Play Along With ‘Make: Musical Inventions’

Image By Rebecca Angel

What could be better than playing a musical instrument? Making one! Building your own instruments and then creating music with your hands-on work is satisfying, imaginative, and fun. I witnessed just how much fun the process is last spring by inviting writer Kathy Ceceri over to try out musical inventions with my two young nieces. Kathy was testing different ideas for her new book, Make: Musical Inventions: DIY Instruments to Toot, Tap, Crank, Strum, Pluck and Switch On. The girls had such a good time, we asked her to come back again and again.

Kathy and I met through GeekMom, and although she is no longer a writer here, she continues to publish science, DIY, and Maker-Faire ideas both in book format and online. Kathy ended up using many photos of my nieces in her book, which was very exciting for them when it came out. But, truly, the best part for them was playing with Kathy by building and making music with basic and easy to find parts and tools.

The book starts with a clear and accessible introduction to music in general, then is divided into sections: Singing Strings and Warbling Winds, Bells and Beats, Mechanical Music, Eerie Electronic Music, Recording and Listening. One of the first instruments we tested out in my home was the compact washtub bass. I brought up a larger one I had made myself years ago (here is a video tutorial about it) and we compared the sounds between the two sizes.

Another comparison instrument was a modern-day guitar to a home-made cigar box, three-string version. Kathy had already built a cigar box guitar to show us. My older niece is a beginner guitarist so knew how to tune and the basic techniques. She found the smaller and simpler one interesting. Hands-on learning at its best.

One of the easiest and most successful of the inventions was the drinking straw aerophone. We made a bunch of them of different sizes, number of holes, playing two at once–the girls invented new techniques and we all laughed along the way. They also tested the giant corrugated singing tubes and bullroarer. They enjoyed decorating their bullroarers and then swinging everything around to make them work. The pickle-o, or vegetable ocarina, was hilarious. We used up a lot of cucumbers! My nieces learned a lot about how width and length are important to sound in these wind instruments.

The Bells and Beats section of the book was an enjoyable day. Singing bowls and glasses projects don’t require any cutting or mess, and make beautiful music! There is some technique involved, but the results are well worth the practice. We all worked on “The Cups Song” together, which is quite addicting to get perfect! The balloon drums were my favorite. We got out all different types of containers to stretch a balloon over, from metal to glass to ceramic, and compared and contrasted the resonance of each.

Building and testing the electronic instruments was surprising because they work! It is hard to believe you can make a basic record player with a manila envelope. The pizza box radio was more of a challenge, but we managed to find a spot outside that picked up a frequency.

I teach a Music Appreciation Class, and I will be including many of the projects in Make: Musical Inventions. I firmly believe that getting students directly involved in learning helps them understand concepts. Building musical instruments will explain the science in a fun way. Reading the book is just like having Kathy chatting next to you; while she worked with my nieces, she was having a discussion about the science of sound.

Thanks again to Kathy for stopping by for a few days of hands-on musical creation. I highly recommend her book to anyone who is a maker, musician, or simply curious about the way sound works.

Rebecca Angel was one of those kids that put the dragon book on top of her pile in the hopes that someone would say, "Hey, I'm into that stuff too!" Alas, she had to wait until she was an adult to find fellow geeks. Luckily, she married one and their kids are too. A music teacher by day, Rebecca is also a lover of tea, science literacy, funky tights, RPGs, anime, manga, comics, fantasy books and movies.