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Lesson Seven: How does sound travel in different environments?


Sound waves need to travel through a medium such as solids, liquids and gases. The sound waves move through each of these mediums by vibrating the molecules in the matter. The molecules in solids are packed very tightly. Liquids are not packed as tightly. And gases are very loosely packed. This enables sound to travel much faster through a solid than a gas. Sound travels about four times faster and farther in water than it does in air. This is why whales can communicate over huge distances in the oceans. Sound waves travel about thirteen times faster in wood than air. They also travel faster on hotter days as the molecules bump into each other more often than when it is cold.

Learning Outcomes:

The students will identify mediums that sounds can travel through and classify them from slowest to fastest. The student will name animals that communicate with sound in different mediums.

Curriculum Alignment:

National Science Education Standards

Content Standard A: Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

  • Understanding about scientific inquiry.
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the senses.

Content Standard B: Physical Science

  • Position and motion of objects
  • Sound is produced by vibrating objects. The pitch of the sound can be varied by changing the rate of vibration.

Content Standard C: Life Science

  • The characteristics of organisms
  • Organisms and their environments

Content Standard E: Science and Technology

  • Abilities of technological design
  • Understanding about science and technology
  • Abilities to distinguish between natural objects and objects made by humans.

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

  • Characteristics and changes in populations
  • Changes in environments
  • Science and technology in local challenges

Content Standard G: History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a human endeavor

NC SCOS Music Curriculum

Goal 8: The learner will understand relationships between music, the other arts, and content areas outside the arts. (National Standard 8)

  • 8.01 Identify similarities and differences in the meanings of common terms used in the other arts.
  • 8.02 Identify ways in which the principles and subject matter of other content areas taught in the school are related to those of music.


One 60 minute period



Ask students if sound would travel better in solids, liquids or gases? Have them discuss examples of times they have heard things through the different mediums. (air, bathtub or swimming pool, ear to a wall) Have students demonstrate the three different states of matter and how a vibration would go through them. Divide students into three groups and quickly model the vibration travelling through the different states of matter. The (gas group-students stand far apart, difficult to pass wiggle or push along; liquid group close together but not super tight, information is passed along better, solids: students are packed tightly and vibration easily goes through all the molecules)


Have students test how sound travels through solids. Have students work with a partner at their seats. One student will tap lightly on his/her desk and the second student will record what they hear. The same person will tap lightly again when the second person lays their ear on the desk. The students should compare the sounds. Try the activity one more time tapping louder and record results. Allow students to explore how sound travels through glass, plastic and metal bowls or containers. Students will transition activities from normal objects in the classroom to musical instruments. The class will explore instruments of various mediums such as metal, wood and string. Metallaphones, vibraslaps, cow bells, melody bells and/or glockenspiels can be used to explore rapid vibrations once struck. Various drums can be used to determine vibrations in wood instruments. Autoharp, guitar or piano can be used to determine the vibrations of struck strings. By using these mediums to determine the tempo (speed) of the vibrations, students will determine which medium allows the instruments sound to travel the loudest and farthest.

Activity Sound Observations
Light taps through air (gas)  
Light taps through table (solid)  
Heavy taps through air (gas)  
Heavy taps through table (solid)  


Discuss how the sound was much louder through the table than through the air. Ask students how they think sound would travel in a liquid? Accept reasonable responses.


Have students listen to sounds of killer whales and humpback whales. Discuss the whales’ habitat. Whales sing in rhyme back and forth to each. Whales sing what they heard then they add to the song. The last 4 beats are the same from whale to whale. Students should make some observations about the sounds with regards to pitch, duration and volume. Replay the sounds so that students have time to represent the sounds pictorially in their science notebooks. After they have created their own representation show the students spectrograms of the whale songs. Students will express that how loud something is depends on how much energy went in to creating the sound. Loud sounds have large amplitudes and carry a lot of energy. Small sounds carry less energy. Engage students in a game of echo singing. Game may consist of words, sounds or syllables. After echo singing the given pattern a student will create an improvisation of the pattern. Play game together as a class. Then break into smaller groups of four to allow each student the opportunity to improvise and change the pattern of song like whales.


Teacher observation/Participation

Data table notebook


Utilize the metal, glass and plastic containers and attach a suction cup with a microphone attached to the side of the container. The microphone will record the sound of the varying containers. Use these recordings to create spectrograms in Raven lite to allow students the opportunity to compare what they hear, feel and see. If a microphone is unavailable a stethoscope may be substituted for listening. Also, express how sound can be heard without ears. Profile deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, who plays barefoot in order to feel the vibrations.

Evelyn Glennie websites

Research what different cultures used to make instruments: ex. The Inuit from the Arctic used Whales bones


  • Solid — certain size and shape
  • Liquid — can flow, be poured, and spilled
  • Gas — matter that has no shape or size of its own
  • Vibrations — mechanical oscillations about an equilibrium point
  • Pitch — the highness or lowness of a tone, as determined by the frequency of vibrations per second
  • Duration – amount of time or a particular time interval
  • Tempo — the speed of music.
  • Sound wave — audible acoustic waves