Reclaim & Sustain: Homemade Instruments in Music Education

What is made of wood, animal gut, horsehair, flaxseed oil, and sometimes a bit of toad or lizard skin? It sounds like a base for a magic potion, but in fact it is the ingredients for the most valuable musical instrument today: the violin and its bow. Although many of its materials are now considered exotic, the violin and many other “professional” instruments had humble beginnings. Many musical instruments were initially constructed out of materials that were accessible and affordable, so why don’t we use available resources to build and invent instruments more often?

Making and playing homemade instruments has tremendous educational, environmental, and artistic value that can reclaim musical creativity for teachers and students. Using homemade instruments helps sustain music programs that support self-sufficient and resourceful education, preserving tradition as well as encouraging innovation. When fully engaged in musical invention, children can develop their naturally imaginative and participatory approach to learning. I would like to explore these possibilities through three homemade ensembles: a jug band, a recycled orchestra, and an experimental instrument ensemble, all of which build a strong foundation for musical creation and comprehension. I will illustrate how these ensembles accomplish goals of sustainability as well as meet national standards for music education. I hope the following examples and resources encourage educators to incorporate these ideas into their classrooms, programs, and curricula.

The following definitions relate sustainability to art and education. Bowers explains sustainability in relation to education:

The long-term survival (sustainability) of each species in an ecosystem depends on a limited resource base. Building learning communities around the issue of sustainability means that teachers see the long term impact they have on students. (1995, 206)

The Center for Sustainable practice in the arts (CSPA) defines sustainability as including: environmentalism, economic stability, and strengthened cultural infrastructure. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro defines sustainability in their 2009-2014 Strategic Plan as: “the enduring interconnectedness of social equity, the environment, the economy, and aesthetics.” I will combine these definitions of artistic and educational sustainability when considering the effectiveness of the following ensembles. For example, all the ensembles create programs that are more accessible and affordable for students with various financial and musical backgrounds, increasing potential of greater equity. Homemade instrument making also teaches sustainable aesthetics of design while continuing cultural traditions of music and craft. 

Along with sustainability, homemade instrument making teaches the national music standards as outlined by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), which I've listed below. I will refer to these standards by referencing the numbers from that list. All homemade ensembles have the potential to teach performance and theory skills as well as incorporate outside fields such as visual art, history, math, craft, and science (NAfME 2, 8).

National Music Education Standards (from NAfME)

1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.

2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.

3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.

4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.

5. Reading and notating music.

6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.

7. Evaluating music and music performances.

8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.

9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.

Jug Band

The jug band, a traditional American ensemble from the early 1900s, made important contributions to the development of jazz and other black dance music. Jug bands are known for their incorporation of homemade instruments such as the jug, washtub bass, washboard, and other percussive instruments using household objects. “Instruments were home made in some cases, or substitutions were found such as with a jug sounding like a tuba, or using a washboard for a rhythm instrument. Music was madeand created and invented, and new styles were developed” (Fraser 2013). Traditionally jug bands used homemade instruments due to unaffordable or inaccessible store bought versions, placing economic sustainability at the core of their origins. Such constructive values of resourceful and creative music making can be easily taught and later applied by students in numerous contexts. With its affordable materials, jug-band music can increase students’ own economic awareness while maintaining more stable and sustainable music programs, which too often lose or lack funding to begin with.

Jug-band music is especially conducive to sustainable education not only because of its environmentally conscious use of materials, but also its potential to revive an under-documented musical tradition. Jug-band music developed, in part, from situations of economic, social, and racial injustice in African American river communities, whose history should be part of our education as it is essential to our past. Jug-band music, as well as other traditional music, can sustain and develop awareness between culture and environment. Bowers states that using folk traditions in the arts can provide “ways of understanding and experiencing that are not destructive of human and human/nature relationships” (73), later adding references to ecology by stating that such practices “could become an educational model that would connect community, which it now addresses, with environmental renewal” (184). A good resource for using American traditions in education is The Foxfire Approach, which advocates creative and active learning that emphasizes the equality of teacher and student.

Curriculum can seamlessly expand beyond folk tradition by connecting to other musical traditions, which similarly utilize household materials but produce dramatically different outcomes. For example, an educator can connect folk music to contemporary classical music by comparing and contrasting jug-band music with a piece such as John Cage’s Living Room Music. Cage’s composition uses instruments constructed from household items and found objects (Jager, 73). Students can tangibly explore and discuss these similar approaches, which arose from very different populations. An advanced level of understanding connections between music, culture, and tradition can begin to develop through students’ simple engagement with these complex cultural comparisons.

Along with teaching historical and cultural significances, (NAfME 8,9) jug-band music addresses concepts and practices of improvisation, an essential element of its style (NAfME, 3), as well as develops listening and analyzation skills. (NAfME 6) Primarily an oral tradition, jug-band music develops ear training, rhythm, and comprehension of form. Adapting household items and other accessible material into traditional musical instruments is creative, resourceful, and can encourage behaviors of recycling, reusing, and general environmental sustainability.

Recycled Orchestra

Top-level classical instruments are handmade; therefore, constructing homemade instruments is a logical approach to incorporating classical music’s tradition and history. Projects can range in difficulty and sophistication depending on the time frame and skill level of the students. Although your students may be manipulating discarded wood, metal hubcaps, broken toys, glass, or plastic pipes instead of pernambucco, ivory, mother of pearl, or animal gut, skills from the masters of instrument making can nonetheless be explored (NAfME, 8). Hands on experience with the instrument construction process can develop a respect and reverence for the art of instrument making, leading to better care and appreciation for students’ own current or future instruments. 

The “Landfill Harmonic” in Cateura, Paraguay, is a current example of a successful recycled orchestra. Nicolas Gomez, the local garbage picker, builds instruments out of materials such as water pipes, bottle caps, silverware, and recycled wood.

"The children of Cateura, live in one of the poorest slums in Latin America. Just outside Asuncion, Paraguay, Cateura is the city’s trash dump. It is built on a landfill. Here, people live in a sea of garbage. […] There was no money for real instruments so together they started to make instruments from trash - violins and cellos from oil drums, flutes from water pipes and spoons, guitars from packing crates." (Landfill Harmonic)

Such ensembles address problems of poverty and waste pollution by teaching values of environmental sustainability, promoting equal education, and becoming economically sustainable.

Addressing issues of material misuse in traditional classical instrument building in an article on the environmental impacts of high quality violin wood, Aaron S. Allen (2012) observes, “In unwitting ways, musical cultures have contributed to the destruction of the ecosystems on which they depend.” Rymer (2004) and Dudley (2011) address similar issues concerning professional instrument materials that are damaging delicate ecosystems. Teaching young musicians their responsibility to the environment can help lead to increased awareness of current eco-musical issues as well as affect their general long-term environmental consciousness.

While I am not advocating using recycled instruments instead of store bought ones, making instruments can supplement and enrich the traditional orchestral experience. Students can practice performance skills (NAfME, 5) in a group as well as individually (NAfME, 2) when allowed the freedom to take home self-made instruments without fear of liability. As a result, instrument ownership can become more intimate and meaningful. Nancy Barry, a professor of music education, discusses homemade instruments in school music classes. “As far as the quality of sound,” Barry says, I don't have any delusions of using homemade instruments for real instruments.” But Barry cites other reasons for making instruments. “Sometimes we have students who abuse and misuse instruments. This project can enhance respect for classroom instruments.”

Also, Barry observes: "In some situations, there's no budget to purchase $200 or $300 Orff xylophones. And even if I had unlimited resources for good quality instruments, I would explore the science of sound by having students create their own instruments. There's so much we can reap." (Barry 1996, 40)

Programs such as Bash the Trash offer workshops for music teachers to incorporate homemade instruments into their curricula. These programs teach music making in relation to sound science, composition, and improvisation through building and playing homemade and recycled instruments.

Experimental Instrument Ensemble

Inventing instruments constructs a platform for inventing music. Students are given complete creative freedom when allowed unlimited flexibility of construction, sound, and performance. By lifting perceptions of “correct” musical sound and erasing possible comparisons to previous compositions, children can flourish by using their innate and uninhibited creativity. Music educator John Paynter states, “Musical instruments themselves inspire musical ideas, not only by the quality of the sounds they produce but also by the way they are constructed and played.” Actively contributing to instrument making and composition, students will preserve traditions as well as develop innovations.

Involving students in instrument building and inventing is an extremely engaging and intimate experience. In his introductory material, Coleman discusses this relationship:

"The history of all types of education has proved that children are most interested in those materials of learning that offer the opportunity for manipulation, exploring, experimenting, and creative adventure. In whatever fields the child can do creative work, and can experience the excitement of producing something that is his very own, these are the fields that will hold the greatest charm for him. […] A real intimacy with some kind of instrument is necessary before a child can be free to express musical feeling with his hands. One who builds an instrument for himself is laying the foundation for that intimacy, and for free creative expression in music. The making of the instrument is a building process, but the creative experience of making a melody to play on this instrument follows naturally. There are all degrees of creativity […] True education is not concerned about the finesse or perfection of the child’s first or second production; it is concerned about the direction in which this growth is going."(Coleman 1939)

Breaking boundaries between composer, inventor, builder, and performer furthers musical equity (NAfME, 3,4). An experimental instrument ensemble offers long-term retention, personal involvement, and sincere commitment, which impacts students beyond the classroom, and creates a sustainable model of education.

L’Art Pour L’Art, a professional experimental and contemporary music ensemble based outside of Hamburg, Germany, guides children in making their musical fantasies a reality with an open environment where instruction is tailored to individual students’ unique curiosities and natural learning progression. Students often use homemade instruments or alternative sound sources in their compositions. One student placed her ensemble by a creek in the woods, incorporating the natural soundscape, with a horse appointed as conductor. The horse’s mouth was attached to a contact microphone, amplifying various chewing patterns depending on what it was fed, which directed the tempo and rhythm of the piece. Eliminating boundaries forces students to truly define music, sound, composition, and performance in an engaged and advanced way. Experimental instrument ensembles cultivate skills in listening, analyzing, and conceptualizing (NAfME, 6) by posing questions such as ‘what is music?,’ ‘how is a musical composition constructed?,’ ‘what qualifies as a musical instrument?’ etc.

Building electronic instruments both recycles and reuses old and obsolete electronics while combining science and music curricula. An approach called “hardware hacking”, accessibly illustrated by Nicolas Collins, provides a solid introduction and fun projects such as “Transforming a Portable Radio into a Synthesizer” (Collins 2009, 73) or various hackings of old electronic toys into sound makers. Once you begin, the resources and recipes for new musical instruments are endless. 

Call to Reclaim

Lou Harrison reflected on some of the ideas presented here:

"Making an instrument is one of music’s greatest joys. Indeed, to make an instrument is in some strong sense to summon the future. It is, as Robert Duncan has said of composing, “A volition. To seize from the air its forms.” Almost no pleasure is to be compared with the first tones, tests & perfections of an instrument one has just made. Nor are all instruments invented & over with, so to speak. The world is rich with modelsbut innumerable forms, tones & powers await their summons from the mind & hand. Make an instrument --- you will learn more in this way than you can imagine." (In Banek and Scoville 1980.)

Music education should inspire exploration, creativity, and expression, relating to students’ everyday lives as well as other academic disciplines and fields. Making and playing homemade instruments supports creative and comprehensive education, multiple components of sustainability, and core standards of music education. So whether you decide to heat up the soldering iron, flip over an old washtub, or salvage leftover veggies, you’ll find that music is everywhere.

Works Cited

Allen, Aaron. 2012. “‘Fatto di Fiemme’: Stradivari’s Violins and the Musical Trees of the Paneveggio,” in Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature, 1660-1830,

eds. Laura Auricchio, Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, and Giulia Pacini, 301-315. Oxford: SVEC.

Banek, Reinhold, and Jon Scoville. 1980. Sound Designs: A Handbook of Musical Instrument Building. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press.

Barry, Nancy H. and Dianne Hope. 1996. “Students Make Instruments.” Teaching Music IV/2 (October): 40.

Bowers, C. A. 1995. Educating for an Ecologica"y Sustainable Culture: Rethinking Moral Education, Creativity, Inte"igence, and Other Modern Orthodoxies. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Coleman, Satis N. 1939. Creative Music in the Home: Music, Stories How to Make Instruments, How to Play Them, and Many Tunes to Play. New York: The John Day Company.

Collins, Nicolas. 2009. Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Dudley, Kathryn Marie. 2011. “Are Guitar Makers an Endangered Species?” The New York Times, October 26.

Fraser, Douglas. “Jugband History: Jug Inspires Jazz and Blues.” The Genuine Jug Band Website (accessed May 2013).

Jaeger, Stefan. 2008. Experimente"e Musik in der Hauptschule: Ausgewählte Ansätze für das Klassenmusizieren. Augsburg: Wissner.

Bash the Trash. “Workshops with Music Connections” (accessed May 2013).

Landfill Harmonic. “Landfill Harmonic: Inspiring dreams one note at a time!” Kickstarter Website (accessed February, 2013).

National Association for Music Education. “National Standards for Music Education” (accessed May 2013).

Paynter, John. 1992. Sound and Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rymer, Russ. 2004. “Saving the Music Tree.” Smithsonian Magazine (April).

Schroeder, Michael. Interview and observation by author, Hamburg, Germany (21 September 2013).

The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. “CSPA Mission Statement” (accessed March 2013).

The Foxfire Fund. “The Foxfire Approach” (accessed May 2013). University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“Strategic Plan 2009-2014” (accessed March 2013).


"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.