Making Musical Instruments with Kids: 67 Easy Projects for Adults Working with Children

Making Musical Instruments with Kids: 67 Easy Projects for Adults Working with Children

by Bart Hopkin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781884365485
Publisher: See Sharp Press
Publication date: 05/01/2009
Pages: 152
Sales rank: 1,256,051
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Bart Hopkin is a former high school music teacher and a former editor at the quarterly journal Experimental Musical Instruments. He has written several books on instruments and their construction, including Musical Instrument Design, and has produced CDs featuring the work of innovative instrument makers including Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones. He lives in Point Reyes Station, California.

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Many of the instruments in this book require no tools at all. Others require commonplace implements like scissors and rulers. A smaller number require common hand tools like a saw, screwdriver or hammer, and just a couple of the most advanced plans call for an electric drill (the least scary of power tools). Here are some suggestions.

A lift-off can opener

This can opener pops off can lids without leaving sharp edges.

Lift-off can opener: There's a type of can opener that lifts the can lid off rather than cuts it out. It is safer and gives a more elegant-looking result than the old-fashioned kind. You can use the popped-off lids for various purposes, or even put the lid back on the can for neat temporary closure. The lift-off can opener is less widely available and more expensive than the ordinary type, but is worthwhile for projects with children. The Good Cook brand Monarch Series "safe cut technology" can opener from Bradshaw International is one model.

Hacksaw and carpenter's saw

The hacksaw (above) is easiest for children, and can handle most small jobs.

Work table, vises and clamps: For instruments requiring cutting, having a vise to hold the work piece makes work with hand tools a lot easier and safer. For not too much money you can purchase a small vise which clamps to a table. Often a C-clamp can serve the same purpose.

Saws: Hacksaws are the most kid friendly of saws. They're relatively small, light and sturdy. The small teeth are unlikely to accidentally cut anyone and the blade is less likely than those of larger saws to catch and bind mid-stroke. For most of the projects in this book that require a saw, a hacksaw will do. Securing the work with a clamp or vise will make sawing easier for children.

Tubing cutter: Some instruments in this book use plastic or metal tubing. There is a type of tubing cutter that works by means of a cutting wheel, hand-operated in a rotary motion. It cuts plastic or metal tubing without creating dust or fumes. When it comes to making tubing instruments more manageable for kids, this easy-to-use tool is a great help. Once again, securing the work with a vise or clamp makes the cutting much easier.

Tubing Cutter

To cut tubing, place the tubing cutter around the tube at the cutting location, and gently tighten down the cutting wheel. Rotate the cutter around the tube, further tightening the wheel bit by bit, until the tube is cut.

Adhesives: Common nontoxic household adhesives will do for the projects in this book. In addition to the familiar white glue (Elmer's Glue and other brands), I have found a product called Mod Podge, available at crafts stores, to be particularly effective for certain jobs. In cases where an adult can do the gluing, hot glue from a glue gun is often the quickest and easiest choice, because it's not messy and sets in just a couple of minutes. Hot glue guns are not expensive and are widely available at crafts stores, art supply stores, and hardware stores.

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Simple version: If you use clean cans with the lids removed, even very small children can make this instrument.

Advanced version: The tuning of the cans requires dexterity and attentive listening. Best for older kids and adults.

If you strike the bottom of a tin can with a pencil or a chop stick, the sound you get may not seem very musical at first. But when you gather a set of cans and start playing rhythms and melodies – surprise! The tone takes on an unexpectedly appealing character.

Two plans for musical can sets are given here: a randomly tuned version, and a more advanced version that can be deliberately tuned.

TIN CANS – Simple Version


Clean, empty tin cans in various sizes, at least 6 or 8 of them (more is better). The top should be removed with the bottom still in place. If possible, use the lift-off style can opener to open the cans (see page 2). Otherwise, carefully check the opened end of the can for spurs or jags, and dispose of cut-off lids out of the reach of children.

A towel or similar thick cloth, hand towel size or bigger.

Two unsharpened pencils, chopsticks or similar lightweight sticks to use as beaters.




Optional: remove the paper from the cans.

Lay the towel out on a table, and place the cans open-end-down on the towel.

Strike the ends of the cans with the pencils or chopsticks. Select a set of them whose tones seem to complement one another nicely. Arrange those cans on the towel from lowest pitch to highest, or in any other sequence you like.

With small children, the selection process can be quite random; they may simply decide to include all the cans. Older kids may give more thought to the process of selecting which cans to include in the instrument, looking for the cans that have the best sound and whose pitches go well together.


Strike the ends of the cans with chopstics or unsharpened pencils to play rhythms and melodies. When striking, let the stick bounce off, leaving the lid free to vibrate. If you use unsharpened pencils as beaters, you can get different tone qualities depending on whether you strike with the wood end or the eraser end.

TIN CANS – Advanced Version

The advanced version of this instrument is the same as the simple version, except that the cans can be tuned. You can use this tuning method if you don't need to tune to a certain scale, but would like to be able to tweak the tuning of the can's notes to suit your taste. You can also use it if there's a certain scale you want to tune to, such as the C major or C pentatonic scale that several of the other instruments in this book are tuned to, as discussed on page 108.


Gather and select your cans as described in the previous plan. Then tune them to whatever scale appeals to you using the following procedures.

To raise the pitch of a can: press downward firmly on the top of the can with an unsharpened pencil, chopstick or other implement, forcing it inward a tiny bit. Hit the can to hear the new note. It should be just a little higher than it was. Does it match the note you want, or is it still too low? If too low, tap the center very lightly with a hammer, denting the metal inward very slightly. Too much pressing or tapping may kill the tone. In that case, try again with another can whose natural tone is closer to the intended pitch.

To lower the pitch of a can: Press a very small glob of adhesive putty onto the center of the lid, squashing it out and making sure it's well stuck. Check the tone. Is it low enough now? If not, make the glob a tiny bit larger. If this process ruins the tone of the can, remove the putty and try again or switch to a new can.


Same as simple version above, plus ...

Adhesive putty or poster putty. Available at stationary stores, pharmacies, etc. Well known brands include Blu-tack, Sticky-tack and Scotch Adhesive Putty.



Once the cans are tuned, lay them out on a towel for playing.


Same as the simple version (see above).


Struck cans tend to have a lot of strange overtones. This can make it difficult to get a clear sense of pitch from the cans, and sometimes they may seem to have dual pitch or no pitch at all. That's why it's good to have plenty of cans so you can choose the ones that sound best and put aside any that aren't so good. But remember that the slightly crazy tone quality of the cans is part of their character and charm.

The strange overtones can make the tuning process difficult, especially for perfectionists. My advice is, don't be a perfectionist.

Children doing the advanced version of the plan will have to be reminded to go easy with the hammer – very light tapping is enough.


Children like instruments they can carry around. You can make a tin can set portable by strapping several cans together with strong rubber bands. (The common 31/2? x ¼? rubber bands, referred to as size #64, are good.) To make the strapping easy, do it in sequence: first put a rubber band around two of them, then add a third, then and a fourth. The maximum you can hold in a group without slippage is about five. To increase stability, use two or more rubber bands. The player can hold the set with one hand while striking with a pencil or chopstick in the other.


How does the tuning work? When you strike the can-top with a pencil or chopstick, you make it vibrate. The stiffer the top is, the faster it vibrates, making a higher note. Pressing or tapping it in the center with the hammer bends it a little bit, giving it a slightly curved shape. This shape is stiffer than a flat lid would be. This makes it vibrate faster to produce a higher note. As for lowering th pitch: the heavier the top is, the slower it vibrates, making a lower note. Adding putty to the center makes it a little heavier, giving this result.

The tin can's overtones are usually inharmonic, which is a fancy way of saying that the overtones don't have a coherent musical relationship to the main tone that you hear. The cans that don't sound as good are often the ones in which the overtones are too loud and incoherent. Even in the ones that sound good, it's the inharmonic overtones that give them their peculiar tone quality.

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Flower pot bells are simple to make and play, and a set of several pots with different pitches can sound lovely.

Clay flower pots can be hung upside down and played like other bells, but they work almost as well placed in the usual upright position and struck near the rim. A few pots of different sizes make a very pleasant (but limited) instrument. A larger number provides a more complete scale. As with the cans on page 3, there's an element of chance here: your scale will be made up of the notes you happen to find among the pots you have available.

There are many sorts of flower pots. Some of them are fancy and costly, but the common reddish earthenware ones are fine for musical purposes. If you don't have a good selection of these around your home already, you can buy them quite inexpensively in garden centers or variety stores. At the store, if you're gentle about it, you can tap the sides of different pots to see which ones make the nicest notes and which sound best together.


Provided with a selection of clay flower pots, even very small children can make this instrument.


Flower pots in varying sizes.

Two unsharpened pencils, chopsticks or similar lightweight sticks to use as beaters.



For more on mallets & beaters: see pages 104–106.


Strike the various pots near the rim and select a set of flower pots whose tones complement one another nicely. With small children, the selection process can be quite random; they may simply decide to include all the pots. Older kids may give more thought to the process of selecting which pots to include in the instrument and which to put aside, looking for those that have the best sound and whose pitches go well together.

Arrange the selected pots on the ground, the floor, or a table for easy playing.


Strike the pots near the rim with lightweight beaters such as chopsticks or unsharpened pencils. The playing motion should be sideways against the sides of the pots near the rim.


No surprise: the pots break easily. Stick with lightweight beaters if you're not confident that your kids can play with restraint.


Some adults have fallen in love with the sound of flower pots and created sets with complete scales. But it requires lots of searching, and some luck, to find pots with just the right pitches for all the required notes.

With mature players who can be trusted not to whack the pots hard, you can get a fuller sound by using heavier, medium-soft mallets. A good choice is wooden spoons with one or two layers of moleskin padding the striking surface (see page 104 for details). Strike with the side of the head of the spoon.

If you create a large set, you may wish to create a two-tier framework to position the pots for easy playing. In designing a frame, keep in mind that the pots can sound well as long as they're supported from the bottom, but anything in contact with the rim or side walls of the pots will damp the vibration.


In bell forms such as this, the sides and rim vibrate, while the center or base does not. That's why you can rest the pots on their bottoms without hurting the tone.

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Rubber-band box zithers are easy to assemble. They produce a quiet but clear tone, and they make a good project for small children.

The first of the projects below presents the idea in its simplest form. Following that, under "Further Possibilities," are ways that you can develop and improve the idea. Most of the improvements are simple, but they enhance the sound noticeably. Finally, there are two more plans for nicer versions of the instrument.


Simple versions: These can be made by very young children.

Deluxe version: This requires more dexterity; best for children over about 9.

BOX ZITHER – Simple Version


Place several rubber bands around the box as shown in the photograph.


Cardboard box, open at the top. Shoebox size is good, but a little bigger and stronger is better.

Large rubber bands.




Pluck the rubber band segments that stretch across the open top of the box.

You can enjoy the random scale of pitches that you created when you put the rubber bands in place, or adjust their tuning to your liking. To adjust the tuning, stretch and slide the rubber bands over the edge of the shoebox, varying the tension on the playing segment of the bands. Different tensions will give you different notes. Precision tuning is difficult, but you can make recognizable scales.

Further Possibilities for Box Zithers

There are several things you can do to get better sounds out of the rubber bands and improve their range.

Using several different sizes of rubber bands allows you to get a wider range of pitches with clear tone quality. For large boxes, try extra-long seven-inch rubber bands. These are sold in office supply stores, sometimes under the name "file bands," and sometimes just as "long rubber bands."

With flat, ribbon-like rubber bands you can improve the sound by twisting them so that the playing segment takes on more of a round or spiral shape.

To keep the box from collapsing under the force of the rubber bands, reinforce it with a pair of rulers, unsharpened pencils, chopstick or other suitably sized sticks. Insert one on each side of the box under the rubber bands just below the edge of the box where they cross over.

You can make thicker rubber-band strings by twisting two or three rubber bands together and putting them on the box to function as a single string. These thicker strings give lower and fuller-sounding notes. The range of notes available on the instrument can be increased by having some single-band strings, some double-band strings, and some triple-band strings. If you do this you'll probably need to reinforce the sides of the box with rulers or pencils as described above.

You can also improve the sound of the instrument by making improvements to the box or using different kinds of boxes.

Larger boxes have the potential to create a louder and fuller sound than shoe boxes. With much larger boxes, use the extra-long seven-inch rubber bands.

Corrugated cardboard boxes are sturdier and often sound better than those made with a single layer of cardboard.

If the box has flaps for closing over the top, fold these down inside the box before putting the rubber bands on. In addition to getting the flaps out of the way, this makes the sides stronger.


Excerpted from "Making Musical Instruments With Kids"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Bart Hopkin.
Excerpted by permission of Bart Hopkin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Tin Cans,
Flower Pot Bells,
Box Zithers,
Floating Bowls,
Percussion Glasses,
Bar Percussion Instruments,
Bucket Drums,
Whirled Strings,
Plosive Aerophones,
Friction Drums,
Balloon Drums,
Mailing Tube Lute,
Soda Straw Oboe,
Blown Bottles,
Packing Tape Drums,
Musical Glasses,
Bucket Bass,
Fishing Line Zithers,
Found-Object Percussion,
Mallets & Beaters,
Putting the Instruments to Use,

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