Letting Off STEAM with Musical Play

Educators are finding ever more exciting ways of providing hands-on, practical opportunities to explore Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths within the curriculum.

Now the familiar STEM umbrella is being expanded to become STEAM and incorporate the Arts, there are opportunities to include music education and to explore the science of Sound. We thought we would share some of our favourite acoustic activities to get you started, either in the classroom or at home.

To begin with, it can help to familiarise learners with the language used to explain the basic concepts of sound.

Vibrations: Pitch and Volume

Sound is a vibration that travels through matter (solid, liquid or gas) and can be heard. These vibrations are described as sound waves.

The vibration begins with an action, like tapping a pencil on the tabletop, which causes an object to vibrate. The tiny molecules in the air around the object also start to vibrate causing the sound to travel as an invisible wave. These minuscule movements finally reach your ear and can then be heard as sound. Stronger vibrations create louder sounds, and the closer you are to the source of the sound, the louder it will be.

The speed of these vibrations can affect the pitch – when an object vibrates fast, we hear a high-pitched sound (like the squeak of a mouse), and if the object vibrates slowly we hear a low-pitched sound (like a rumble of thunder).

Volume describes how loud or quiet a sound is. When a sound is made with only a little bit of energy, the sound wave created is weak and will not travel far, resulting in a quiet sound. However, when a sound is made with a lot of energy, a more powerful soundwave is created and the sound is much louder. Compare the sound of a pin dropping to that of a bursting balloon!

Sound travels faster through some types of matter than others as the vibrations move at different rates.

The following activities are a great way to investigate and experiment with sound, and can be a great way to link music, sound and science through active learning.

Activity 1: See Soundwaves – PBS Kids

This is a simple activity that lets you see how soundwaves affect grains of salt – great fun for kids at home using easy to find items from around the kitchen.

For this activity, you and your child will need:

• Cereal bowl or small mixing bowl
• Plastic kitchen wrap (commonly known as Saran Wrap or Cling Wrap)
• 1/4 teaspoon of sand (alternatives: sugar or salt)
• Noisemaking items: options include using your voice to hum, banging a metal spoon on a metal baking pan, a noisemaker/party blower or a musical instrument


Step 1: Wrap a bowl with the plastic kitchen wrap. Be sure to create a tight cover across the top of the bowl as if you were creating a drum.

Step 2: Gently sprinkle about ¼ teaspoon of sand onto the kitchen wrap.

Step 3: Put your mouth near, but not on, the bowl. Make humming noises. Does the sand move?

Step 4: Try making noise with other items such as a banging on a metal baking pan with a spoon. Remember to place the object very near to, but not touching the bowl. Does the sand move?

Step 5: Try the experiment with various noise making objects from around your house such as a noise maker/party blower or a musical instrument.

Sounds Article man and boy Collage

Activity 2: Make A Secret Bell – Scientific American

This is another simple and interesting activity exploring sound and vibrations with tips on how to extend the activity with useful question prompts for you to ask your child.

For this activity, you and your child will need:

• String
• One unpainted metal hanger
• Scissors
• Metal fork or spoon


Step 1: Cut two lengths of string, each about 2ft long, and tie one to each of the base corners of the coat hanger (so that if you hold a piece of string in each hand, the hook end will point towards the floor).

Step 2: Hold the hanger by the hook in one hand and use your other hand to tap the metal fork or spoon against the hanger. Notice the sound that it makes. How long does the sound last? Would you describe it as “sharp” or “dull”? What other words would you use to describe the sound?

Step 3: Gently place one corner of the hanger (where you tied one piece of string) to the small flap of skin just in front of your ear, closing off the ear canal. (You don't need to press hard!), and gently tap the metal fork or spoon against the hammer again. Is the sound different when the hanger is pressed against your ear compared with when you were holding it in the first step? How long does it last? What words would you use to describe this sound?

Step 4: (With the help of an adult) take one of the pieces of string tied to the hanger and wrap it around your index finger a few times. Wrap the other string around the index finger of your other hand.

Step 5: While you hold the hanger away from your body by the two strings, have your adult helper gently tap the hanger with a metal spoon or fork. Notice the sound this makes. Is the sound different than in the earlier steps? How long does it last? How would you describe it?

Step 6: Press your index fingers (with the hanger assembly attached) carefully on the small flaps of skin just in front of your ears, gently closing off the ear canals without putting your fingers into your ears. Allow the hanger assembly to swing freely from your fingers in front of your body, hook pointed toward the ground. Don't let the hanger or the string touch anything (except where the string is tied to your fingers).

Step 7: Gently tap the metal fork or spoon against the hanger. (Just tap once.) Is the sound different when the hanger is floating in the air compared with when you were holding it in your hands during the first two steps? How long does it last? What words would you use to describe the sound?

Step 8: Gently swing the hanger so that it bangs lightly against something hard, such as the edge of a counter or table. Is the sound different when the hanger is pressed against your ear compared with when you were holding it in the first step? How long does it last? What words would you use to describe this sound? Do you notice anything about the strings after you bang the hanger against something? Are they moving? What type of movement?

Step 9: Keeping your index fingers pressed on your ears, use your other fingers to grab the strings in your hands. Repeat the previous step, swinging the hanger into something hard. Is the sound different when you're holding the string in your hand compared with when it is hanging from your fingers?

Take it further:

With your index fingers still pressed against your ears, try banging the hanger against something hard, then grab the strings right in the middle of the sound. How does holding the strings change the sound you hear?

Repeat the activity using another metal household item, such as a cooling rack, metal salad tongs or a butter knife. How does the sound change with the different items?

Coat Hanger Collage

Activity 3: Musical Jars and the Science of Sound – Little Passports

In this activity, you can experiment with tuning and pitch by making your own ‘musical jars’, as well as recreating the Rainbow scale used on a number of Percussion Play instruments. There is also the option to ‘take it further’ if your child is responding especially well to this exercise.

For this activity, you and your child will need:

• 5 identical glasses or jars
• water
• a rod or dowel
• food color (optional)


Step 1: Line up the jars on a flat surface. Gently tap each with the rod. They should each make the same musical tone. When you tap a jar, it begins to vibrate. Those vibrations travel through the air and into your ear. Your brain interprets the wave as a musical note.

Step 2: Gently tap one jar, then immediately touch it with your other hand. What happened? By touching the jar, you stopped the vibration. Without vibration, there is no sound to hear!

Step 3: Fill the first jar most of the way up with water. Fill each of the remaining jars with less water than the glass before it.

Step 4: Tap on each jar again. What do you notice? Each jar now produces a different tone. The empty jars made the same tone as each other, so the different water level causes the tones to change. This is because the sound waves are altered as they pass through the water. What is the relationship between the amount of water in the jar and the pitch of the tone? You should notice that the more water in the jar, the lower the pitch. The jar with the least water has the highest pitch.

Step 5: Now it’s time to tune your jars. Add or subtract water, a little bit at a time, from each of your jars until the tones sound like a scale. Your ears will probably tell you if a note is way out of tune!

Step 6: Once your jars are in tune, you can add a few drops of food color to the water. No need to stir- the swirling colors are really pretty and will eventually mix themselves thoroughly.

Step 7: Now start playing! You can create beautiful music with only five notes. Try to figure out simple songs like Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Hot Cross Buns.

Step 8: You can also compose your own songs! If you want to be able to play one of your songs again, just use crayons to write down the colors of the notes as you play them.

Take it further:

• Add extra jars to create a full musical scale. This will allow you to play many more familiar songs.
• Try using different materials to tap a jar. Does a plastic rod create a different pitch from wood or metal? Why?
• Switch the glass jars to ceramic mugs. Does that make a difference? How about plastic cups? Paper cups and foam cups don’t work. Why?
• Does the liquid in the containers have to be water? What happens when you try something like vegetable oil? Look around for other liquids to try.

Bottles Collage

Activity 4: String Telephone – Scientific American

Of course, no sound experiment guide would be complete without the classic string-and-cup-telephone! A fun way to pass secret messages, and the inspiration behind the Percussion Play Talk Tubes.

For this activity, you and your child will need:

• Two large paper cups (disposable plastic cups will also work)
• Two paperclips or toothpicks
• Length of cotton string or fishing line approximately 10 to 30 feet long
• Quiet area


Step 1: Punch a small hole in center of the bottom of each cup (for plastic cups, you might need a nail or other sharp tool, so use caution when completing this step).

Step 2: Thread one end of string through the bottom of each cup.

Step 3: Place a paperclip or toothpick in the bottom of each cup and tie the loose end of the string around it (the clip or pick is just here to keep the string from slipping through the bottom of the cup).

Step 4: Give one cup to your conversation partner and hold one yourself.

Step 5: Walk slowly apart until the string connecting the cups is straight and tight.

Step 6: Put your cup over your ear and have your partner talk into his or her cup (keep the conversation relatively quiet if you are standing close to one another, but be sure to talk louder than a whisper). Can you hear your partner talking?

Step 7: Now you try talking into your cup and have your partner listen into his or her cup. Can he or she hear you?

Step 8: Try letting the string go slack. Is the cup-and-string telephone still effective?

Step 9: Now, keeping your voice at the same level and remaining the same distance apart, try talking to each other without using the cups. Can you hear as well?

Take it further:

• If you have plenty of space, see how far apart you can get the cup-and-string telephone to work.
• If you have a third person around, ask them to hold on to the center of the string with their hand. Will the sound still carry through? Why or why not?
• If you have other materials (such as yarn, fishing line, nylon string, etc.) on hand, try them out. How do different materials change the quality of sound or how far the sound will travel?

Paper Cups Collage

Now that your students are musical maestros, with the theory in place and the tools to explore the science of sound, why not extend their learning into the outdoors?

Percussion Play outdoor musical instruments not only offer an open-ended activity that can be accessed during unstructured playtimes, but they also double as exciting teaching resources that can be harnessed to demonstrate STEAM principles.

Designed for installation into inclusive playgrounds, sensory gardens and outdoor learning areas, outdoor musical instruments offer cognitive, emotional and physical stimulation as well as inclusive play opportunities for everyone, everywhere.