Kazoo: musical instrument or annoying children’s party favor? Love or hate it, the kazoo has had a fascinating history, remarkable staying power, and is fun for all ages. So, grab your kazoo and your kiddos and join me today for a fun, yet educational unit study, dedicated in honor of National Kazoo Day on January 28th. Don’t have a kazoo? You can view one here and our study will help you create one from a few household items.
Ask your children to examine the kazoo. Describe the shape. What do they notice about the weight? A kazoo uses a very thin membrane to amplify sound. Today’s kazoo has been traced back to a mirliton, having African origins, made of animal horn, bone or gourd, and was used to impersonate animals or distort voices at tribe gatherings. Appearing in 17th and 18th century Europe, the mirliton was called the “eunuk” flute. Initially appearing in the U.S. at the Georgia State Fair in 1852, the kazoo was originally known as the “Down South Submarine” (although a patent was not filed until 1883, when the name was changed). Through the years, kazoos have been made from wood, metal or plastic. Learn more about the history of the kazoo by viewing these informative videos: A Brief history of the Kazoo; Eden NY Original Kazoo and Why the Kazoo is America’s Secret Weapon.
One of the great debates among musicians has occurred in categorizing the kazoo. Most authors consider the kazoo a ‘non-traditional’ wind instrument. A handful of others view it as percussion. Ask your children to read about wind and percussion instruments. How would they categorize the kazoo? While we consider the musical forte of the kazoo, would you be surprised to learn it has been played in multiple genres of music? Jazz, Blues, Rock and even a Broadway musical have successfully incorporated its unique sound. With your children, listen to the Serious Kazoo-Kazoophony, or the 1974 song, “You’re Sixteen,” which showcased the kazoo skills of Sir Paul McCartney. You can learn more about the Great Moments in Kazoo History at Mental Floss.
Are you ready to kazoo? If your children are new to the kazoo, hand them one and ask them to play. If your children are competent kazoo-ers, ask if they recall the first time they played the kazoo. Instinctively, as we lift the kazoo to our lips, we are drawn to blow into the instrument. Although a kazoo looks and feels like a wind instrument, it is considered similar to the drum, requiring vibration to create sound. To play the kazoo, simply hum, sing or speak into the larger open end. This action causes sounds waves to travel through the kazoo. As sound waves travel through the tube shape, they strike the inner membrane causing it to vibrate, creating that characteristic buzzing sound. The internal membrane is the key sound source for the kazoo and what separates the kazoo from traditional wind instruments. One Danish scientist has suggested the kazoo should be viewed as a “singing drum.”
Today, kazoos are typically constructed of metal or plastic. If you have access to both, ask your children to hum through each and compare the sound made. Do they hear a difference? Plastic and metal kazoos sound enough alike that it is difficult for our human ears to discern differences. Older children may be interested in reading The Kazoo, a Physics research abstract from the University of Illinois, which confirms significant differences in harmonics (sound frequency). The metal kazoo showed nearly a straight drop in harmonic vibrations, while the plastic kazoo behaved a “bit more…wild.”
Let’s make a kazoo! This activity requires a few household items and adult supervision. We will be comparing the sound created by humming into our handmade kazoos using a variety of materials for the (inner) membrane.
- Gather empty toilet paper or paper towel tubes (minimally one per child), plastic wrap, wax paper, aluminum foil, rubber bands, sharpened pencil and scissors. Cut out a 4” x 4” square of plastic wrap, wax paper, and aluminum foil for each child.
- Ask children to place one end of the tube near their lips (but not in their mouth) and hum a song. How does their voice sound?
- Rubber band the plaster wrap to one end. Hum the same song. Does their voice sound the same? Describe.
- With adult assistance, poke a hole in one-side of the tube: half way between the two ends. Put the uncovered end of the tube near their mouths and hum the same tune. Is there a noticeable difference in the sound created?
- Place your hand gently on the plastic wrap. Hum again. Can you feel the plastic wrap moving? Push against the plastic wrap using different amounts of force while keeping it in place. Hum a few notes. Describe changes in the sound.
- Repeat steps above using the wax paper and then aluminum foil or different sizes. Repeat the exercises and note any changes.
- Bonus activity: poke additional holes in the cardboard tube(s). Repeat steps.
In our activity, vocal differences occur with each change made. Each step causes a change to the tube structure, resulting in sound changes. While humming through the tube alone, the sounds are deeper because some of the sound waves bounce off the tube walls. Adding wax paper (and other sound membranes), creates a sound wave barrier which creates a loss of energy for the sound waves and muffles the sound. Poking the hole in the cardboard roll makes it easier to hear. Acting as a membrane, the wax paper vibrates in response to the sound, while the hole relieves the pressure inside the tube, allowing more sound to reach your ears. Children should have noticed their voice did not have the same sound with each activity. Wax paper and aluminum foil are less flexible, resulting in less sound wave “bounce” which provides lower amplification. Learn more about Sound Vibrations and the Kazoo.
Thank you for joining me for our monthly unit studies. I hope your family enjoys time spent away from the books. If you have ideas for upcoming unit studies, I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.