Backpack Science with Ken Finn: Straw Oboe

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Backpack Science

Backpack Science is a summer series of easy at-home experiments geek dads can perform with their kids while school’s out. It is written by (San Francisco) Exploratorium science educator Ken Finn. This article is #7; you can find the whole series here.

Straw Oboe

This is hands-down my favorite activity of all time. The materials are cheap, so you can make many of various sizes (heck, even connect two together) and see how length influences pitch. By carefully cutting three or four small holes, you can create a straw oboe that plays a tune, or build two as identical as possible and play a duet. A note of caution: These musical instruments can be a little tricky to play. They are woodwind, after all. But if you stick with it, this experiment can be a blast — literally.

What you’ll need:

  • a few plastic drinking straws
  • scissors
  • a little patience

How it’s done:


  1. With your fingers, flatten one end of the straw. If it’s tough plastic, it won’t stay flat easily. You can slide it between your front teeth to make a sharp crease in the plastic.
  2. With the scissors, cut the flattened end of the straw so that it comes to a V-shaped point.
  3. Put the end that you cut into your mouth and blow. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a sound right away.
  4. If you don’t get a sound, try pinching the straw between your teeth as you blow. (Don’t pinch so hard you close off the straw, just flatten it a little.) You can also use your fingers to squeeze the straw flat at your lips. If you still don’t get a sound, try blowing a little harder — or maybe a little softer. (See image below.)
  5. Sometimes a Straw Oboe will work on your first try. Sometimes you have to start over with a new straw. It’s tricky, but keep trying and sooner or later you’ll get a buzzing, humming sound, like a musical duck call.
  6. Straw_Oboe_2

  7. Once you’ve made a Straw Oboe, you can experiment to change the sound it makes. Try cutting off the end of the straw. Does the length of the oboe change the note it plays? Snip little holes in a long oboe. If you use your fingers to cover and uncover the holes as you play, you can make different notes.
  8. You can also make a Straw Trombone using a straw with a slightly bigger diameter than the Straw Oboe. Slide the second straw over the Straw Oboe and change its pitch by sliding the second straw to make the tube longer or shorter. Can you come up with any other ways to change the sound your Straw Oboe makes?

Straw Oboe (images included), excerpted with permission from The Science Explorer, 1997, published by Exploratorium © Exploratorium, All Rights Reserved.

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