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17 Lessons to Teach the Science of Sound

Use these free STEM lessons and activities to explore the science of sound.

Cardboard tube kazoo, bowl covered in plastic wrap with sprinkles on top, and rubber band guitar from recycled box to represent collection of STEM lessons and activities to teach about sound

The free STEM lessons and activities below help you teach students about the science of sound, from learning about the relationship between sound waves and vibration to understanding amplitude, frequency, and pitch. In these activities, students can experiment with sound waves by building and testing a variety of simple instruments and noise makers, including rubber band guitars, harmonicas made from craft sticks and straws, cardboard tube kazoos, cut straws, and more. Various containers filled with water, CO2, or, even nothing (a vacuum) can be used to create hands-on opportunities to investigate sound science, including resonance, the decibel scale, and the absorption, reflection, and transmission of sound through different materials. What is the Doppler effect? What are the parts of a sound wave? How can we visualize and measure sound waves? What happens when the frequency of a sound wave increases or decreases?

As students learn about pitch, frequency, and how sound travels, they can also investigate the typical frequency range for human hearing compared to other animals and ask questions about ultrasonic hearing, echolocation by animals in water (like dolphins) and out of water (like bats), the speed of sound (in various mediums), what sound energy is, and what it means for something to be supersonic or to create a "sonic boom."

Although there is overlap, the lessons and activities below have been grouped as follows to help educators select the experiments and lessons that best fit their needs:

For key terms to review with students, see the list of vocabulary words at the bottom of this resource.

Note: Science Buddies Lesson Plans contain materials to support educators leading hands-on STEM learning with students. Lesson Plans offer NGSS alignment, contain background materials to boost teacher confidence, even in areas that may be new to them, and include supplemental resources like worksheets, videos, discussion questions, and assessment materials. Activities are simplified explorations that can be used in the classroom or in informal learning environments.

Lesson Plans and Activities to Teach About the Science of Sound

Sound Waves and Vibrations

  1. 1. Rubber Band Guitar

    In the Sound and Vibrations 1: Rubber Band Guitar lesson, students make a simple guitar from a recycled box and rubber bands and explore how sound is caused by vibrations. Plucking a rubber band string makes it vibrate, which causes air molecules to vibrate, which results in a sound wave that travels to the ear and is interpreted by the brain as a sound. Get inspired! See how this family experimented with a rubber band guitar and even added a guitar neck from a cardboard tube. (For a related informal science activity, see Make a Rubber Band Guitar.)

    Student holding rubber band guitar made from cardboard box

  2. 2. A Kazoo Like a Drum

    With the Can You Kazoo? activity, students make a simple kazoo from a cardboard tube and then perform a series of tests to see how the sound from the kazoo changes as the design of the kazoo changes. Although tubular in form, the way a kazoo makes noise is similar to how a drum works, as sound waves bounce down the tube to strike the covering (membrane) at the end. By testing the use of different coverings on the end of the kazoo and making a hole in the kazoo's cardboard tube, students observe how sound travels through the tube and how different materials absorb or amplify sound. Questions to ask: Why is the kazoo more like a drum than a flute? What types of materials make the best coverings for the kazoo?

    Can You Kazoo?

  3. 3. Dancing Sprinkles

    In the Sound and Vibrations 2: Make Sprinkles Dance lesson, students learn that sound can create vibrations (rather than vibrations creating sound, as demonstrated in the rubber band guitar lesson). Using a simple setup with a plastic-covered dish (a model membrane) and candy sprinkles on top, students will create sound waves by humming and observe what happens to the sprinkles on top of the plastic. At the end of this exploration, they will be able to explain why sprinkles jump and bounce in response to the sound. (For a related informal science activity, see Make Sprinkles Vibrate with Sound.)

    Vibration & Sound: Make Sprinkles Dance

  4. 4. Sticks and Straws Harmonica

    The harmonica is a small and compact instrument that people of all ages try (at some point) to play! Blowing into (or inhaling from) a harmonica's different holes changes the sounds (notes) that are created. But how? In the Make Your Own Harmonica! activity, students use craft sticks, straws, and rubber bands to make a very simple homemade harmonica. The sticks and straws harmonica doesn't get played quite the same way a real harmonica does, but through a series of experiments with the straws and the construction, students will see that the sound the harmonica makes is due to the vibration of a rubber band. Changing the amount of the rubber band that vibrates also changes the "pitch" of the sound (because the rubber band vibrates faster or slower, which changes the frequency of the sound wave). The Paper Squawker activity offers similar noise-making STEM fun. Making sounds with this paper device, kids will observe the changes in sound based on the size of the vibrations, similar to the way the rubber band on the harmonica works. Question to ask: If vibration of the rubber band causes the sounds from the homemade harmonica, how does a real harmonica work?

    Harmonica made from craft sticks, straws, and rubber bands

  5. 5. Ears and Eardrums

    Our eardrums have a membrane that vibrates in response to sound waves, much like a drum vibrates when hit. (It is only when those waves are turned into electrical signals and interpreted by our brains that the sound has meaning!) In the Making Sound Waves activity, students model the function of the eardrum using a bowl covered in parchment or wax paper with loose sugar, salt, or colored sprinkles on top. Students play different sounds from a speaker and observe what happens to the sugar. (This activity is similar to the dancing sprinkles lesson mentioned above but involves an external speaker rather than humming.) Question to ask: What is the tympanic membrane?

    After learning about the eardrum and how we "hear" sound waves, students might wonder about the size and shape of ears. Do bigger ears mean better hearing? The Ears: Do design, size and shape matter? activity helps students put the question to the test as they learn about the external parts of the ear (the pinna or auricle) that stick out from our heads. In the activity, students design, make, and test hearing devices to attach to their own ears to see how size and shape of the external ear affect hearing. Question to ask: What are the major parts of the human ear? What role do the pinnae play in hearing?

    Student with two homemade hearing devices made from paper plates

Frequency and Pitch

  1. 6. Musical Straws

    Once students have an understanding of sound waves, they are ready to explore differences in sounds. Why don't all sounds "sound" the same? Even simple instruments may produce different "notes" (or "pitches" of sound). What causes these differences? In the Do-Re-Mi with Straws activity, students make a set of "musical straws" by cutting and notching straws of different lengths. As they blow through these straws, each will make a different sound. See the activity for an explanation of the math involved in correlating the length of the straw with the sound produced. Question to ask: What does the length of the straw have to do with the pitch of the sound we hear? What instruments use a similar open cylinder design to produce different sounds?

    Straws in varying sizes with notches for musical straws sound activity

  2. 7. Musical Bottles

    Blowing across the top of a partially-filled bottle can produce an eerie noise, maybe even something that sounds like a steamship. In the Musical Bottles activity, students experiment with a set of bottles or glasses that are filled with varying amounts of water. Questions to ask: What does the amount of water in the bottle have to do with the sound produced? What role does the shape of the bottle play in the resulting sound? This activity is similar to the musical straws activity, but the science is different. What important differences are there in the design of these homemade instruments?

    Two kids blowing across the top of bottles filled with different amounts of colored liquid

  3. 8. Singing Glasses

    In the Singing Wine Glasses activity, students take on the classic challenge of making wine glasses filled with differing amounts of liquid make noise, not by blowing on them but, instead, by running a wet finger around the rims of the glasses. As they experiment to find out how to make each glass make sound, they will observe the vibrations that cause sound waves, compare the notes created by each glass, and investigate what happens if the glass is struck with a metal object instead. By adjusting the levels of liquid in the glasses, students will observe different notes and make correlations between the volume of liquid, the frequency of sound waves, and the pitch of the sound. Questions to ask: What is resonant frequency? Will adding more water to the glass make the resulting sound higher or lower in pitch? Why does the frequency of the sound wave change when more water is added?

    Three glasses with varying amounts of water

  4. 9. Changing Pitch on a Rubber Band Guitar

    In the Perfect Pitches with a Rubber Band Guitar activity, students use rubber band guitars to get hands-on with concepts related to sound waves, the frequency and amplitude of sound waves, and what determines the pitch of a sound. To measure and observe changes in sound waves (and in the pitch of the sounds they hear) using the rubber band guitars, students use a mobile phone app that can record the amplitude and frequency of a sound. Questions to ask: What makes a sound lower or higher pitched than other sounds? How can you change the frequency or amplitude of the sound waves created by the rubber band guitar?

    Cardboard box with markers and rubber bands for a simple guitar

  5. 10. A Repeating Siren

    In the Build a Disk Siren activity, students explore the kind of repeating sound pattern that is common in emergency vehicle or warning system sirens. By experimenting with blowing air through a straw at a rotating disk that has a series of holes, students will be able to create a variable sound pattern. Question to ask: How does changing the speed of the spinning disc change the sound of the siren? (Tip! While talking about sirens, you might also talk about the Doppler effect with students.)

    Homemade disk siren and straw being used to blow air

Decibels, Amplification, and Volume

  1. 11. Amplify Sound with a Balloon

    In the Balloon Powered Sound! Build Your Own Balloon Amplifier activity, students explore the amplification of sound by using a balloon filled with carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from a vinegar-and-baking-soda chemical reaction as an amplifier. When this balloon is held up to the ear, sounds will appear louder than when the balloon is removed or when a balloon filled with air is held to the ear. Questions to ask: How do the molecules of CO2 compare to the molecules in the surrounding air? What does this have to do with amplification?

    Student holding balloon next to ear

  2. 12. Build a Paper Speaker

    In the Build a Paper Speaker activity, students explore the process involved in a speaker converting sound information into sound we can hear. Students use paper plates as part of a circuit that takes information from an audio device (like a phone) and sends electrical signals to a coil of wire, which turns it into a temporary magnet. Ultimately, the magnets cause the paper plate to vibrate, which creates sound waves that travel to our ears. Students who want to explore further with their paper speakers can continue with the Measure the Frequency Response of a Paper Speaker project. Questions to ask: Why does the maximum volume vary for speakers? How is the information from an audio device transmitted to the speaker?

    Paper speaker made from paper plate and magnets

  3. 13. Sound Travels a String

    In the Hanging Around with Sound: Make Your Own Secret Bell! activity, students explore how sound is transmitted and use a hanger to investigate how different materials transmit sound. If you have ever tried talking to someone using two cans connected with string, this activity is similar, but the student will be experimenting to see which materials best allow a sound to be detected only by the person holding the hanger.


  4. 14. How Loud is Too Loud?

    In the Classroom Noise Meter lesson, students explore sound waves and the logarithmic decibel scale and how different sounds compare. After watching a demonstration (video available) of Ruben's Tube (a standing wave flame tube) that uses flame to visualize sound waves, students discuss noise levels and the decibel (dB) range of familiar sounds and environments, including the classroom. Students experiment with a sensor-based phone app to measure and graph sound levels in the classroom and then determine what levels are most conducive for different classroom activities. (Students interested in exploring noise levels further can experiment using the Extreme Sounds: Lessons in a Noisy World project. For another activity related to investigating decibel levels, see the Science With Your Smartphone : Decibel Meter activity.) Questions to ask: What decibel range do typical, everyday events fall within? What decibel range is dangerous to human hearing? Why? How are amplitude and decibels related?


Absorbing, Reflecting, and Transmitting Sound

  1. 15. Making Noise in Outer Space

    In the Can You Hear Sounds in Outer Space? project, students investigate how sound intensity changes with decreasing air pressure. If there is no medium for a sound wave to travel through, what happens to the sound? What does this have to do with space? Students explore by creating a vacuum to simulate conditions in outer space and then use a sensor-based phone app to measure the sound intensity of a buzzer. Questions to ask: What mediums can sound waves travel through? Why do sound waves not travel effectively in space?

    Stoppered flask model set up to experiment with what happens to sound in a vacuum

  2. 16. Sound Under Water

    In the What Do You Hear Under Water? activity, students investigate how sound travels through water and how this changes how we experience underwater sounds. Questions to ask: Does water transmit or absorb sound? Why do sound waves travel faster in water? Do humans hear underwater the same as other animals?


  3. 17. Blocking Noise

    In the Block That Noise! project, students learn about the ways in which sound waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted by different materials. In the lesson, students use what they learn about absorbing sound to build sound-insulating containers big enough to hold a phone. With the phone inside, they use a phone app to see how effectively their containers absorb sound. Questions to ask: What materials effectively absorb sound and make good sound insulators? What happens to sound waves to make a sound echo in an enclosed space?

    Speakers and phone set up in a designated test area for sound blocking lesson

Vocabulary

The following word bank contains words that may be covered when teaching about sound using the lessons and activities in this resource.

  • Amplitude
  • Amplifier (Amplification)
  • Compression
  • Decibel (dB)
  • Doppler effect
  • Eardrum
  • Echolocation
  • Frequency
  • Hertz (Hz)
  • Logarithmic
  • Longitudinal wave
  • Loudness
  • Mechanical wave
  • Medium
  • Membrane
  • Note
  • Pascal
  • Pinna (pinnae)
  • Pitch
  • Pressure wave
  • Rarefaction
  • Resonance
  • Resonant frequency
  • Ruben's tube
  • Sonar
  • Sound
  • Sound energy
  • Sound intensity
  • Sound pressure level (SPL)
  • Sound wave
  • Speed of sound
  • Transverse wave
  • Vibration
  • Volume
  • Wavelength

Thematic Collections

Collections like this help educators find themed activities in a specific subject area or discover activities and lessons that meet a curriculum need. We hope these collections make it convenient for teachers to browse related lessons and activities. For other collections, see the Teaching Science Units and Thematic Collections lists. We encourage you to browse the complete STEM Activities for Kids and Lesson Plans areas, too. Filters are available to help you narrow your search.





Development of this resource to support educators teaching K-12 STEM curriculum topics was made possible by generous support from the Donaldson Foundation.


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