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The Science of Musical Instruments - Grade 10 teaching and learning project

Music is an artform, but there's a lot of science in there too. Whether your instrument is your voice, a flute, a marimba, a recorder, a violin or a piano, sound is a form of energy and to make sound requires a change from one form of energy - usually kinetic (motion energy) - into sound energy. So whatever your instrument there's a scientific explanation to how it works. The art of music is how well you put that science to use.

This project is a teaching and learning resource, compiled by Grade 10 Music Students (with some help from a couple of teachers) as part of their Grade 10 practical assessment. 

For an introduction to the science of sound and how musical instruments make sound have a look at the project Good Vibrations

1. How the flute works by Aphiwe Mabala

  • A flute is like a long cylinder that is open on one side.
  • The flautist's lower lip covers part of the lip plate which is the plate around the hole that is blown into, but leaves the hole open.
  • When the flautist is playing the flute they blow air across the hole. This air reaches the other side of the hole and hits the sharp metal edge.
  • The sound in a flute requires oscillating motion of air flow. Air blown into a metal cylinder splits into two and one goes below and the other above the metal but when blowing into a flute the air doesn't split into two, instead it alternates between going above and below the metal edge.
  • The air that is blown below the metal goes into the flute. The air goes back and forth through the whole flute and the places where there are open holes change the air going back and forth causing the pitch you hear played.
  • The pitch can be changed by opening or closing the finger-pads which cover holes in the cylinder of the flute.
  • The pitch can also be changed by making the air (from the player's mouth) go faster. Some people think this is blowing harder but it is actually just making the air flow quicker into the cylinder.
  • The flute is made from metal (like silver and gold) but used to be made from wood.

Watch a video on how the flute works

Listen to 'The flight of the Bumblebee' performed by James Galway


2. How the voice works by Anelisa Sandi, Lauren Tyson, Kathy Speckman,Siyasanga Santi and Sisanda Mbunge

These are the important facts about how the human voice works:imageexpanded|raUID=182854475816718524|size=width300|

  • The human larynx and respiratory system are basic structural components of the  human body that directly support vocalization.
  • The larynx opens when we breathe and shuts when we hold our breath. It also influences the production of the human voice.
  • When we swallow, the flap called the epiglottis closes to protect the airway and lungs from being inundated by food and liquids, instead allowing them to travel through the esophagus to the stomach.
  • The production of  the human voice consists of three components: The production of airflow, the generation and resonance of sound and the articulation of voice.
  • The production of the airflow starts in the rib-cage with your lungs. Taking in the air is easy but controlling the release of the air through the throat needs practise and a relaxed diaphragm muscles.
  • The generation of sound comes from the larynx or voice box. The larynx has vocal folds (or vocal chords) which have to come together to make a sound.
  • The airflow from the rib-cage then vibrates between the folds and makes a sound by oscillating.
  • Resonance is developed by controlling the vocal passageway, including the vocal folds, lips and nose, including the sinus.
  • The sound must have a space to resonate in and good singers make sure that their lips, tongue  and throat do not interfere with sound production.


Watch a video on how the Voice Works

Listen to a recording of the Aria 'Lascia ch'io Pianga'


3. How the recorder works by Sibabalwe Mpofu




  • The recorder is held outwards from the players lips, in front of the body.
  • It consists of a block or fipple inserted in the top of the mouthpiece like a whistle.
  • In the mouthpiece of the instrument the player's breath is compressed into a linear airstream by a channel cut into the fipple (wooden block).
  • The air  then travels along a channelled duct called the windway which is shaped like a cylinder or tube.


  • The air causes the resonator tube to oscillate at the frequency wanted (which is determined by the holes used) which produces the pitch.
  • The pitch of note produced is modified by finger holes in front and at the back of the recorder.
  • The recorder is a chromatic instrument (it can play in any key) because there is no key mechanism, nearly all the semitones are played with fork or cross fingers.
  • Fork or Cross fingers mean that there is no sequence to the fingering like a piano (which goes up or down) but that the fingering is complicated.
  • The player plays harder to play louder or more softly to play softer. 
  • the recorder is the forerunner to the flute and is often used as a training instrument for the flute. BUT is again recognised as a beautiful instrument in its own right.



4. How the piano works by Anelisa Kelemi and Zizo Mgangxela

  • In the piano there are strings, hammers, the soundboard, dampers and a frame
  • Every note sounded on the piano is because of a string or a set of two or three strings vibrating at a specific frequency according to the length, tension, diameter and density of the wire. A shorter and lighter string vibrates faster and makes a higher pitched sound
  • Strings tuned to the same note are called unisons.If the strings aren't all at the proper tensions then the notes wont make the right pitches meaning that the piano will be out of tune.
  • String lengths and diameters increase from treble to bass, several notes have the same thickness of wire but have different lengths and tuned to different tensions to make the desired pitches.
  • When a piano key is pressed, a hammer flies up and hits the strings tuned to produce the specific note then it falls away quickly so it doesn't stop the strings vibrating
  • Modern piano hammers are made of wood covered with compacted felt
  • The vibration of the piano strings alone would be too quiet so they need to b e amplified. Piano strings press down on a bridge which conducts their vibration to the big thin piece of wood called the soundboard
  • The damper stops the vibration of the string when the note has gone on long enough
  • The pedal on the right lifts all the dampers away from the string enabling the player to sustain a series of notes that will continue even after the player has removed their finger from the note
  • To withstand the tension of the strings, a piano must have a stable frame.
  • A modern pianos strings are supported by an iron plate, cast in a single pice and bolted to a heavy wooden frame.


5. How the marimba works by: Deborah Mushwa, Ntombesizwe Booi, Afezekile Moko, Sinaye Mtotywa

* The marimba consists of a set of wooden bars of different sizes placed together which have resonators.

* It works by striking the wooden bars with a mallet, which makes the sound travel through the resonating box, making the sound resonate.

* The bars on top are different sized which makes them produce or create different pitches and sounds.

* The keys are arranged the same way as those of  a piano which aids the performer both visually and phsically when playing the music.

* The marimba is a type of xylophone but it has a broader and a lower tonal range and resonators.

* The mallets are long, strong wooden sticks which have round, hard plastic balls at the front end of the stick so as to produce a gentler sound than hitting the wooden bars with wooden sticks on their own.

* When one hits the wooden bars with a mallet, the marimba vibrates and produces a powerful sound.

* Marimbas vary in size.

* The top bars are hard but smooth in texture and are labelled with alphabetical letters: C D E F G A B C with accidentals, sharps and flats.

* These bars, that produce beautiful, dark, sweet tones are made from rosewood which is hard wood found in tropical forests.


The way a marimba works is by hitting the wooden bars with a mallet, which makes the sound travel through the pipes.

  • Different sized wooden bars and tubes make the different pitches and sounds.
  • The hammers/sticks you play the marimba with are called mallets.
  • mallets are always different colours because it helps distinguish the varying hardness.
  • Softer mallets are used for for lower notes where as harder mallets are used for higher notes.
  • Depending on how much force you put in hitting the bars affects how Forte or Piano your sound will be.
  • There are the resonaters as well on the marimba which help resonate the sound produced by hitting the bars.


  • The marimba is made up of a set of wooden bars or keys which are like piano but has resonators.
  • The bars are struck by mallets which produce a sound.
  • The marimbas have lower and broader tonal range and resonators.
  • The resonators are hang below each bar so when you hit a bar with a mallet it creates vibrations which resonates as the vibrations pass tubes.
  • Ranges of the marimbas have expanded hence they have 5-octave.
  • The marimba is non-transposing instrument with no octave displacement.
  • The mallets are wooden handles and a rubber disk attached at one end.

Watch a video on how the marimba works

Listen to Marimbas being played


6. Take the test and see how much you already understand

  1. Name the instruments in this project that make sound by air vibrating.   [3]
  2. Discuss the manner in which sound is produced by a flute.                   [4]
  3. How does a flautist change the pitch of the sound that is produced?     [2]
  4. What are modern flutes made from?                                                 [1]
  5. Describe what a fipple is.                                                               [2]
  6. Describe fingering on the recorder.                                                   [3]
  7. How is the recorder similar to the flute?                                            [2]
  8. What are the 3 components of vocal sound production?                      [3]
  9. Explain what happens in each.                                                        [6]
  10. What makes the sound in a piano?                                                   [1]
  11. What happens when a piano key is pressed?                                     [4]
  12. How is the piano sound amplified?                                                   [2]
  13. How is the marimba similar to the piano?                                          [1]
  14. What are the keys on marimbas made from?                                     [1]
  15. How is sound made on a marimba and how is it amplified?                    [3]
  16. How does the size of the key affect the sound.                                 [2]        
               TOTAL                                                                          [40]       


7. Videos and musical examples

Follow these links to go to the galleries of videos and musical examples


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by: awarenet Open Day visitor
on: 2012-11-15 16:08:09