Teaching Science in Music Class

March 19, 2015

Science and music are related in both obvious and unexpected ways. Finding the intersections between these subjects presents opportunities for fun, hands-on, cross-curricular lessons. Here are a few ideas to incorporate science into your music curriculum, while addressing the standards in both subjects. I focus on the primary grades here, but take a look at the Minnesota Academic Standards in Science to find ways to support science learning in any level music class.

Exploring the Physics of Sound Using Musical Instruments

The physics of sound (MN Science Standard 3.2.3.1.1) are taught in third grade. Properties of vibration, frequency, amplitude, and more can be demonstrated and explored using musical instruments, while simultaneously teaching students about how instruments are categorized into families according to how they produce sound.

— Show students the sound-causing vibrations visible on a drum head or a string.

— Examine the many different ways in which instruments produce vibrations – by plucking or bowing a string, buzzing the lips in a mouthpiece, vibrating a reed, fluctuating the direction of an airstream hitting an edge, hitting a surface, scraping an object, etc.

— Explore the frequency of sound waves through the manipulation of variables of a string, such as length (fingering), tension (tuning), and mass density (thicker low strings).

— Demonstrate the overtone series and its relationship to frequency of a soundwave using string and/or wind instruments.

— Describe amplitude of sound waves in terms of dynamics.

Teaching sound science is also an excellent way to introduce young students to a wide variety of instruments before they begin choosing instruments for school ensembles!

Learning Engineering Principles by Designing Musical Instruments

The “Principles of Engineering” standards for second graders involve identifying a need and constructing an object that meets that need, while making decisions about the types of materials to use (MN Science Standards 2.1.2.2.1 and 2.1.2.2.2). Designing and building new instruments is an engaging way to address this science standard in music class.

— Begin by categorizing instruments the students know by the materials they are made of. How can the sound of the instruments in each category be generalized (e.g. metal instruments sound bright or “jingly”)?

— Have students imagine the sound they would like their instrument to make. What materials would be best at producing that particular sound?

— Provide a variety of building materials. These could be as simple as rocks, paper clips, rubber bands, sticks, straws, paper cups, shoe boxes, and anything else that could produce a sound.

— After the students have built and demonstrated their instruments, invite them to reflect on their creation. How can the instrument’s sound be described in musical terms? Does the instrument produce the sound they intended? How might the use of different materials have affected the sound?

For older grades, you might guide your students to invent instruments to accompany a particular song or piece of music, taking into consideration the style, mood, lyrics, and/or instrumentation of that music.

Describing Characteristics of Animals through Development of Aural Skills

Kindergarten and first grade life science standards focus on observing, comparing, and describing animals in a variety of ways (MN Science Standards 0.4.1.1.1 and 1.4.1.1.1). Listening to the sounds of animals in the context of music class can train students to aurally recognize multiple characteristics of sounds, both musical and non-musical. Try a “sound scavenger hunt” to hone students’ listening skills. This is a fun activity to do when the weather is warm enough to go outside!

— Guide students in creating a list of sounds that they would expect to hear outside. For a focus on the life science standards, limit the list to only include animal sounds.

— Send each student to sit quietly, away from other students, to listen to their environment for the sounds on the list.

— Have students describe each sound that they “collect” using musical terms, such as piano or forte, high or low, and short or long.

— After the scavenger hunt, discuss which sounds were heard. Were there any surprises? How were the sounds similar to music?

The more ways in which we can guide our students to see the connections between music and other subjects, the more ways they will find to engage in music beyond our classrooms. Bringing science into the music room can spark ideas for hands-on, exploratory activities that will foster a spirit of experimentation and creativity in both subjects.