ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Percussion Instruments and Pitch

What makes percussion instruments sound higher or lower? Learn about the largest family of musical instruments


Key Staff

  • classroom teacher
  • assistance of music teacher could be helpful

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique, Applying Vocabulary


This lesson introduces students to the instruments of the percussion family. Students learn the types and parts of percussion instruments and then create a percussion instrument. They will make predictions and explore how pitch changes based on the size of the air column.

Learning Objectives

  • Design investigations that determine what factors affect the pitch of percussion instruments
  • Explore the factors that determine pitch fluctuation of percussion instruments
  • Create and record a meaningful hypothesis as well as accurate data sets reflecting knowledge gained through their investigation

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Large or Small Group Instruction
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Hands-On Learning
  • Guided Listening

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

General understanding of acoustics

General understanding of percussion instruments

  • Percussion instruments
  • Percussion instruments interactive chart with many brief listening examples

Prior Student Knowledge

  • A basic understanding of sound as waves and as energy.
  • Some familiarity with orchestral instruments.
  • Prior experience with science experiments.

Physical Space



  • Cue up listening passage(s).
  • If no sink is available, bring in containers of water.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.



1. Review the members of the percussion instrument family. Distribute the Instrument Families of the Orchestra handout that can be found within the Resource Carousel and review the information in the “Percussion” column.

2. Play instrument listening clips for the percussion family from 'Perfect Pitch'.

Build Knowledge

1. Have students explore the following sites to learn more about percussion instruments:

2. Refer back to the Instrument Families of the Orchestra handout that can be found within the Resource Carousel. As a class, share any information discovered in the course of the research, and review the relevant information in the "Percussion" column of the handout.


1. Review the Scientific Process Guidelines for Percussion and the Vocabulary handouts. The two handouts may be found within the Resource Carousel. Add the following terms to the discussion:

  • Air column: space within the percussion instrument that determines the pitch.
  • Percussion: sounds produced by striking the instrument with a mallet or stick, or striking one instrument against another.

2. Review the process of forming a hypothesis and making a prediction. Explain that you’ll be making glass xylophones and will need to figure out how to create different pitches.

3. Have students individually create a hypothesis relating the length of the air column to the pitch the instrument will create when played. Have students create a prediction based on this hypothesis, using the following format: “If our hypothesis is true, then the pitch created should be higher /lower when the air column is larger/smaller.”

4. Divide students into cooperative groups of four. Assign one student to each of the following duties:

  • Recorder: note taker
  • Group leader: decision maker, dispute settler, teacher liaison
  • Equipment adjuster: makes adjustments to test equipment
  • Tester: performs the tests (mouthpieces should be sanitized before and after use)

5. Test the hypotheses within the groups. Groups should discuss the hypotheses and predictions students have developed individually and choose one of each to use as they proceed with the experiment. Students will work in small groups completing the experiment, following the Procedural Guidelines for Creating Percussion Instruments handout. Have students fill in the data section of the Scientific Process Guidelines for Percussion handout based on their experiments.

6. Monitor student participation and accuracy in achieving results. When necessary, remind students of their roles within the cooperative group. Have students record their experimental data onto their own Scientific Process Guidelines for Percussion handouts. Each student must complete the analysis section and the conclusion section independently.



1. Discuss the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between pitch and the size of the air column? A larger air column creates a lower pitch, since the sound has more room to travel through and is therefore slower.
  • What affects pitch for percussion instruments without air columns? Size is still important for pitch, since a larger surface still gives the sound a longer distance to travel. Point out the increasing size of lower notes on a xylophone.
  • What is the name of the branch of science that we have studied?Acoustics.


Assess your student's work using the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.

Extending the Learning

The Procedural Guidelines for Creating Percussion Instruments includes instructions for making more percussion instruments. Allow students to make their choice of instruments, and play them together.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade K-4 Music Standard 6: Listening to, analyzing, and describing music

Grade K-4 Music Standard 8: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Language Arts Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media


Science Standard 9: Understands the sources and properties of energy

Science Standard 11: Understands the nature of scientific knowledge

Science Standard 12: Understands the nature of scientific inquiry



Leslie A. Thomas
Original Writer

Rebecca Haden

Email Print Share


- +
Email a link to this page
Share This Page



Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center 

with the support of

The US Department of Education 

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee
for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions


You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.