Welcome to practical physicsPracticle physics - practical activities designed for use in the classroom with 11 to 19 year olds

Musical instruments


This experiment could supplement a few demonstrations about standing waves, with students playing their own musical instruments.

Apparatus and materials

  • oscilloscope
  • microphone
  • pre-amplifier (if necessary)
  • assorted musical instruments

Health & Safety and Technical notes

Read our standard health & safety guidance

Connect the microphone to the AC input of the oscilloscope. Initially set the timebase to 1ms/div.


a Use the oscilloscope to examine the different waveforms of the sounds produced by different instruments.

Teaching notes

1 Standing waves are set up when musical instruments are either plucked, blown, struck, or stroked. Usually the standing wave pattern is a complex one, and waves of several different frequencies are present.

2 Useful references include the following:

  • Science Enhancement Programme booklet Voicebox: the physics and evolution of speech - available from Mindsets [LINK: http://www.mindsetsonline.co.uk/Site/Home]
  • Charles Taylor (1992) Exploring Music: The Science and Technology of Tones and Tunes Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing
  • Scientific American (1978) The Physics of Music San Francisco: W H Freeman and Company

This experiment has yet to undergo a health and safety check.


Related experiments

Standing waves on a rubber cord
Standing waves with a variable wavelength
Stationary waves in an air column
Longitudinal standing waves in rods
Longitudinal standing waves
Vibrations in a rubber sheet
Vibrations on a loudspeaker cone
Ring of standing waves