MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS > WINDS > STRAW PANPIPES

Over the years, straw panpipes have been one of our most iffy instruments.  When they work, they are great (plus a cool math exercise).  But we’ve struggled with panpipes on occasion, sometimes because the materials have not been ideal; or because there has not been enough time dedicated to the exercise.  You need wide stiff straws to really make this instrument sound.  Think fast food straws, wider than the usual straw.  Plus you need a good seal, which is why we advise using non-drying modeling clay.  Tape won’t do it.  Hot glue is a dangerous mess, don’t try it.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • Straws

  • Scissors

  • Rulers

  • Modeling Clay (such as Sculpey)

  • Duct Tape (or masking tape)

  • Chopsticks (or popsicle sticks, tongue depressors, etc.)

MUSICAL INSTRUMENT BUILDING - THE PROCEDURE!

1. Cut a piece of straw, block off the bottom with your finger and blow over the top. Optional - Check the resulting pitch on a piano and trim the straw to the desired pitch. 

2. Close the bottom of the cut straw with the modeling clay. Note that the pitch may change slightly as your clay stops up the bottom. It may be best to leave the lengths of straw longer than they should be, and then to trim the TOP part of the straw.

3. Cut other straws by using the whole-step/half-step ratio to get the correct pitches for a diatonic scale.  Following are possible straw lengths to create a straw panpipe (all lengths are approximate):

  • 5 inches (12.8cm)

  • 4 and 4/16ths (11 cm)

  • 3 and 14/16ths (9.8 cm)

  • 3 and 10/16ths (9.1 cm)

  • 3 and 3/16ths (8.1 cm)

  • 2 and 13/16ths (7.2 cm)

  • 2 and 8/16ths (6.5 cm)

  • 2 and 5/16ths (6 cm)

4. Lay a long strip of duct tape sticky side up on the table.  Place the straws on the duct tape in size order, with the open ends even and the closed ends staggered.  You may wish to separate the straws slightly as you lay them on the tape to make it easier to blow a single pitch.

5. Place the chopstick (or other stick) across the straws and wrap the tape around it.  The stick acts as a stiffener.

TO PLAY!

Building this instrument is a math exercise in itself.  The process of measuring the straws gives students more experience in working with rulers and precise measurements.  The structure of a major scale in whole steps and half steps can shed some light on the nature of musical scales.  For more advanced students, they can begin to find ratios in measurement by starting with longer or shorter straws (e.g., what would the measurements be if you started with the first straw being 7 inches long?  3 inches long?).  

 

Remember, the intervallic structure of a major scale is:

  • Fundamental (lowest pitch)

  • Whole step to the

  • second

  • Whole step to the

  • third 

  • Half step to the

  • fourth

  • Whole step to the

  • fifth

  • Whole step to the

  • sixth

  • Whole step to the

  • seventh

  • Half step to the

  • Octave

 

These whole and half steps correspond to the keys of the piano, with the half-steps being those where the keys are adjacent to each other; whole steps always skip a key.

DIY Straw Panpipes and Bottle Flutes

Website by Rivertowns Marketing;  Art by TB Ward; Photos on this site thanks to:  Erika Kapin Photography, John Maggiotto Studios, India Lena Gonzalez, Ananda Naima Gonzalez, Shandor Patrick, Lili Fenner, Kim Russell: Courtesy of the Smith Center, Jaye McLaughlin: The Life in Your Years Photography LLC, Risdon Photography, Dariel Sneed: Courtesy of Brookfield Place NY, Tanya Ahmed: the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

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