Category: music

Easy Homemade Musical Instruments

By , January 14, 2009 10:25 am



Thanks to a wonderfully creative music teacher at my children’s Montessori school, the latest fad around our house are little homemade guitars/harps like that shown above.  The kids are loving putting different sized rubber bands around my food storage containers and then experimenting with the sounds produced.

The sound reminds me of a kalimba.  It’s a little hard on me when I need to put away some food and can’t find any containers, but…oh well.  I can adjust.

These simple little string instruments made me think that a post about quick and easy homemade musical instruments might be fun to write.  I obviously won’t be anywhere close to covering all the homemade musical options, so if you think of something I forgot, please leave your idea in the comments.

If you are here because you are looking for musical instrument ideas, then be sure to read the comments for more ideas.  Unplug Your Kids readers are very creative!

Here are my ideas:

  • Let gourds or squash dry out.  Once they are completely dry, the exterior will be hard and when you shake them, the seeds will rattle around inside.  You’ll have some nice, natural maracas.
  • Quick maracas:  Fill plastic Easter eggs with rice or lentils and tape shut.  Instant shakers!
  • Paper plate maracas:  Put some dried beans on a small paper plate.  Cover with another, upside down paper plate.  Staple the two plates together around the edges to seal them shut.  Add a cardboard or popsicle stick handle if you want, then decorate.
  • Wrap tissue paper around a fine tooth comb and make “Doo-doo-doo” noises through it for a kazoo sound.
  • Flip over empty cylindrical cardboard oatmeal containers and bang on the bottom to make a drum.
  • Line up a row of glasses and fill each with a different amount of water.  Tap them with a spoon and note the different pitches.  Play a tune!
  • If you have a thin-rimmed wine glass, fill it with water.  Wet your finger and rub it slowly and gently around the rim to create your own glass harmonica.  It might take a bit of experimenting to figure out exactly what pressure you need, but the results are impressive.  Experiment with more water in the glass and less water.  What happens to the pitch?  What about an empty glass?

NOTE:  Benjamin Franklin invented a mechanical glass harmonica like this modern one based on his design (he called it an “armonica”):


(Photo by Vince Flango – Own work, Public Domain,

(If you have never heard it, you must listen to the rather fairy-like sound of an armonica!)

  • Can you play a tune with several glasses with different levels of water?  You might not sound this good, but it’ll be fun!
  • Blow across a glass soda or beer bottle like you would play a flute.  Unless you play the flute, it’ll take a bit of practice.  Adjust the angle of the bottle against your lips until you get it right.  It will make a lovely tone.  Different levels of liquid will produce different tones.  What about lining up many bottles with different levels of liquid and playing a song?

(NOTE: Great related link – Water Bottle Xylophone.  This link tells exactly how much water is needed in a twenty ounce bottle to produce each particular note of the scale, and even has instructions for playing some songs on the bottles!)


I didn’t think these sounded too much like crickets, but they do make a cool sound for your musical instrument collection!  Learn how to make them here.

  • Another craft idea: Sandpaper blocks – Wrap sandpaper around two blocks and attach it to the back with thumbtacks.  For easier handling you might want to attach a knob to the back of each block (with glue or screws).  Rub the blocks together for a cool sound.  Try coarser and finer paper for different sounds.

And of course, the obvious:  turn your 2 year-old loose in your pots and pans cupboard for lots of drums, cymbals and noise music.

That’s it for what’s in my brain right now, but Googling “homemade musical instruments” produces lots of cool results.

Here are links to a few of my favorites:

Jingle Sticks



Inventing Homemade Instruments with Math and Measurement (a wonderful website that teaches the science of music!)

Artists Helping Children (a very long list of many musical instrument craft links – useful!)

For a book that has some fun instrument games and activity ideas for young (preschool) children to use their homemade (or non-homemade) simple instruments, consider 101 Rhythm Instrument Activities for Young Children by Abigail Flesch Connors:

NOTE: This is a great book to use with young children, older ones might find it boring.

Music and the Mind

By , March 11, 2008 8:29 pm

Since music was our Unplugged Project theme for last week, this seems to be a very appropriate time to talk about an interesting study that was just released by the Dana Foundation. The report shows a correlation between music training (any performance art training, in fact) and higher academic performance.

This has been demonstrated before, but the Dana study brought together cognitive scientists from seven US universities to try to figure out more precisely how and why this correlation exists. According to the Dana Foundation website, this study “…brings us closer to answering the question: Are smart people drawn to the arts or does arts training make people smarter?”

I don’t know how it was when you were in high school, but when I was there, those of us “nerds” in the band and orchestra did seem to be the kids who performed better in school than those who were not involved in music. I always assumed that most children who were in music perhaps had more involved parents, and that was the explanation. Or maybe “smarter” kids were somehow more drawn to music. But now it seems that there might actually also be some concrete scientific reasons for the “smart band kid” stereotype!

Here is a brief summation of the report’s findings (directly quoted from the website’s study summary page):

Here is a summary of what the group has learned:

1. An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.

2. Genetic studies have begun to yield candidate genes that may help explain individual differences in interest in the arts.

3. Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.

4. In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.

5. Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.

6. Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.

7. Adult self-reported interest in aesthetics is related to a temperamental factor of openness, which in turn is influenced by dopamine-related genes.

8. Learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice, both in the level of achievement and also the neural substrates that support the organization of complex actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills.

The Foundation hopes to be able to continue and expand the study to really identify the precise biological brain mechanisms at work in the positive effects on the brain of artistic training.

Although I am opposed to the overscheduling of children that is so common these days, my one “mandatory” extra-curricular activity has always been learning a musical instrument. This study furthers my resolve to have my children learn an instrument. I feel that musical training has had an extremely positive effect on my life, and I want to pass that gift along to my children.

Furthermore, the fact that music and arts training seems to be so beneficial for overall brain development, makes it even more tragic that schools are cutting back on such programs.


+ About the study: Effects of Instrumental Music Training on Brain and Cognitive Development in Young Children: A Longitudinal Study

+ Summary of findings: Arts and Cognition: Findings Hint at Relationships (Summary)

+ Research Consortium Finds New Evidence Linking Arts and Learning, article by Brenda Patoine – A really interesting summary of the study and what it means!

+ MSNBC Video Report: Better Minds Through Music (Length 2:16) – This very brief news report only covers the work of one scientist involved in the study, Dr. Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard, who found a correlation between musical training and an enhanced abilities in geometric reasoning.

+ Follow-up comments from the public to the MSNBC report

+ Download the full PDF version of study here.

Music – “This Music Makes Me Think Of…” (Weekly Unplugged Project)

By , March 2, 2008 9:52 pm


This week’s theme for the Unplugged Project was music.

For a long time now, my children have enjoyed playing the “This Music Makes Me Think Of…” game. I invented the game when the children were small. To distract them while driving in the car, sometimes we would listen to music and when that grew old and they started fussing, the “This Music Makes Me Think Of … ” game was born.

The way it works is that you have to come up with an image that the music creates in your mind. For example, I might say “This music makes me think of fish swimming in the ocean. Do you hear the waves? And the movement of their fins? Etc.”

It has become such a routine, that now whenever we have classical or other instrumental music playing, one of my children always takes the initiative and starts by saying: “This music makes me think of birds in the sky looking for their nests.” Then the other child will say: “Well, it makes me think of a car driving along a twisty road,” and so on.

I had thought that this week, it might be fun to ask the kids to draw what they heard in the music, but too much playing with friends intervened, so we didn’t get to the drawing part. However during dinner this evening, we were listening to my favorite Sunday night public radio broadcast of Hearts of Space (New-Age sort of music for those who are unfamiliar with the show) and my daughter actually began the game (unprompted by me).

This time I tried to be a bit less free-form (anybody says what they want, when they want) and tried to steer it in a more “scientific” direction to see what we all would come up with. Since it is very hard to not think of the first image presented when coming up with one’s own, I decided to ask us all to visualize our own image before the first person spoke. This way we would see what each person’s genuine, uncontaminated, musical first-impressions were!

Here are the results for three different musical pieces:

Number 1)

5 year-old: “A merry-go-round horse.”

7 year-old: “Angels dancing.”

Me: “A toystore.”

Number 2)

5 year-old: “Someone getting lost and unicorns coming out of the clouds to find them.”

7 year-old: “Fairies trying to get the flowers to grow.”

Me: “A sailboat gliding on very still water through the mist surrounded by dolphins leaping out of the water.”

Number 3)

(The most interesting – note the similarity between my 5 year-old son’s image and my own…wow!)

5 year-old: “The sun is rising and a river flows under it.”

7 year-old: “An airplane flying through the sky on a bright blue day with the sun shining.”

Me: “The sun rising on a deserted beach with waves rolling in.”

Have you ever tried this with your kids? It is a fun game that can be played anywhere that you hear music, and the results can be quite interesting!


If you participated in this week’s Unplugged Project, please leave your name in Mr. Linky as well as a comment (in case Mr. Linky malfunctions and has to be removed).



Photo thanks to and photographer poxy (photo taken in Iceland)


Fairy Music

By , January 9, 2008 10:43 pm

This is just a quick post this evening.

The last few days have been filled with hair cut appointments for all, girl scout duties, organizing some work to be done on the house, and somewhere in all this business, I would like to find the time to experiment with a new and hopefully faster blog. It has simply been one of those non-stop running around kind of weeks, which accounts for my less than daily blog posts.

I have an interesting TV-related post to write, but that one requires more time than I have right now. Sorry! I’ll try to get to it soon. In the meantime, I’ll write about this wonderful CD!

Whenever I happen upon really nice children’s music I am so excited because much of it is quite annoying and unpleasant for adults to listen to. At least I find it so. Fairy Moon – Songs of the Ring is a CD that I bought quite a while ago and recently rediscovered.

All the songs are beautifully sung by Maria Sangiolo and the instruments are varied and interesting. Some songs are traditional, some are not, but most are about fairies or nature. A few are about love or friendship. The lyrics of one song, A Fairy Went-A-Marketing, are from the text of a charming book that we have of the same name (by Rose Fyleman). If you are interested, you can read my review of this lovely book here.

Most importantly though, I enjoy this CD as much as my children do, and that (for me at least) is a very rare find indeed.

Fairy Moon will definitely appeal to any Waldorf families out there. In fact Maria says in the CD insert that:

Fairy Moon was born out of my own daughter’s Waldorf pre-school experience and our mutual love and appreciation for the outdoors, especially our flower garden.

We began building houses for the fairies in an old pine grove she named “fairyland” when she was four. In the winter, a window sill decorated with pinecones, bark, moss and handmade dolls and animals became her indoor fairyland.”

This 2004 CD has won several well-deserved awards: Parents’ Choice Award November 2004, National Parenting Publications Award (NAPPA) Ages 4 and Up Gold Award 2005, and Children’s Music Web Award, 2005.

Maria has a new CD about the ocean called Under the Mystic Sea. This one was only released last July, yet it has also won quite a few awards: Parents’ Choice Recommended 2007, Children’s Music Web Award 2007, Best Recording for Young Children, NAPPA Honors Award 2007.

We’ll be buying that one next!

Read more at Maria Sangiolo’s website.

International Music to Cook by (or For Any Other Time Really)

By , September 14, 2007 10:13 pm

Tonight we had our Friday Kids Cook Night which has fallen a bit by the wayside over the summer. My post today is not about Kids Cook Night however, but about the music that accompanies it.

I found the cassette version of Wee Sing Around the World (Wee Sing) for $2.99 last year in our grocery store bargain book bin, which, incidentally, has really yielded a surprising wealth of wonderful books! Unfortunately it is a tape and I have recently decided that we will definitely need a CD version due to all the use the poor old cassette gets.

I just found out that at Amazon, the CD and accompanying 64 page book is only $9.99, and is even eligible for the 4-for-3 promotion. I love that promotion. What a great excuse to by more fun books that I didn’t even know we needed! OK. So I am not exactly “simplifying my life” with this attitude, but it is all for my children’s sake really!

This collection consists of children’s songs from around the world. I count 40 countries on the list, most with one song, but the US has three (Native American, Native Hawaiian, and basic, classic kids’ song – “Eentsy Weentsy Spider”), India has two. When the songs are in a language other than English (as most are), then it is sung once in the native language and once in an English translation so we English-speakers can understand what it is about.

One of the things I like most about this collection are the introductions. Before each song the singer introduces him or herself by saying “Hello, my name is ____ and I am from___.” They first make their introduction in their native language, and then in English. So fascinating! I love hearing all the different languages, and so do my children. They often end up sitting on the kitchen counter top next to the speaker of our little counter top stereo so as not to miss a thing.

What a rare find, children’s music that I actually LIKE to listen to as much as they do. This is a very good thing since it is my 5 and 7 year-olds‘ favorite music, and has become our Kids Cook Night background music, and background music for many other moments as well.

The songs are all brief enough to accommodate short attention spans (even when sung in two languages). Since they hail from a wide range of different countries (Jamaica, Ghana, Iran, and Ukraine for example), they illustrate a variety of different musical styles.

One of the things that I hope to instill in my children is a sense of the beauty and variety of life around the world, yet the realization of how similar we all really are. I want them to understand for example, that while people from other countries might have different languages and different types of music, we all enjoy music and singing and dancing! I think that this collection is a great first step toward that very ambitious goal.

Photo thanks to and photographer clarita.

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