Musical instruments can typically be arranged into one of four categories – woodwind, brass, percussion and string.

Introducing students to these categories and explaining how each of these types of instruments create sound, as well as the controls which are available as a sound is made (pitch, tone etc) can help students understand the basics of how an instrument functions.

Students can be presented with a design and construction challenge, where they are provided with certain parameters to guide their development of an instrument, as well as guidance on suitable materials and techniques.

For example, you may decide to pose the challenge of designing and building an instrument which is made entirely from recycled or upcycled materials (start collecting egg cartons, elastic bands and copious amounts of sticky tape in the weeks prior to beginning this approach!).

Or perhaps your students are inspired by outdoor prompts, and can find their musical designs in the materials and colours of nature and the outdoor environment, with the use of twigs, leaves or containers filled with water or earth to produce variations in sound?

For those with a more scientific focus, try a design challenge which is modelled on a scientific principle, such as amplification of sound or the movement of sound waves though various surfaces and materials.

A rubric can be used to help students understand the task and its assessment parameters and ensure your marking and feedback process is simple, valid and efficient. 

The rubric could include parameters such as creativity, use of a variety of construction methods, adherence to the design requirements of the task, ability to produce a sound and vary it in tone and pitch, and decoration and design features of the instrument.

The task of designing and building a musical instrument is not a small one and is likely to involve several class sessions plus some time at home for completion.

Ensure you dedicate sufficient time to allow for students to truly experiment and explore how sounds are produced, as it is likely that there will be a few ‘trial and error’ attempts which are discarded before students decide upon a final design which works well.

Provide information to students to help them understand how they can adapt their initial concepts to produce a better quality or more reliable sound.

Understanding the physics behind how sound travels through a medium such as air or water and the concept of vibration producing sound helps students work out what they can change in their instrument to create variations in sound.

These useful resources can help build student knowledge and understanding of key concepts prior to beginning their design process:

• ‘Cracking a glass by singing’ on ABC Splash 

• Tuning fork demonstration on ‘The Kid should see this’ website  

• ‘Beats’ Interactive on the Physics Classroom  

These resources help students learn about the movement of sound waves and the way that beats are created by interrupting sound waves, as well as how tuning forks creates forced vibration.