local teacher Albert C for your suggestion!)
Build your own!
We have picked some ideas in physics that are helpful in designing an instrument! Applying these concepts allows us to make the organized sound that is music!
Sound and vibration
To know what sound is, we first need to learn about vibrations. When something moves back and forth in a rapid and regular way, it vibrates. You can make a sound through vibrations – using our bodies (try humming), or using a musical instrument. The vibration you create makes the air all around vibrate, and the air then vibrates parts of the ears of the listener – which is how a person can hear a sound.
Sound is a wave – it transmits vibrational energy from one place to another, say from a musical instrument to your ears.
Experiment and explore! You can find some sound-related activities on the Exploratorium website. Also, experiment online through the PhET simulation of sound.
Music is made using specific sounds called “tones” or “musical notes”. The notes have names, A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
This is the sound of a “A” note:
And this is the sound of a C note:
On a musical instrument, different musical notes can be created through a few ways. For string instruments like an acoustic guitar or a violin, using the finger of one hand to change the vibrating length of the string (called “stopping”) can create various notes. On an electric guitar, strings can be of the same length and similar tension, but have different thickness. When you play a recorder, musical notes are created by allowing different lengths of air in the recorder vibrate when you plug the tone holes.
Some sounds are louder than other ones. What is different about the sound waves that have different loudness?
Remember that sound comes from things that are vibrating, and travels to our ears as waves. Waves can be big or small though, and the bigger wave (with more energy) will sound louder than the smaller wave (with less energy). We say a bigger wave has a larger amplitude, and a smaller wave has smaller amplitude.
A wave with a large amplitude. Image: PhET simulation (wave on a string)
A wave with a small amplitude. Image: PhET simulation (wave on a string)
Experiment and explore: try this PhET online simulation – see how you can adjust the amplitude of the waves!
The different musical notes are sounds with different frequencies.
The frequency of a sound is how many times the air vibrates in one second. For example, the C note
has a frequency of 440 Hz, which means the air vibrates 440 times in just one second.
A few things can affect the frequency of the sound created by a musical instrument. Here is an explanation about how electric guitar does it.
Experiment and explore: try this PhET online simulation – adjust the frequency to see what happens!
Sounds of instruments (advanced)
Let’s dive deeper into the idea of musical notes and frequency. Listen again to the sound of the C note,
You might be able to tell that the C note above is played on a piano. Now listen to a C note played on a different instrument, the guitar
Notice how different they sound?
Different instruments sound different because the notes they play are not just vibrations at one frequency – they include vibrations at certain higher frequencies called harmonics. Different instruments give different volumes to each harmonic, producing the unique sounds we hear. This video provides a very good visualization of how different instrumental sounds have different combinations of frequencies and intensities.
Experiment and Explore! Do you already play any musical instrument? You can run the visualization yourself using Spectrum Lab (PC only). If you are using Mac, you might need to use iSpectrum (check to see if your computer already has it).
Resonance is the idea that objects have certain frequencies that they vibrate at most easily. If sound of the right frequency reaches an object, it can make the object vibrate too. Watch how this idea of resonance can be used to break a wine glass or produce beautiful patterns in the videos below.
Understanding resonance is important in making musical instruments. Resonance allows the sound created by the instrument to be amplfied, resulting in a louder sound so others can hear. As an example, the sound box of a guitar vibrates when you play the guitar (pluck the strings), forcing the air in the sound box to vibrate and producing a louder sound. If you cover the sound box, you cannot hear the sound as much.
How Instruments work – examples
For ideas on designing your own instrument, you might want to learn a little about professional instruments and how they make sound.
Guitar (string instrument)
What is Vibrating? On a guitar, the player plucks the strings to make them vibrate. The guitar strings are too thin to produce loud sounds on their own, but the vibrating strings cause the large soundboard of the guitar to start vibrating too, which creates the sound we hear!
How are different notes produced? The sound from a guitar can be controlled using the tuning pegs. They pull the strings tighter or let them out looser. The frets can be used to change the vibrating length of the string, which also changes the frequency of the sound.
Drum (percussion instrument)
What is Vibrating? On a drum, the player bangs on the drum skin to create vibrations. The effect of these small vibrations is amplified by the shell of the drum, which makes the loud drum noise!
How are different notes produced? The sound produced by a drum can be controlled by varying how tight the drum skin is. A tighter skin will produce a higher frequency sound. Changing the size of the drum skin will also change the sound. A small drum will produce high frequency sounds.
Trombone (wind instrument)
How are different notes produced? The sound from a trombone is controlled by the length of the tube, which the player controls using the slider.
What is Vibrating? In a trombone, the vibrations are made by the player’s lips, which must conform to the natural resonances in the tube. The musician blows into the mouthpiece, creating a sound wave that travels back and forth, and eventually out of the tube.
Make your own instruments
Not sure where to start? Here are a few simple instruments you can make at home right away. Or, if you are adventurous, can you design your own instrument like this guy does – remember to ask us questions if you have any!
Drums (percussion instrument)
Home made drums are one of the easiest to make – just about anything can be a drum!
Try tapping your fingers on the table in front of you. Can you make different sounds? What is shaking to make the sound?
Try experimenting with different things to make drums. Pots and pans, pipes, and blocks of wood are great examples you can try. Try tapping using a wooden spoon or other stick for a different sound.
Sound Sandwich (wind instrument)
You can make a sound sandwich at home using simple supplies!
You will need:
- Two popsicle sticks (jumbo craft size sticks are ideal)
- A thick rubber band (like the ones used to bundle brocolli)
- Two thin rubber bands
- Paper OR a plastic straw
If you have these supplies and would like to make the sound sandwich, check out the detailed instructions on exploratorium.
In exploratorium they use a plastic straw, but you can replace the straws with strips of paper. Fold the paper over twice to make it a bit thicker.
Below is an instruction session with our graduate student Alex May on how to make a sound sandwich!
If you choose to make this instrument, you will need:
- Several glass cups or jars.
- A chopstick or spoon
- Food colouring (optional)
Try to find all the same shape and size of glass container, but its ok if they’re all different too.
Notice that the sound changes when there is more or less water in the container. Why could this be?
Tissue box guitar (string instrument)
For this instrument, you’ll need
- Two pencils
- 3-5 elastic bands
- One empty tissue box
What vibrates in this instrument? Try stretching an elastic between your fingers and plucking it to make a sound. Is the sound louder or quieter than your tissue box guitar? Why?
After you’ve built your instrument, you can try to adjust it so that it creates specific musical notes (sounds of different frequencies). This process is called tuning. Each instrument is tuned in its own unique way – try playing around with your instrument to see if you can create different musical notes and how.
To help you identify what frequency your instrument is making, you can use a tuner from an instrument store, or even easier – you can use a tuning app on a smartphone.
For Android, you can try out “Instrument tuner” by Gebauer Matthias.
After downloading the app, open the “Chromatic Tuner”. Hold your phone close to your instrument and try playing. The app will then tell you what note you’re playing. This will work best if you are in a quiet room.
For iPhone, you can try out “Tuner & Metronome” by Soundcorset.
After opening the app, click on the “Tuner” button at the top of the screen. Hold your phone close to your instrument and try playing. The app will then tell you what note you’re playing. This will work best if you are in a quiet room.
If you have any questions, let us know! You can reach us using the comments section at the end of this page, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message us on our Instagram post for this particular challenge. We look forward to hearing from you soon!
Share your design with us!
You can submit a video, photo, or drawing of your instrument here (click on “submit your design”) or tagging #PHASMusic @UBCphasoutreach on Instagram. We’ll share your post and send you back feedback on your instrument! Remember to tell us about the physics of your instrument in the video.
If you’d like an extra challenge, try and
- Make your instrument play a couple of different notes
- Play a song on your instrument
Submit your design
Check out some cool submissions below
We received our first submission for our musical instrument challenge!! Thank you Saiprasad for sharing photos of this awesome tissue box guitar with us!
This tissue box guitar has 4 strings and a very festive theme 🎄🦌. The strings vibrate to create sound, and their sound is made louder by the tissue box through resonance. Moving the pens closer or farther apart will change the notes played by the strings.
Thanks for the beautiful submission, we can’t wait to see more!
Theresa from UBC Physics & Astronomy Outreach built a musical instrument – a sound sandwich that makes sound using the vibrations of a rubber band. She also tried to play the theme song of a movie – can you guess which song it is? Check out Theresa’s explanation on the physics behind her sound sandwich!
What song is this? What songs can you play with musical jars? Try using different sized jars with different amounts of water to get the notes you want! – Courtesy of Laura Steiert, PHAS student!
Wow what performance! Sound sandwiches can play many things – try adjusting the straws to form the notes you want! Courtesy of Laura Steiert, PHAS student!