This week, we have been exploring the mathematics of music with a homemade PVC pipe xylophone! This was one of those projects that sort of evolved. The boys have been enjoying blowing into PVC pipe and making all kinds of crazy noises. They have noticed that longer pipes make a lower noise than shorter pipes. We decided to try making some instruments with different lengths of pipe to make different notes, BUT we discovered that the pitch changes when you blow harder or softer on the same size pipe.

After a little googling, I found these awesome instruments that people make out of PVC pipe and play with some type of mallet, such as a foam bat. Striking the pipe gives a consistent pitch (as opposed to blowing into the pipe, which didn’t). Blowing across the pipe would probably give a consistent pitch, but with the ages we have, we are not that coordinated!

I started out with five pipes – C (below middle C), E, G, C, D. They sounded good together, but we couldn’t play them unless someone was holding them up. And since none of us have five hands, we had to assemble a few “someones” and get them to stand still and hold the pipes…not too practical! If you set the pipe directly on the ground so that the open bottom of the pipe touches the ground, it changes the pitch. So we needed some type of stand. Since we were going to the trouble of making the stand, I went back to Lowe’s for more pipe and made an 8 octave scale. My scale did not turn out to be a C major scale although it sounds great – more on that in a minute!

One of the Youtube videos that I watched recommended playing the PVC xylophone with cheap rubber flip flops as mallets. We didn’t have any flip flops on hand, so I used a fly swatter. I cut out a piece of sticky-back craft foam the same size as the swatter and covered it with that. The foam eliminates the noise of the fly swatter hitting the pipe. Anything hard used as a mallet will add its own sound to the instrument as the plastic strikes the pipe. The foam covered fly swatter ended up being PERFECT!

Want to hear what it sounds like?

(If you have a child who does Suzuki music lessons, you will recognize our tunes!)

Want to build one? Even if you don’t have the patience, musical ear, or desire to create exact musical notes, it’s still SUPER fun to cut pipes of different lengths and compare the sounds. Your kids will love exploring with this. Add in some other junk instruments (trash can lids, etc.) and create a whole percussion section!

If you want to create a musical scale, keep reading.

Building Tips – Pipes

• I used mainly 2 inch pipe. The top three notes are 1 1/4 inch and 1 1/2 inch pipe, only because we were using up what we had on hand. The 2 inch pipe has a great sound without being terribly expensive.
• A wider pipe does not create a lower sound. The length of the pipe is what changes the pitch. Well, the width is a factor in the pitch as well, but the length is a much bigger factor. A wider pipe does create a louder and more resonant sound, however!
• I decided to put a 90 degree joint in the longest pipes so that the kids could actually reach them to play – my longest note was over 50 inches! However, once I added the joint, I had to adjust the length of the pipes to account for the joint. At this point, I stopped trying to create “real” notes and just tried to create a scale that was in tune with itself. I ended up with a slightly out of tune B major scale, so I wasn’t as far off from C as I thought I was!
• I put a different color of duct tape on each pipe. This will allow me to write out songs for the boys to play. They can read color-coded notes.

If you don’t care about having a certain scale, feel free to use the lengths that I created. It’s a working scale, it’s just not perfectly in tune with a piano.

The notes are listed from lowest to highest.

1. 30″, 21.5″

2. 30″, 16.4″

3. 29 5/8″ (was supposed to be 30 – ha!), 11.24″

4. 30″, 8″

5. 35″

6. 32.2″

7. 28.75″

8. 26.75″

• Even if you measure exactly, your pipes will need tuning. Cut your pipes slightly long! Then you can cut off a little more if needed to tune them. If you cut them too short, the note will be too high and then you’ll have to start over! I did, however, manage to fix one note that was too high by adding a small ring that I had trimmed off another pipe. I taped it to the bottom of the pipe with duct tape.

This is our mallet. As soon as I find another fly swatter like this (it was a freebie!) I will be making a second one.

Building Tips – Frame

I cannot take any credit for this frame! My dad and a friend who was visiting from out of town built and assembled the frame. The design that they came up with is very simple, as lightweight as you can get with something like this, and sturdy.

The pipes are attached with metal brackets that I bought in the plumbing aisle for 58 cents each.

Here’s a better view of the frame from the side:

We have all had so much fun exploring our new instrument, and I’m planning to use it for homeschool groups, etc.

This is our fourth post in the STEAM Power blog series – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math activities for kids.

Be sure to stop by the other posts in this series!

If Then Backyard Coding Game for Kids from Left Brain Craft Brain

Multiplication Fact Wheels from Lemon Lime Adventures

Secret Code Activity from What Do We Do All Day?

Spring Garden Glyph from Meri Cherry

Easy Math Trick for Kids from All for the Boys

1. ##### Katy Mar 18, 2015

What a fabulous idea! I love the xylophone! My brothers are going to have to make that this summer!

1. ##### Nate Apr 13, 2015

buy a cheap pair of sandals (those black rubber ones) and take off the toe string and they work great for the "mallets"

2. ##### Anne Mar 18, 2015

Awesome! I so want one of these for my patio for play time.

3. ##### Lisa @ This Pilgrim Life Mar 18, 2015

How fun! This looks like such a fun outdoor activity now that it's getting warmer out!

4. ##### Ana Mar 19, 2015

This is absolutely incredible!!! I've been trying to make chimes out of plumbing parts for ever and this blows my ideas away!

5. ##### Emily Mar 9, 2016

How wide is your stand, also what is the spacing between the pipes?

6. ##### Brenda will May 4, 2016

Hi, I am interested in making this instrument for my preschool as we talk about music. HELP!!! I have so many questions that I hope you can help me answer. Thank you for your time...

7. ##### mimi Dec 28, 2016

I do not understand the criteria of pvc.
Allow all the criteria pipeline his?

8. ##### Kathleen Apr 10, 2017

So cool! We'd like to make a similar instrument and mount it to our toy shed or playground fence at the primary school where I teach. How is the sound if the child strikes the side of the pipe rather than the top? We'd prefer to have it flat against the wall or fence. Thanks!

1. ##### Sarah Apr 11, 2017

I will test it out tomorrow, but I don't think you'll get the different pitches by striking the sides. It's the air being compressed in the tube that makes the sound.

9. ##### Bridget Nov 20, 2017

This is so cool.

10. ##### Sherri Mar 18, 2018

will you post the songs that you created?

1. ##### melissa Mar 23, 2020

Did you create a song book? i’d love to use with with preschoolers.

11. ##### Miles Cohan Mar 26, 2018

Did you find all these materials at Home Depot? If not, where?

1. ##### Sarah Mar 26, 2018

Yes, all was purchased from Home Depot!

12. ##### Melissa May 6, 2018

Would it still have a good sound if I used shorter pieces, as if to make them an octave higher?

13. ##### Mary Kay Hennessey Dec 16, 2018

Sarah, Please change the default on the website -- when I've found the game/activity I want to do, to have your website automatically take my back to 'home' is frustrating? I understand that you want people to explore the whole site, but when I've found something, for you to go back to home makes me 'find' it all over again. It does make me look kindly/creatively on the items that are 'in the way' of getting where I want to be. Thank you Mary Kay

1. ##### Sarah Dec 16, 2018

I'm sorry that you're finding the website frustrating! Unfortunately, I'm not sure what you mean. The website is not actually set up to take you automatically back to "home." If you click on a post, you should stay on that post until you click on something else. If you click the header at the top of the page (on the computer, not on mobile) it will take you to the homepage. Can you tell me if you are on a computer or on a mobile device? Can you send me a screen shot of the items that are "in the way?"