DIY Instruments: Making tunes from trash

May 06, 2015

A spring cleaning of the basement or garage can uncover many hidden treasures. In fact, did you know that NMC’s largest instrument lived in a basement at one time during its past?

The Kimball Theatre Organ has enthralled students and visitors since its arrival to NMC in 2001. Theatre organs such as this were originally used for accompaniment to silent films throughout the 1920s and 30s, prior to the introduction of sound into film. The musician’s console would sit in front of the screen so that the musician could monitor the music to the film. This particular theatre organ lived a relatively typical life in theatres in the United States and Canada. However, along its path to NMC, something happened to its pipes!

Kimball Theatre OrganKimball Theatre Organ at NMC. Credit: NMC Collections

That’s because in the 1950s, a private owner purchased this theatre organ from a flooded theatre in Washington state. In order to get this huge instrument into his parent’s basement he had to chip away the concrete foundation of the house and bend the pipes. A restoration that took more than six years.

Though, you probably aren’t going to find a theatre organ lurking in your basement, you probably have a lot of items that could be used to make your own musical instruments inspired by the features of the Kimball Theatre Organ such as styro-xylophonepercussion instruments, and a DIY piano.

Perhaps most easily, you can create a miniature reed organ pipe using popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and a straw. A reed organ pipe creates sound by passing air across a reed, causing it to vibrate.

Inside reed organ pipe

The Kimball has a large section of reed pipes and uses bellows to force air through them. The reed pipes have a very unique timbre, or tonal quality, to it. Listen to a tune played by reed pipes. Now listen to the Kimball. Can you pick out the reed pipes from the rest of the sounds?

To create your mini reed organ pipe you will need:

  • 2 popsicle/craft sticks
  • a straw
  • a wide rubber band
  • two narrower rubber bands
  • scissors

To create your mini reed organ pipe, follow these simple instructions:

  • Wrap a rubber band along one popsicle stick lengthwise (the long end).
  • Cut two small pieces of straw, each about 2cm long.
  • Put one small straw under the rubber band, about a third of the way down from the end of the stick.
  • Place the other stick on top of the first one.
  • Wrap the smaller rubber band around the end of the stock about 1cm from the top on the same side where you put the straw. Make sure the straw pinches the sticks together.
  • Put a second small piece of straw between the two sticks on the other end about a third of the way down from the top. This time don’t put the straw under the rubber band; put it on top of the rubber band.
  • Wrap the small rubber band around this end of the stick about 1cm from the end. When you are done, the two ends should be pinched and there should be a small space between the two sticks.

Using your bellows (lungs), force air across the reed (rubber band). Move the straws to change the pitch.

Sound SandwichStudents playing Sound Sandwiches. Credit: Chad Schroter-Gillespie

Teachers! Interested in learning more about these ideas and making your own instruments with students? Book our Air Powered program that explores how different three-dimensional shapes can create unique sounds and add a Sound Sandwich activity.

Also, visit our DIY instrument Pinterest board to explore other ways of turning trash into tunes.

–Natalie Marsh, Education Outreach Coordinator 

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Email me or tweet me @natzmarsh

About the Author

Marcy Belva

Marcy has been at NMC since November 2015 as the School Programs Administrator. Her passions include museum education, crafting, animals, and science. She is currently trying to become a comic book nerd, despite being in her late 20's.

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