Part of a 6th century cave painting along the silk road showing a celestial musician. Image: Maijishan Caves Art Research Institute.
This lesson explores different types of musical instruments, including one that has been very popular along the Silk Roads but is not often seen in American bands and orchestras. With the help of adults, children build a replica of the sheng using plastic bottles, ballons and straws. Children practice using different types of breathing to make different sounds. Finally, using simple numerical combinations, children play a simple harmonic composition using their creation.
Questions to Explore
What are different types of musical instruments?
Why are there different music and different instruments in other parts of the world?
Is there a relationship between numbers and music?
Does music have patterns?
Hand-eye coordination: follow instructions to create a musical instrument
Control breathing: understand cause and effect in music
Cooperation: follow instructions and work with other children to create a song
One hour to one week, depending on how extensively the teacher chooses to follow the lesson.
For each student:
- A 20-ounce or one-liter plastic soda or water bottle
- Four corrugated sports bottle straws (available at sporting goods outlets, party-goods supply stores, or on the Internet)
- 12-inch balloon
For each adult:
- Sharp knife
- Safety goggles
- Pencil or pen
Observe how cooperative the children are when asked to collaborate on tasks.
Assess how much the children learned when they summarize what they learned at the end of the lesson.
- The following discussion will help children understand how to categorize musical instruments. Make flash cards by cutting up the illustrations in instruments1.pdf and instruments2.pdf (attached below). Ask children to name different types of musical instruments. Ask the children which instruments are played by hitting or striking? Which are played by plucking strings or using a bow to glide along the strings? Which instruments do you have to blow to play?
- There are many kinds of wind instruments. A reed instrument makes its
distinctive sound when the air inside the instrument is made to vibrate
by the use of a reed—a thin, elongated
piece of cane, metal, or other material. Reed instruments that many
people are familiar with are the single reeds like clarinets and
saxophones and the double reeds like oboes and bassoons. On the Silk
Roads, the Chinese sheng and the Japanese sho are reed instruments that work both by blowing and inhaling, like a harmonica.
- Tell the children about music along the Silk Roads. See the linked essay, Music of the Silk Roads.
- Making the Straw-Sheng: The following tasks are to be done by the teacher and adult helpers.
- Using the sharp knife (and wearing the safety goggles),
carefully cut off the bottom of the plastic bottle about 5 inches below
the opening (see Straw Sheng Diagram, Ill. 1)
- Again using the knife and wearing goggles, carefully cut four
small slits in the top of the bottle (see Straw Sheng Diagram, see Ill.
2). Do this by holding the bottle down on a hard surface, not in your
hand—sometimes the plastic collapses before the knife penetrates it.
- Carefully widen the slits with the pencil or pen until the
ends of the sports bottle straws can slide inside the slits. Insert the
four straws into the four holes. The idea here is to have the slits fit
around the straws as well as possible, with little air leakage.
- Using the scissors, cut off the bottom of the uninflated balloon about half way down the balloon.
- Close off the end of the bottle by stretching the balloon over the open bottom.
- Show the children how to play the sheng:
Holding the bottle, with the straws upright, blow gently into
the mouth of the bottle. If correctly made, the air should go out
though the four straws, making four pitches.
Now suck air through the bottle—the straws should make
different pitches. By blowing harder and softer and alternating blowing
the air and sucking it back through, you should be able to create some
cool rhythmic and melodic patterns.
You can also experiment with covering or half-covering the
ends of some of the straws with your fingers, which should change the
sounds. Covering the straw completely stops it from making sound;
half-holing it changes the pitch.
Each student will write step-by-step instructions on how to build and play a Straw-Sheng.
variations with the instrument. You will notice that if the straws are
the same lengths, they make the same sounds. You can change the length
of the straws by several means.
Some straws have an area of extra-large corrugations that can
be pulled apart to make the straw longer or compressed to make it
You can also experiment with cutting the straws to different
lengths. However, don’t cut them too short—they will cease to make good
sounds. You might experiment with an extra straw to find out just how
short you can cut it before it stops working.
Try to make the straws have the greatest variation of length
possible—for example, one should be shorter, the next a bit longer, and
You can add more straws to your Straw-Sheng by making the
bottle bigger. However, keep in mind that you would need more air to
activate the straws. If you decide to do this, make sure that the fit
of the slits around the straws is airtight. Consider wrapping some duct
tape around the slits/straws or using hot glue to close the leaks.
- The teacher may use the Straw-Sheng as a demonstration tool.
If you decide to use the Straw-Sheng as a demonstration tool, rather
than have the entire class build it, the following demonstrations will
help your students understand this instrument:
Demonstrate the sound possibilities of a single straw. Use just
one straw to show how it can make sounds by both blowing through the
straw and inhaling through the straw. What other instruments work in
the same way? (harmonica and accordion)
Demonstrate how a single straw can make different pitches by
changing the speed of the air going through the tube. Ask students to
count the different number of pitches you can get as you blow through
the tube. First, blow as gently as possible, and then blow with
increasing force. Repeat the process by inhaling through the tube.
Use a different length of straw, and repeat the process of the
step above. What is the observed result of using a longer straw?
(Pitches should start lower.) What is the observed result of using a
shorter straw? (Pitches should start higher.)
- Because each instrument creates four distinct pitches, it is
not advisable to have the entire class play their Straw-Shengs at the
same time. Instead, try the following simple playing exercises with
Create a distinct blowing pattern.
As you build and experiment with the Straw-Sheng, start
dividing the class into smaller groups based on the length of the
straws. For example, you might want to make a group that has all short
straws or all long straws. Another possibility is a group that has a
big variation in the length of the straws, and another group that has a
small variation in the length of the straws. [10 minutes]
An adult helper can teach each small group a characteristic pattern of playing their shengs. For example, one group may have this pattern (allow about 15 minutes)
Exhale-soft-long, inhale-short-hard, inhale-short-hard, inhale-short-hard, exhale soft-long
Another pattern might be:
- Create symbology for blowing patterns [20 minutes].
Maintaining the students in the groups that you have already
created, ask each group to create a set of symbols to represent the
patterns they have already created. Students can use words, symbols,
letters, pictograms, or other representations for their symbology. For example, young children may use a big circle for a big inhale and a little circle for a soft inhale; they may choose to use a big X for a big exhale and a little x for a little blow.
- Combine patterns to create a musical piece [20 minutes].
After dividing the class into groups and giving patterns to
each group, start combining the groups in simple composing patterns.
For example, if you have four groups, call them A, B, C, and D. The
number after the group letter represents the number of times they play
their pattern: A4, B2, A4, pause, C4, D2, C4, D2, pause, A4.
- Math connections with blowing patterns [10 minutes].
Demonstrate combinatorial and set theory by asking students to create a
set of all possible combinations of groups and patterns. For example,
if you have three groups, A, B, and C, each with one blowing pattern,
what are all the possible combinations?
Congratulations, you have just created a mathematical/musical piece!
Try this also with each group having two possible blowing combinations to see how the complexity level increases.
Author: John Mertles.