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Mike Helgemoe in front of four bead-filled jars.

U student Mike Helgemoe demonstrates his homemade musical instrument: the tuned rattles

Homemade instruments

Published January 23, 2006

Students in Sylke Boyd's Physics of Sound and Music class (Phys 1061) at the University of Minnesota, Morris, have made xylophones out of water bottles, string instruments out of clothes hangers, and drums out of Pringles potato chip cans. Musical instruments from everyday stuff.

Throughout the semester, the students learn concepts pertaining to the physical aspects of sound, such as propagation, human voice and hearing, musical temperaments, and room acoustics. They then have to apply this newly acquired knowledge to a final project: build an instrument that can produce five consecutive notes of a musical scale and be tuned.

Students Joel Adams and Brian Kotila constructed a "drumbone," a makeshift cousin of the trombone that looked like a submarine telescope, after seeing one on a Web site. Mike Helgemoe made tunable rattles with glassware he borrowed from the science labs and beads he got from Boyd. Helgemoe says he was inspired to make this instrument, which was based on the popular Latin American percussion instrument, the maraca, "because I wanted it to be significantly different than other students' instruments."

"The chemistry stockroom was basically a smorgasbord of instrument ideas and equipment, and we found about seven or eight bottles to use," says Helgemoe. "My initial hypothesis turned out to be right: the bottles could be tuned by determining the amount of beads in them...[comparable] to the sound that you hear when you pour water in a jar--[the sound] gets higher as the jar fills up."

In addition to making the instruments and presenting them to their classmates at the end of the semester--this included playing a couple of notes and explaining how they tune their creations--the students had to turn in a three-page paper describing the physical principles behind their instrument's sound and the trials (and errors) they encountered while building it. The students could work alone or in groups of up to three students.

Boyd, an assistant professor of physics, says the project is designed to challenge students' creativity, resourcefulness, and knowledge, as well as to have them apply what they learned in the class.

"Many who play or perform will hopefully gain a better understanding of how [an] instrument works or [be aware of] a side of physics they might not know," says Boyd. "For education majors, this class might provide ideas or demonstrations--little experiments--they can take away and use in their careers."

For a look at some of the instruments (and to listen to some of the sounds they can make), visit the UMM Fall 2005 student instrument Web site.