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Palm Pipes

Science Snack
Palm Pipes
Make music that is entirely out of hand.
Palm Pipes
Make music that is entirely out of hand.

If you bang the open end of a piece of PVC pipe against the palm of your hand, you’ll make a musical sound. The frequency, or pitch, of the tone depends on the length of the pipe. Based on this simple but significant fact, you can make instruments for your own pipe band. You’ll find it surprisingly easy to play some simple songs.

Tools and Materials
  • About 6 1/2 feet (2 meters) of 1/2-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe
  • Metric measuring tape, meter stick, or centimeter ruler
  • PVC cutter (recommended; or, alternatively, you can use a hacksaw and sandpaper)
  • Permanent marker
  • Several partners
  1. Cut a piece of PVC to each of the 15 lengths in the table below (click for a printable image). (If a hacksaw is used, use a piece of sandpaper to smooth any burrs left on the ends of the pipe.)

    Length (cm)Frequency (Hz)Note
  2. Use a marker to label each pipe with the musical note that corresponds to its length. The subscripts in the list refer to the octave of the note. (The first note in the list, F1, is the F above middle C.)
  3. Gather your friends, and put on a show!
To Do and Notice

Play the songs below by gathering a group of people, distributing one pipe to each person, and having each player sound his or her pipe at the right time. Before you begin, each person should practice making a good tone by holding the pipe vertically with one hand and banging the bottom end into the palm of the other hand (see animation below). It’s important not to cover the top of the pipe.

Playing a song is easiest if there’s one player per note, but if you have too few people, you can have one or more players take responsibility for two pipes. If you do this, however, make sure a person doesn’t have to sound two different notes in a row. If you have many more people than there are notes in a song, you can use multiple pipes of the same length, or you can have some players play pipes that are an octave lower than the ones called for. For example, when the F2 pipe for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is being played, another player can play the F1 pipe at the same time.

Click to enlarge the sheet music below for some familiar songs or make up your own. You may find it helpful to have one person act as a conductor. A little practice will help a lot. Have fun!

What's Going On?

When you slap the open end of a pipe onto the palm of your hand, a compression pulse travels upward (a), reflects from the open end as an expansion, and moves back down to your hand (b). The expansion reflects from your hand, travels back up the pipe a second time (c), and comes back to your hand as a compression (d). The process then repeats (e). Click to enlarge the diagram below.

The molecules that have been squeezed together, in turn, squeeze the molecules next to them. Those molecules, in turn, squeeze the molecules next to them, and so on. In a sort of domino effect, the pulse of compression (high-pressure air) travels up the tube.

When the pulse of compression reaches the top of the tube (see b in the diagram above), it expands outward into the air around the tube. In the process, some air molecules overshoot the end of the tube, producing a region of expansion (low-pressure air) at the top. Air molecules just below the area of expansion rush upward to fill it, creating a pulse of expansion that travels back down the tube. When this pulse reaches the bottom, it reflects off your palm and travels back up the tube as another pulse of expansion (see c in the diagram above). When it reaches the top, some air from outside the tube rushes into the low-pressure area, creating an area of compression, which travels as another pulse back down the tube (see d in the diagram above).

When this pulse of compression reaches the palm of your hand (see e in the diagram above), it reflects, and at this point, the whole process repeats itself.

A pulse that starts at your palm as a compression makes four complete transits of the tube, traveling up as a compression, down as an expansion, up as an expansion, and down as a compression before one whole cycle is completed. This four-part cycle corresponds to one wavelength of a sound, or a single vibration. A series of these repeated cycles is the source of the sound you hear when you “play” one of the pipes.

The length of the tube affects the note the tube produces. Because the speed of sound is the same in all the tubes, the length of the tube has a direct effect on the time it takes for a compression/expansion pulse to make its four transits of the tube. The longer it takes for a pulse to complete its cycle and start over again, the fewer the cycles, or vibrations, per second. The fewer the vibrations per second, the lower the frequency of the sound, and the lower the musical note. Thus, long tubes produce lower notes, and short tubes produce higher notes.

Instruments with long tubes, such as bass saxophones, produce lower-frequency notes than instruments with shorter tubes. Although modern symphonic instruments may seem quite complex, the basic relationship between long and short tubes is the same as exists for the simple Palm Pipes in this Snack.

Palm Pipes are part of a larger family of instruments known as idiophones, which includes rattles, bells, gongs, and xylophones, among others.

Going Further

Two Voices

If you want to really have some fun, have one group of players play the melody, and another play the harmony to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (click to enlarge the music below).


This activity was developed by Gene Easter and Bill Reitz. Art Fortgang first brought it to our attention.

Hopkin, Bart. Musical Instrument Design. Tucson, Arizona, See Sharp Press, 1996. An invaluable reference for designing and experimenting with homemade musical instruments.