Learn about the physics of sound waves and vibration as you explore the sense of hearing in a musical way! Keep reading to find out how to make a liquid xylophone and play simple songs using items you have at home. Then watch our video to see and hear a xylophone made from test tubes!

Sound Waves Science Project

Test Tube Liquid Xylophone

What You Need:

What You Do:

  1. Line up your vessels in a row. Make sure they’re clean, empty, and all the same size.
  2. Gently tap the base of each bottle with the metal spatula. Do they all sound the same?
  3. Use the graduated cylinder to measure and pour different amounts of water into each of the vessels. Fill the first vessel with just a little water. Fill the second with slightly more than the first, and so on, until you reach the last vessel, which will be almost full.
  4. Add a drop of food coloring (if desired) to each vessel so the water levels on your liquid xylophone are easier to see.
  5. Number the vessels so the one with the most water is 1, the next highest water level is 2, and so on until the vessel with the least water is marked with the highest number.
  6. Use the metal spatula to tap each vessel towards the base of the bottle. Does each bottle sound different?
  7. Try using the wooden spoon and glass stirring rod instead to hear a very different noise.

What Happened:

When you tapped the empty vessels, they all made the same sound. But when you added different amounts of water, the noise changed. You probably noticed that the more water the test tube held, the lower the pitch produced. The highest pitch came from striking the test tube with the least water. Since sound waves travel through liquid, by altering the amount of water in the test tube, the sound waves is altered as well. Sound waves can also move through other liquids like juice or milk. Liquids with varying densities will produce different sounds since the sound waves travel through them in varying speeds. Likewise, different materials make different sounds. too! Strike your xylophone with plastic and wood. You’ll notice that these materials absorb a lot of sound waves, dampening the pitch produced. Striking your xylophone with metal and glass creates the clearest sound.

For further experimentation:

  • Try tapping the vessel in a different spot. How does the sound change when you tap closer to the top?
  • Use vessels of different shapes and sizes. Do they produce different pitches even when the same amount of water is used?
  • Vary the amount of water used in each vessel, or just in one.
  • Use liquids of varying densities (syrup, ketchup, vinegar, milk) to see how it affects the sounds waves. When finished, pour all your liquids into one vessel then let them separate for a bonus density demonstration!
  • Play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” by striking the vessels in this order:

    1,1,5,5,6,6,5 4,4,3,3,2,2,1 5,5,4,4,3,3,2 5,5,4,4,3,3,2 1,1,5,5,6,6,5 4,4,3,3,2,2,1

  • Play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” like this:

    3,2,1,2,3,3,3 2,2,2 3, 4,4 3,2,1,2,3,3,3, 3,2,2,3,2,1

  • Can you figure out how to play other simple songs on your liquid xylophone?

Liquid Xylophone Demonstration Video

Sound Waves Science Lesson

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? Do you know what to answer?

First, what we think of as ‘sound’ really has two parts to it. Physical sound consists of waves in the air formed by the cause of the noise, whether it be speech or the clatter of dishes. Then, physiologically speaking, the sound is what is heard when the ear detects the sound wave and converts it into a message that the brain can understand. (Physiology deals with the normal functions and parts of organs.)

Sound waves are formed in a way that might surprise you: when air is pushed outward (as from a tree falling), it clumps together or compresses. When the air stops being pushed, there’s a ‘dead space’ or decompressed area behind the clump, where there is little (or no) air. If air is pushed out at regular intervals, the clumps and dead spaces combine to form a longitudinal wave.

Longitudinal waves move along a line of travel through a series of compressions and decompressions. If you have a slinky, you can demonstrate what the movement of a sound wave looks like. Stretch out the slinky half way, and then give one end a hard push forward. A compression should form at that end of the slinky and move up the coil. Then, if it hits the other end hard enough, the motion will ripple back down the coil to the end that the movement started from.

Some sound waves have higher frequencies than others, resulting in higher pitch when the sound wave is transmitted to the brain via the ear. Frequency is the number of complete sound wave cycles that occurs in one second. In the same way, waves with a larger amplitude hit the eardrum with greater intensity, causing the brain to hear it as a louder sound. Amplitude is the pressure difference caused by the sound wave as it moves through the air.

Human ears can only hear sonic waves, ones that have a frequency between 20 and 20,000 hertz (Hz). Sound waves that have a lower frequency are called infrasonic, and waves which have a higher frequency are called ultrasonic. (Ultrasonic waves are the ones which are used in ultrasound imaging.)

The question at the beginning is somewhat a trick question, isn’t it? A tree falling in a forest would send off physical sound waves, whether there was anyone there or not. But the sound waves would not physiologically form sound unless they reached someone’s ears and were transmitted to that person’s brain.

Sound needs a medium, like air, to travel through. Sound waves cannot travel in a vacuum like space.