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Learning about Acoustics with Build-Your-Own Cigar-Box Guitars, PVC Pipe Didgeridoos

Finan's students with their newly made cigar-box guitars

September 9, 2020

As the fall semester continues at the University of Northern Colorado, many faculty members are finding creative ways to keep students involved virtually.

Don Finan, Ph.D., a professor of Audiology and Speech-Language Sciences at UNC, is doing just that with two of his classes this fall: Musical Acoustics and Health Issues (ASLS 220) and Acoustics of Music (MUS 403), with a total of around 30 students enrolled overall.

These courses involve hands-on projects where students build cigar-box guitars and PVC pipe didgeridoos to learn about acoustics. Because both of these classes are remote this semester, Finan has assembled and sent kits to his students so they can build the instruments at home. He cut and shaped around 40 guitar necks and cigar boxes and drilled over 640 holes in total to make this possible.

Top image: Students show their cigar-box guitars that they made from Finan's kits during a Zoom session.

Finan holding a cigar-box guitar

Above: Finan holds a cigar-box guitar and stands behind materials he prepared and sent to students.

Don Finan“The purpose of the classes is to develop an understanding of acoustics by exploring how musical instruments (including the human voice and auditory system for singing) transform energy into sound,” he said. “This also includes exploring how the energy that underlies sound can lead to damage of the hearing and vocal mechanisms and how we can prevent injury.”

Normally, students would do the majority of the construction; however, Finan prepared the components so that students are only required to assemble the instruments. Students will “explore and experiment with the physical properties of the instruments to discover effects on the sound quality.” 

After students have assembled their instruments, each will demonstrate their cigar-box guitar and didgeridoo by playing them during a live Zoom class session.  

“We’ll have a ‘performance day’ for both of the instruments … hopefully it will sound musical,” Finan said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Finan says he has had to “rethink how to teach this normally ‘hands-on’ course” and has developed ideas for new projects that students can complete remotely.

“This semester, I can’t require students to cut the holes in the cigar boxes, drill the 12 holes in the guitar necks or cut the PVC pipes, as few students would have access to the necessary tools,” Finan said. “The project kits allow students to complete the musical instrument construction in a simplified way, yet they will still be able to customize their own instruments.”

What's in a Kit?

The kits include all of the materials needed to complete the first two projects for the course as well as some materials for later projects.  The kits include:

  • A cigar box
  • A pre-built guitar neck
  • Tuning machines for the neck
  • Wooden bridge and nut for the guitar
  • Three guitar strings
  • A copper ‘slide’ for the guitar
  • Three pieces of PVC pipe for the digeridoo
  • One PVC connector and ‘mouthpiece’ for the didgeridoo
  • A multi-purpose screwdriver
  • Sandpaper
  • Sound-level meter
  • Two sets of earplugs
  • A ruler
  • Necessary screws and washers for assembly

Some materials that were added to the kits
Above: Some of the materials that were added to the kits.

Jackelyn Hamlin holding self-made guitar from previous classJackelyn Hamlin (image at right), who graduated from UNC with her bachelor's in Audiology and Speech-Language Sciences in 2018 as well as with a master's in Gerontology a year later, took Finan's class in-person while an undergraduate at UNC and remembered the building process as "exciting and well worth the build."

"I still have my guitar and love to bring it out and show people," she said. "This experience made me realize that I could build tools that helped me understand certain concepts, such as vibration, acoustics and fine motor skills. Dr. Finan could have taught us these concepts using a PowerPoint, but instead, he let us create something that we could learn from forever; this was one of my favorite projects in my undergraduate program, besides trying to play the didgeridoo (another one of his excellent projects)." 

Deanna MeinkeDeanna Meinke, Ph.D., a professor of Audiology and Speech-Language Sciences at UNC who has co-taught the classes with Finan in previous semesters, said, Finan’s commitment to personally compiling the kits for students “demonstrates an instructor’s commitment to teaching and giving his students the very best learning experience regardless of a pandemic.”

“It is really quite remarkable that Dr. Finan has been able to – and willing to – adapt this course and maintain some of the hands-on feel of the class,” she said. “I’d definitely emphasize the donation of his free time over the summer to make this successful for his students.”

Hamlin said that the "great professors at UNC" provided her with a environment to learn and encouraged her to ask any and all questions.

"If it wasn't for the great faculty in the Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology Program, then I would have never found what I am most passionate about, which is providing SLP services to older adults with head and neck cancer," she said. "UNC also allowed me to grow as a health professional and ultimately prepared me for graduate school." 

—Written by Katie Corder

Images of materials in kits, Zoom meeting provided by Finan.

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