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Rainsticks

In this activity, students discover how to simulate the sound of rain by making an ancient instrument called a rainstick.

Rainsticks are thought to originate in Latin America and the southern United States. People made them by drying a cactus (which is naturally hollow), and driving the needles into the cactus to smooth off its surface. The hollow cactus tube was then filled with beans or pebbles to simulate the noise of rain, and the ends were sealed.

In movies, sounds are often simulated since the real source is not available or are difficult to record "live," such as footsteps and falling rain.

"Foley artists" are people whose job is to make sure that the sounds in a movie are convincing. The Foley technique is named after Jack Foley, a sound editor for Universal Studios. Foleying is an excellent means of supplying the subtle sounds that production microphones often miss. The rustling of clothing, a squeak of a saddle when a rider mounts his horse, or the sound of falling rain give scenes a touch of realism.

Objectives

  • Describe the properties of sound.

Materials

  • Per Student:
    cardboard tube from gift wrap or paper towel roll
    6 strips of thin cardboard (e.g. cereal box)
    Two small pieces of paper to fit over the ends of the tube
    tape
    ¼ cup of rice
    2 tbsp of seeds, dried peas, popcorn, or lentils
    decorations (ribbons, markers, stickers)

Key Questions

  • What sound does the rainstick make when you turn it over?
  • What is happening inside the rainstick to create this sound?
  • What other types of materials could you put in the rainstick to make this noise?

What To Do

  1. Wrap one piece of paper over the end of the tube, folding the sides down and taping it firmly.
  2. Cut cardboard strips narrower than the tube (about 2.5 cm wide should work). Fold them back and forth like a fan.
  3. Insert the strips into the tube. The first one should fall to the bottom of the tube. Keep adding strips until they reach the top of the tube.
  4. Pour in ¼ cup of rice and 2 tbsp of seeds. Place the other circle of paper over the open end of the tube and tape in place.
  5. Decorate the tube with markers, paints, stickers, ribbon, etc.
  6. Tip the rain stick over and listen.

Extensions

  • Experiment with different amounts and types of seeds and rice. Which materials make the most noise? Which sound most like falling rain?
  • What is the largest size of object you can use inside a rainstick?
  • Use the rainstick as a percussion instrument, tapping and shaking the stick to a rhythm.