Top image: Rattle drum (photo by Let’s Talk Science).

Assortment of musical instruments
Source: Michael Lucan, Wikimedia Commons

Setting the Stage

Prior Skills and Knowledge

To successfully participate in this Design & Build, students should be able to identify and describe percussion instruments. They should be able to use basic cutting tools and fasteners for construction. It is highly recommended that students conduct the Inquiry Sound Travels prior to participating in this Design & Build.


There are many different types of musical instruments which are played by people in every corner of the world. Some instruments make sound through percussion (shaking, striking, rubbing), others contain strings which are plucked or bowed and others are blown into (brass, woodwinds).

Clapping hands
Source: niekverlaan, pixabay

Students will work on their predicting skills while designing an instrument that can make more than one sound. They will need to build and test their instrument and practice as a class or in groups the musical composition they would like to prepare for a class or school demonstration.

In this Design & Build challenge, students will design and build a musical instrument that is able to change sounds.

This design and build could begin from:

  • questions and/or comments that arise after showing students images or videos of different types of musical instruments.
    BrainPOP Jr. - Percussion Instruments
    • “How do you think these instruments make sounds?”
    • “What part of the body is used to make the sounds?”
  • exploring photos of musical instruments, people making music, etc. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “What materials do you think would make the best sounds?”
    • “Can you use parts of your body to help make different sounds?”

    Cover of Drum City by Thea Guidone
    Source: Open Library

  • Reading a book such as Drum City by Thea Guidone. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “What everyday items were people in the book able to use as an instrument?”
    • “Do you think that their instruments sounded similar or different?”

Design Criteria

As a class, students brainstorm criteria that their prototype musical instruments must meet. Educators may choose to add other criteria that are curriculum-specific, such as using joiners/fasteners, measuring, using specific materials, etc.

Design criteria examples:

  • Instrument must be able to make at least two different sounds (high and low)
  • To be used by one’s hands (not blown into)
  • Use only the materials provided

Materials and Preparation (Click to Expand)

Suggested materials
Source: Let's Talk Science


  • Plastic container or coffee cans
  • Cardboard tubes
  • Plastic jugs
  • Buckets
  • Pots
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Dish detergent bottles
  • Marbles
  • Rice
  • Pom-poms
  • Plastic Easter eggs
  • Plastic spoons
  • Objects for striking (e.g., unsharpened pencils)


  • Collect an assortment of recycled and new materials that students will use to construct the musical instruments.
  • Set up material sourcing stations, organized by type of material. Alternatively, organize an assortment of materials to be provided to each student or work group.

What To Do

baby playing instruments

Making music
Source: thedanw, Pixabay

Students develop Design & Build skills as they design, build and test a prototype musical instrument that can make at least two different sounds (pitch).

Students will follow the steps of the Design & Build process:

  • identify the problem to be solved/need to be met
  • brainstorm criteria that the prototype must meet
  • share their questions and ideas for a solution to the problem/need
  • discuss the pros and cons of each in order to select a potential solution to be tested
  • visualize what the solution might look like
  • identify the tasks or key steps involved in developing the solution
  • make decisions about tools and materials that will be needed
  • build/develop the design idea based on their sketches and design plan
  • test their prototypes based on the design criteria
  • modify the prototype and retest it against the design criteria as necessary
  • identify things that could improve the prototype


Observe and document, using anecdotal comments, photos and/or video recordings, student’s ability to:

  • Work Collaboratively – to complete a task and evaluate their group processes throughout the Design & Build process
  • Generate Ideas –  use idea generation strategies, such as brainstorming, to identify possible solutions as well as make decisions about the pros and cons of each solution
  • Communicate –  through writing and other means, design plans including 2D design sketches, key design steps/tasks, required materials and equipment/tools
  • Work Safely –  with a variety of tools and materials while building/creating prototypes
  • Reflect – on prototype testing and suggest areas for improvement

Co-constructing Learning

Students Saying, Doing, Representing

Educator Interactions: Responding, Challenging

Identify and refine the problem to be solved/need to be met.

  • “What is the purpose of your musical instrument?”
  • “How can instruments make different types of sounds, like high sounds and low sounds?”
  • Brainstorm and record criteria for the musical instruments.

  • “What words could we use to describe some of the features that the musical instruments must have?”
  • Make observations and decisions about the available tools and materials.

  • “What materials might you use to create sounds though percussion?”
  • “What tools might you need for building your musical instrument?”
  • Visualize and sketch a prototype.

  • “Why do engineers label all of the parts of their design sketches?”
  • “How are you going to represent each part of the musical instrument in the design sketch?”
  • Construct and test a prototype of the musical instrument.

  • “Which of the design criteria does your prototype meet? Which ones does it not yet meet? Why do you think this happened?”
  • Modify the prototype and retest it against the design criteria as necessary.

  • “What problems did you have when you re-tested your musical instrument?”
  • “What changes in your model might improve your results?”
  • “How would it change your design if you had to make more than two different sounds?”
  • Present and demonstrate their finished musical instrument to the class.

  • “What materials worked best? What materials did not work as well?”
  • “What challenges did you face when making your musical instrument?”
  • “What do you like about your musical instrument?”
  • Cross-Curricular Connections


    • Ask questions (e.g. “How do percussion instruments make sound?” “How do instruments make sounds of different loudness and pitch?”)
    • Communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas (e.g. brainstorm criteria for their instrument;)

    Mathematical Thinking

    • Measure the volume of material used inside a shaker
    • Take multiple tests/measurements of the distance the water travels before and after modifying the model and record these as discrete data in a chart
    • Take multiple tests/measurements of the time it takes the water to get to the end of the system

    Visual Arts

    • Sketch, represent, model their instrument
    • Create a new musical composition

    American Indian-style drums
    Source: Quadell, Wikimedia Commons

    Extending the Learning

    If your students are interested in learning more, the following may provoke their curiosity:

    • Have students listen to various percussion instrument examples:
      Stomp with Kids
      Stomp - Stomp Out Loud
      The Drum Calls Softly
    • Have students discuss how percussion instruments have been used throughout history and how we continue to use them today. Drums have been found in every culture dating back to before 6000 BCE. They have been used as ceremonial and symbolic in meaning and continue to inspire people.
    • Have the students find out what happens if they were to mix materials in a shaker.