Make a Musical Reed Instrument from a Drinking Straw

This page was updated February 09 to include an updated instructional video. You can see the whole video here (Google Video) or see it in parts, below.

Part 1 of the instructional video starts with an introduction about how I got interested in reed instruments when I was living in Bangladesh, country in South Asia. This is a great project to make with groups of kids. It only takes a straw and scissors; a hole punch--and earplugs--are optional. I will be adding images of various reed instruments, but I make the case that even our vocal chords act like reed instruments: rushing air causes them to vibrate and create sound. You can feel it when you talk and touch your throat. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGUezZkrF3c

The first step in the instructions is to flatten the end of a straw with your teeth. It can be a little when you don't have front teeth! But do the best you can.

Then you cut small flaps on the end of the straw. They should be close but not touching.

It's time to test out the reeds. You have to get the reeds in past your lips and teeth so they are free to vibrate. Also, you can't crush the straw or the air will not be able to get through. Then blow through the instrument. It is also possible to draw air in the other end and actually see and feel the reeds moving. You can get some change in pitch by blowing harder or softer, but to get enough range to play a tune you have to modify the insrument.

Part 2 There is a funny demonstration where you cut the straw shorter and it keeps getting higher in pitch. And the easiest way to get enough pitch range to play a tune is use another straw to make a slide--like a trombone. The other way is make finger holes with a paper punch. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASf0gp_zqME

 

There are some other things you can do with your reed instrument. You can get low notes from it by taping on more straws so it's longer. You can even make it "talk," sort of. After all, we create vibration in our throats, then modify the sound by what we do with our mouths. You can kind of do that with with your reed instrument and your hands. Check out this video if you want place the fingering holes for a perfectly tuned instrument http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfrCgvDrS9M

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I got a really interesting comment on the YouTube Talk Box instructional video from Tony Carl. "I found that wrapping a garbage bag wire tie around the base of the reed makes it easier to adjust the reed opening. Just lightly squeeze the wire at the top and bottom close the opening a little or at the sides to open a little. A piece of tape wrapped around the wire to keep the ends of the wire from puncturing the balloon :)" Tony based this innovation on the construction of crumhorn and bassoon reeds.

I found the twisty technique to be very helpful and I think it will help other people having trouble adjusting the reeds. Even sliding the wire a little forward or backward on the straw had an adjusting effect. If I squeeze it too hard shut, I can also push a pencil in to open it a little (in addition to squeezing the sides, as Tony recommends)..

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Back to the musical reed instrument introduction page.

Other things I learned about resourcefulness and ingenuity from my time in Bangladesh

Thanks to the West Branch School and YMCA after school program

 

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You need a (flexible) drinking straw and sharp scissors. If you make the second version (at the bottom of the page) a paper punch will come in handy.

STEP 1

the parts of a flexible strawFlatten half of the short part of the straw.

Notice that there are three parts to a flexible straw: the long part, the short part, and the bendy part that separates them.

Flatten half of the short part, preferably with your front teeth (although sometimes I make this project with young kids who have temporarily lost them, so we make do with thumb and forefinger). Concentrate your teeth on the side edges. Don't chew up the straw, but do flatten it enough to look like #3. The middle #2 is not flattened enough. Make sure the whole half of the short part is flattened, not just the very tip.

Flatten the straw.Concentrate your teeth on the side edges. Don't chew up the straw, but do flatten it enough to look like #3. The middle #2 is not flattened enough. Make sure the whole half of the short part is flattened, not just the very tip

right and wrong cutting

STEP 2

On the flattened end, cut the "reeds" which will vibrate and make the notes.

Your scissors must be sharp because you will be cutting through two layers of plastic. The red lines in the illustrations show cutting paths. Only the reeds in #3 will work. Another way to think about how to cut the flattened end of the straw is to think, "Cut it like the end of a pencil." If you cut the reed wrong the first time, you don't have to throw away the straw. Just re-cut it.

 

Cut the reeds.

Inspect the reeds.When you are satisfied you have it right, cut off a tiny part of the sharp point, as shown. The reeds might stick together where the cuts were made. Just squeeze them a little, and they will separate. Take a look at the reeds. They should be close, but not touching.

 

 

STEP 3

Test the reeds.

Test your reed instrument.Put the reed end of the straw in your mouth, slightly past your lips so the reeds can vibrate. Blow air into the straw--hard! You should here a sound like a duck call. Notice that you can make the note (pitch) a little higher by blowing harder, but you still can't really play a tune.

If you do not get sound, vary how hard you blow air into the straw first. If that doesn't work, look at the space between the reeds. Usually, there is too much space between the reeds, so air passes easily through the straw without vibrating the reeds. Less often, the reeds are so close they don't let any air through. Occasionally, someone presses down so hard on the straw with their lips or teeth that they close off the straw.

STEP 4

Modify the straw so it plays notes.

Cut the middle of the long partSlice the small piece lengthwiseAlthough this can be done with holes in the straw that are covered and uncovered like a recorder, we will start out with a simpler method like a trombone or slide whistle.

Cut the long part of the straw right in the middle, as shown in the illustration at left. Test it now, and see how much higher the pitch is now because of the difference in pitch!

Cut a slit from one end to the other end of the short piece of straw that you cut off. Now you should be able to slide it inside the non-reed end of the other straw. By sliding it in and out we can change the length of the instrument--and therefore the pitch--like a trombone.

Fit the sliced piece into the end.

 

STEP 5

Play a tune

Play a tune.

Nobody has tried to recruit me into a band, but I can play a recognizable rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Remember, you get the most notes by changing the length and varying how hard you blow.

MAKING ANOTHER VERSION, WITH HOLES

Step 1

Cut the reeds as before, but don't cut the the big section of straw.

You can also change pitch by making fingering holes, as many instruments have. The best way to accomplish this is with a paper punch. I suggest you start with only one or two holes the first time, because having too many can confusing.

When you punch the holes in the straw, you will position the punch so it only uses about a third of the part that actually punches the hole (red in the illustration). The cut-out part will be doubled because you're going through two layers of straw.

There are more things you can do with the reed instrument in the "MORE ABOUT REED INSTRUMENTS" link below.

Hint: I do lots of science toymaking programs with kids. I have a recurring worry that I'll forget some crucial tool or material for one of the projects. Because the reed instrument can be done with just scissors and straws, I take it along as a backup for other projects--just in case.

MORE ABOUT REED INSTRUMENTS

For explanations, activities and cool links related to reed instruments click here or on the picture.



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I'd like to know how this project goes for you. I'm happy to answer questions about it. Feedback from you is an important way for me to know what works and what needs clarification.
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