Introduction: Straw Oboe

About: More than 14 pulsating exhibits make the Children's Museum of Houston one of the top rated in the country. Packed with daily activities and invigorating performances, it’s the place where minds come out to pl…

Strike up the band and let's play some music with this straw version of a classic instrument!

This is one of the 48 projects for our Instructables: Made In Your Mind (IMIYM) exhibition at the Children’s Museum of Houston showing from May 26, 2012 - November 4, 2012. Produced in partnership with Instructables, IMIYM is an exhibit where families work together to build different fun, toy-like projects that help construct knowledge and skills related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics while instilling a “do-it-yourself” attitude in kids so they feel empowered to explore, tinker, and try to make things themselves. To learn more, check out the article here.

While this project is an original from CMH staff, there are similar projects like the Straw Horn Instructable created by Piroboy94, among others. Often, the materials and process for building our projects are designed for use with a large number of visitors (we see over 800,000 annually) and the need to ensure safety in a mostly non-facilitated environment. So, yes, many of these projects have room for improvement in both materials and methodology, which is PRECISELY what we want to encourage the kids to do. So please do share your ideas for improvement and modifications!

Step 1: What You Need

We are selective in our materials for cost, ease of use, and safety due to our high traffic (800,000 visitors annually). So, for our purposes, this design worked best. But you may have other ideas - please share!
  • 1 – Drinking straw 
  • 1 – Paper cone cup - like for Sno-Cones
  • Scissors
  • Masking Tape
  • Pencil

Step 2: The Video

We offer optional video segments of each step for this project in the actual exhibit. Here is a compilation of all the steps.

Step 3: Step 1 - Making the Reeds

Flatten one end of the straw with your fingers or teeth. Cut off one corner of the flattened part of the straw starting about ½ inch down the straw and ending just slightly off-center. Repeat with the other corner of the flattened part of the straw. Your straw tip should have two flaps that look like trapezoids (triangles with a flat top). You can play it at this point, but I like to add an amplifier. 

Step 4: Step 2 - Adding an Amplifier

Place the other end of the straw over the tip of the cone cup and draw a circle on the cone around the end of the straw. Cut off the tip of the cone. Starting with the flaps, run the straw from the open end of the cone up through the hole until the straw is almost all the way through the hole. Tape the straw to the cup. 

Step 5: To Play

There's no easy way to explain this. Basically, hold the straw so the flaps look like an open mouth. Place it into your mouth. Gently tighten your lips around the straw and blow until you hear a buzzing. You may have to adjust the tension of your lips, but once you get it, you can usually do it at any time. Pretty much, you need to experiment with it to get it to work.

So what's going on? Well, sound is created by vibrations. In the case of the Straw Oboe, as you blow the two flaps hit each other to create vibrations. The straw and the cone on the end amplify the sound, or make it louder. A real oboe works the same way, only it uses two wooden reeds instead of flaps cut out of a straw. An oboe also has keys that adjusts the air flow to create different notes.

This is a great place to begin some experimentation like:
  • What if you shorten the straw?
  • What if you use different-sized diameters of straws?
  • What if you attach a second straw or use two straws of different diameters that slide over each other?
  • What if you use different sized cups?
  • What if you use cups other than cone cups?
  • What if you use cups made of materials other than paper?
  • What if you cut holes to try to make notes?
Give them a try and tell us what you discover in the comments!