MUSICAL SCULPTURE -- "The Secretary's Nightmare"




About: I'm a refugee from Los Angeles, living in backwoods Puerto Rico for about 35 years now and loving it. I built my own home from discarded nylon fishnet and cement.

"The Secretary's Nightmare" is a musical sculpture, a sculpture that makes interesting sounds when struck. It evolved out of a mirror-like hollow steel ball I found washed up on a beach and some antique typewriter parts.

Trying to type anything on it would be a nightmare.

Although you can play The Secretary's Nightmare in different ways, such as by dragging pieces of mattress foam over it, my favorite way is to strike it with a ping pong ball on a string. The old "Follow the bouncing ball" song cartoons come to mind as the ball ricochets off the typewriter parts.

The music it makes is always somewhat out of control and random. Because the sounds it makes are low-volume, I use a stethoscope as a means of amplification. Playing it is a very personal experience. People without the stethoscope only hear a weak suggestion of what goes on inside it.

Be sure to listen to the audio file in the last step of this instructable to here what The Secretary's Nightmare sounds like.


When I first found the hollow steel ball, it was washed up on a beach. The ball was chrome plated, like a mirror and very light weight. It was perfectly made. I couldn't find any seam on it where two halves had been joined. I have no idea where the mystery ball came from; perhaps a scientific instrument.

Unfortunately, during the process of welding on the typewriter parts, the mirror plating was damaged. The surface now is painted.

For some reason, the notes made by The Secretary's Nightmare linger a long time. I don't know if the sphere shape has anything to do with that, but it might.


All of the typewriter parts have different shapes, lengths, and weights. Because of that, they vibrate at different frequencies and produce different notes.

Other factors such as diameter being the same, a short rod will vibrate faster and create a note of higher pitch than a long rod will. The same holds true of strings on string instruments.

The parts started out basically flat. I bent them in different ways to make them more visually interesting and welded them with an oxyacetylene torch to the hollow steel ball I found. It reminds me of a round head with a crazy hairdo.


A stethoscope amplifies sound when the membrane at the end of it picks up vibrations through contact with an object. The membrane is of relatively large diameter, compared to the diameter of the stethoscope hose. Slight movement of the membrane causes air inside the stethoscope head to move. A little bit of motion of the air inside the large diameter head will result in a larger movement of air inside the small diameter hose. When you put your ear next to the end of the hose, the amplified movement of air results in amplified sound.

When you start listening to the world through a stethoscope, you hear all sorts of things you never were aware of.


The plastic of the ping-pong ball is relatively hard, compared to a rubber ball. A soft striking material makes a softer sound than a hard one does. The hardness of the ping-pong ball and the short duration of contact with the typewriter parts results in a crisp sound.

The way the ball ricochets off the keys, rapidly striking more than one key, and the slow fade-away of each note allows notes to pile up on one another. The result is a rich complexity of sound.

Since the ball is somewhat out of control, it is virtually impossible to repeat the same music a second time. That makes each time you hear the instrument a unique and special experience.

To strengthen the attachment point of the string to the ping-pong ball, I used a small vinyl patch that the string passes through. It covers a tangle of string glued to the ball and provides more surface area for the glue to adhere to than the string alone provides.

Step 5: THE BASE

Since the bottom of The Secretary's Nightmare is a round ball, I made this cylindrical base to set it on. The base is just a section of PVC sewer pipe.


To play the instrument, plug the stethoscope ear pieces in your ears and place the stethoscope in one hand, membrane up. Balance the hollow steel ball on the stethoscope membrane and dangle the ping-pong ball among the typewriter keys.


What you put together depends on what you find to work with. You will probably not find the same ball and typewriter parts, but a different combination of things can be just as interesting.

The attached photos are of stethoscope sculptures I made many years ago.

The one on the truck bed had the stethoscope listening to the pipe, an old drive shaft. It had an acoustic "microphone" that conducted the voice to the inside of the pipe. One flat array of rods of different lengths was struck with small drumsticks. A curved array of rods was played with a violin bow and sounded like electronic feedback. There was also a set of strings attached to the base pipe that sounded like a harp.

The other instrument, played by a friend, had a gurgle sound made by blowing air into a reservoir of liquid inside it. A "dandelion" shape of rods on top sounded similar to The Secretary's Nightmare. It also had a squeaky wheel.


Click on the mp3 file image and you should be able to download a recording of "The Secretary's Nightmare".



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    30 Discussions


    "The Secretary's Nightmare", reminds me of something Tom Waits would have created.


    6 years ago on Step 8

    Wow, i could listen to that music for hours! Keep it up! :)

    spark master

    6 years ago on Step 8

    nice sounds err have you checked it for radiation? And what safety precautions have you taken if it hatches!!!! yikes!!! chuckle

    seriously , nice sounds


    9 years ago on Introduction

    This is so cool and such a great metaphor for all the sounds we make (or actions we take) that don't matter until someone hears them or sees them. The stethoscope is the vehicle that in this case lets us into an otherwise unappreciated world - sort of like Instructables lets us all into the wonderful minds and generosity of the world. I am very sentimental in the mornings.

    5 replies

    I like the way you appreciate it. There is a lot that goes on under our radar, beyond our senses. We have one of an infinite number of points of view and tend to think of it as being the way things are. There is so much more that we are not thinking about most of the time, if ever. Good morning.


    This goes with my thinking that Halloween should be a mandatory holiday where you must dress up as someone else and BE that person for the day. We could have another mandatory day called Gray Day where only a few things were black and white and absolute and could be taken for granted. The whole day you would have to have an open mind about the possibilities of what was known or on the surface of things. I think this would be mind expanding for the rest of the year. Just think that only less than 200 years ago dinosaurs were unknown to the world - what else is out there to be discovered below the surface of our senses? These "holidays" would be so much more beneficial than celebrating dead politicians. This is a long morning.


    Long mornings have their place. I agree about Halloween. Except for Halloween, which is somewhat creative, holidays all seem like repeat TV programs to me. (I don't watch TV.) They are too predictable and not much fun because of it. Also, not being especially political or religious, they mostly celebrate things I don't want to celebrate. Workers are more productive if they have a few holidays, though. If we can't just spontaneously celebrate occasionally, I was always attracted to using a couple of roulette wheels. Spin one to select days of the year to celebrate. Spin the other to select among optional ways of celebrating, and make a new list every year. Personally, I would leave killing turkeys or other animals off the option list. Yodeling from rooftops might be nice!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    By your description sounds like a chrome 'gazing ball'. Here is a site for some of them.:

    More than likely got blow out of someone's yard/garden near the water's edge.

    1 reply

    That sounds like a reasonable solution to the mystery. It was an amazingly good sphere, too. No visible seam from joining halves.


    7 years ago on Step 8

    Neat! Like a wind chime on steroids!

    Dude, love it. But about the ball, i'm pretty sure it's not a gazing ball. It Could be something really amazing or special, but for the sake of being called paranoid, I won't tell my ideas.

    Big Fan,
    Adam Grimm


    8 years ago on Introduction

     Oh my gosh it sounds just like a steel tongue drum! that is so cool. I totally was not expecting that kind of sound from that! Wicked awesome!


    Reply 9 years ago on Step 1

    I'm not familiar with the scifi orb. It does look kind of like a bizarre satellite to me from underneath.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    That's a pretty good way to describe the sound. I wonder what a calypso drum would sound like with the parts welded to it and played the same way. Would the underlying sound areas add a secondary tone over the typewriter key sound? I wouldn't want to sacrifice an in-tune drum to find out.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I beleve I know what your mystery ball is although I get this feeling you enjoy the mystery of it. So I won't tell you unless you absolutely want to know. Imrobot

    1 reply