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An Open Kit for Making Rhythms

An Open Kit for Making Rhythms
An Open Kit for Making Rhythms

In this activity, learners tinker with a set of open-ended materials and mechanisms to create sound patterns. By adding and taking away pegs from a motorized pinwheel and arranging instruments on a magnetic surface that keeps everything precisely in place, participants create regular beats and unusual patterns. Unique soundscapes can be built with this open-ended set of materials either by an individual taking ownership over the workspace or a group collaborating and improvising together.   


What do we mean by an open kit?

We call this playful experience a kit because it relies on a durable set of parts that learners can combine in open-ended ways to explore physical phenomena. The kit offers easy starting points and can be shared with learners with different levels of facilitation, from a standalone experience to a fully facilitated activity. It’s open in that we hope you build your own set, adapt it to your setting, and add new components and ideas. 


What kind of tinkering does this support?

We designed this activity and the material set to support certain types of tinkering and engagement: 

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Multiple pathways
The activity makes use of loose parts like pegs, pinwheels, and sound makers that can be arranged in an endless number of ways based on the learners' own ideas and questions. The immediate feedback learners get from materials when they try something new encourages them to quickly iterate and investigate many possibilities.

Focus on an artistic process
There’s no right or wrong way to combine the elements and with trial and error, new patterns and strategies for striking objects can emerge. There’s room for collaboration and learners can improvise together or conduct an intentional soundscape. 

Familiar materials as an invitation or starting point
Everyone has tried playing instruments or using objects to make sounds. The combination of familiar objects with a modular system like the magnetic pieces and motor gives learners the possibility to go beyond their understanding of both music and mechanisms. 



Make the Materials Set

To try out this activity with a group of learners or for yourself, start with creating a set of materials that provide easy entry points into the exploration and can be used by participants over and over again. This set of materials is modular and designed to be expanded and used with other sound makers and everyday objects.

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Magnetic surface to precisely keep the blocks in place.

Pinwheel blocks that are motorized so that they spin and can be customized with magnetic pegs. 

• Mallet blocks to strike different sound elements.  

Sound blocks like xylophone bars and rhythm blocks. 

Height adjusters to adjust the height of elements. 

Welcoming signage that invites learners to explore. 


replace this textMagnetic Surface

A magnetic metal table cover and small magnets at the bottom of each sound block keeps everything in the right place when learners compose the elements together. A baking tray can be used as a magnetic surface to work on.  

replace this textMotorized Customizable Pinwheel Blocks 

The spinning pinwheel provides the movement to trigger the different sound blocks. The wheel runs quietly at a slow, consistent speed, a motor together with a LiPo battery and an on/off switch are all housed in a 2” x 2” hollowed out wooden stand. To provide stability, the stand is mounted on a 2.5” x 4.75” base with magnets glued to the underside. 

Each pinwheel is 4.5” in diameter with 8 magnets embedded around the perimeter. The magnets make it easy to attach and remove magnetic pegs (wooden dowels or Mangetix toy parts) in order to create a custom pattern to make different rhythms.

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Mallet Block 

Wooden mallets are the actuators for various sound blocks like xylophone bars, drums, or tin cans. The mallets are held on top of a 3” tall wooden stand (with magnets at the bottom), in a rubber seal material. The rubber allows the mallet to gently spring back so objects aren’t dulled. 

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Sound Blocks

A variety of instruments and found objects with different timbre make for a good set of sound blocks. Soft sounds that blend well together work well. Try using: 

•  Xylophone bars and percussion blocks
•  Everyday objects used in new ways, like tin cans or water bottles. 
•  Cuckoo blocks: the pinwheel slightly lifts a small bellows that blows air into a cuckoo whistle. These sounds add a melodic quality to the percussive blocks that work with mallets. 

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Height Adjusters

This ½” or 1” flat wooden block with magnets is needed to adjust the height of the mallet blocks so they fit different soundmakers.

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Welcoming Signage

We like to invite learners into the activity with signage that prompts them to play with sound and rhythm. As a quick way to get started and understand the interaction, the sign indicates that you can move the pegs to make a pattern. It also points out the switch for the motor as another key component. 


Tips and Essential Ingredients

  • Room for collaboration: setting up a table where a group of 6 learners share 2 pinwheel blocks fosters collaborative building and composing.
  • The magnet system helps to make motions reliable and precise and increases the rhythmic qualities of the sounds. Use epoxy to glue magnets to the wooden pieces or screw magnetic washers into the wood. 
  • The quality of the sounds matters. Choose soft sounds that blend well together. 




Take it Further

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Add Your Own Rhythm Block

Adding bells and shakers on a pivoting mechanism (like the cuckoo bellows) can add a new sound to the set. Musical instruments like tongue drums, tambourines, and even zither strings can add to the sound spectrum  

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Try a Related Activity

For more great explorations of sound, try sound harvesting and exploring tools for collecting sound

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Explore Artist Connections

Take a look (and listen) at the work of experimental music group O-Grivo. Nelson Soares and Marcos Moreira, the two people who make up O Grivo build, repair, and play creative musical instruments. Wintergatan is a Swedish folktronica group that uses unconventional instruments. Check out their Marble Machine musical instrument for more inspiration! 

This activity was co-developed with Wonderful Idea Co. and Vulpestruments