Skip Discover Education Main Navigation
Skip Discover Education Main Navigation

Home> Teachers> Free Lesson Plans> The Phenomenon Of Sound: Waves

The Phenomenon Of Sound: WavesThe-Phenomenon-Of-Sound-Waves

  • Subject: Physical Science
  • |
  • Grade(s): K-5
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will
1. understand that sound is a form of energy that travels in waves referred to as compressional waves
2. understand that sound waves can travel through different mediums, including solids, liquids, and gases
3. understand and observe that sound waves travel in a given direction until an outside force or object gets in the way of its motion and reflects it
4. observe a variety of sound waves in lab stations and record their observations in a wave booklet


For this lesson, you will need:
A few paper clips
Tuning fork
Basin of water
Rubber band strung between two pegs or nails
Metal fork and spoon
Steel yardstick or ruler
Musical instruments or a musical tape, record, or CD
A slinky
A set of glasses and a spoon for each group of students
Six copies of theSound Waves Seen activity sheetfor each student.


1. Note: This lesson involves students working with a variety of lab stations. Be sure to prepare these stations before beginning the lesson. See number 7 below for a description of the lab activities.
Prior to this activity, students should understand that sound is a form of energy that travels in invisible waves. They should understand what a vibration and a medium are. They should understand that when a vibration travels through the air and into the ear canal it vibrates the eardrum, and they should understand that the vibration of vocal chords creates our voice.
Tell students that through some in-class experiments they are going to learn about sound as a form of energy and how that energy travels. Begin the lesson by introducing a short piece of recorded music to the class, either from a tape, record, or CD.
2. After a few minutes, ask students to explain what they know about the sounds they have heard. How does sound get from its source (a stereo, voice, etc.) to our ears? Students may say that sound moves or jumps. Ask students to brainstorm different sounds and what happens to create those sounds. For examples, a throat vibrating creates a voice.
3. Work with students to create a KWL chart, a three-column list of what the students think they Know about a topic, what they Wonder about the topic, and a final column to be completed at the end of the lesson on what they have Learned about the topic. Accept all student ideas at this time and resist the temptation to explain or correct their ideas.
4. After filling in what students know about sound under the Know column, ask them to come up with questions about sound. Record those questions in the Wonder column of your chart. Explain to students that in the next two class periods they will be looking for the answers to some of these questions. You may want to add some questions in this column that relate to the lab activities. For example: Can sound travel in water? Can sound travel through solids? Can we always see things vibrate when we hear something? What do sound waves look like?
5. Explain to students that they will be looking at how sound waves travel through different objects and mediums at six lab stations. As they explore the sound waves created at the different stations, students will create a booklet of what they discover.
6. Pass out six "Sound Waves Seen" activity sheets to each student, one for each lab station. At the top of each observation sheet, there is a space for students to draw a diagram of the lab station activity. Explain that after the lab, these pages will be compiled into student booklets on waves. Students should illustrate the materials used in each lab activity and label them. Under the diagram, students should describe what is observed as they perform the lab by answering the following questions for each lab activity:
  • What do you see?
  • What do you hear?
  • What is the source of the vibration?
  • What type of medium is the wave traveling through?
  • In what direction does the wave appear to travel?
  • What happens to the medium as the wave travels? (i.e., paper clips bounce, fingers vibrate when touching skin near vocal chords, etc.)
7. Next, walk through one lab activity with the class and model how to fill out the observation sheets. Tell students that all waves in these labs have a vibrating source that creates the wave. Also, emphasize that a vibrating source is needed for all sound waves. Keep activity cards at each lab station that clearly define student procedures for each lab:
Lab Station #1: Drum with paper clips on the top.(This can be made with wrapping paper over a coffee can if you don't have a real drum available.) Students should tap on the drum and observe what happens to the paper clips.
  • Students should tap on the drum. What do you see? What do you hear?
Lab Station #2: Touch side of your throat and say ahh.
  • What do you feel as you say ahh? What do you hear?
Lab Station #3: Tuning fork in water.
  • Gently strike the tuning fork on the pad and then place it in the water. Describe what you observe. What do you see? What do you hear?
Lab Station #4: Rubber band strung between two pegs or nails.
  • Pluck the rubber band. What do you see? What do you hear?
Lab Station #5: Strike a fork with another utensil and bring it close to the ear.
  • What do you hear? What do you see?
Lab Station #6: Steel yardstick or ruler on edge of a table.
  • Hold one end of the ruler firmly against the top of the table. Snap the other end. What do you see? What do you hear?
8. Now divide the class into small groups and have them rotate through each of the lab stations, completing an observation sheet at each station. Allow 10 to 15 minutes for each lab activity. Make sure students clean up the materials at each station so that each group will be able to set up the materials appropriately.
9. Gather students around the KWL chart to discuss student observations. Rely on some of the questions brainstormed under the Wonder column as a starting point. These are some additional points and questions the class should discuss:
  • What were the variety of mediums through which the waves traveled (solids, liquids, and gases)? Explain to students that mediums are required to carry sound waves.
  • Can sound exist in space outside of the space shuttle? Explain that sound needs a medium, but space is a vacuum with no solids, liquids, or gases for sound waves to travel through or vibrate in.
  • Which waves could you hear in the lab and which could you not?
  • Where did the waves travel? Explain that all the waves continued to move outward and would have continued in this manner unless they hit an object of a different density, especially a solid. The water in the pan hit the edges of the pan and bounced back. Elicit students' ideas about real-world examples of this—for example, echoes.
  • What do you think a sound wave would look like if we could see it? Have student volunteers come up to the board to illustrate. Then demonstrate that a sound wave looks like a slinky being pushed back and forth. Explain to students that sound waves are also called compressional waves because they have compressional sections and sections that are more spread out.
10. End the lesson by returning to the KWL chart. As a class, have students explain what they have learned about waves in the third column. Look at the first column. Did they make changes in what they initially knew about waves? Look at the second column. Which of their questions were answered? Which ones remain for another time?
11. Finally, have students bind their activity sheet together to form an activity booklet on sound waves.

Back to Top


Students can still perform each of the lab activities, but have them compare what they learn about sound waves to what they have learned about light waves. Have students in groups create concept maps comparing the two types of waves. Groups can present diagrams to the class and demonstrate their understanding of the two types of waves by showing the class how to "read" their map. Maps should be colorful and creative and contain the following concepts and information about each type of wave in an organized format:
  1. Transverse waves carry light energy, do not require a medium through which to travel, and can travel through space or in a vacuum. Transverse waves on Earth can move through any medium. When transverse waves do travel through a medium, that medium will move at right angles to the direction the wave is traveling. Transverse waves carry different types of light energy, found in the electromagnetic spectrum, and they travel faster than the speed of sound.
    Students should also include a labeled diagram of a transverse wave showing a crest, a trough, amplitude, rest position, and wavelength.
  2. Compressional waves carry sound energy and require a medium through which to travel. Matter vibrates in the same direction as the wave is traveling, and waves travel slower than light or transverse waves.
    Students should also include a labeled diagram of a compressional wave that shows compression, rarefraction, and wavelength.

Back to Top

Discussion Questions

1. Hypothesize what happens to sound waves when they reach a wall or other solid, flat object.
2. If sound can't travel in space, hypothesize what other modes of communication astronauts can use when they are outside the space shuttle?
3. Explain why, based on the behavior of sound waves, a classroom with a tile floor is louder than a library that is carpeted.
4. How does sound travel when you have a conversation with your friends?
5. Think about what it is like to hear things under water. Debate whether sound travels better in liquids (like water), gases (air), or solids (like putting your head down on a desk and having someone slam a book down on the surface)?
6. Discuss why you see lightning before you hear thunder during storms.

Back to Top


Observe students' booklets on sound waves and assess their work using this three-point rubric:
  • For a score of 3: Students must answer all questions on their observation sheets accurately and thoroughly; diagrams must accurately demonstrate how sound traveled in each activity and be labeled according to directions.
  • For a score of 2: Students must attempt to answer all questions with minor misunderstandings; diagrams are complete with minor errors.
  • For a score of 1: Students did not attempt to answer all questions, and some answers show major misunderstandings or are not complete; students did not follow directions to label diagrams; and students have made no attempt to show how sound travels or one which demonstrates little understanding of how sound travels.

Back to Top


Perfect Pitch
Have students explore pitches by creating their own homemade instruments. Students can simply fill a set of glasses with different amounts of water. Eight glasses with different levels is sufficient for creating an octave of eight notes. After they have done this, strike each glass. Do they all make a note of the same pitch? If not, can they arrange the amount of water in the glasses in such a way as to play a simple tune? They should record the arrangement of the glasses and amounts of water in each glass on paper and add this to their sound notebook. Have students share their tunes and then discuss what they learned from this activity. Explain that the differences in pitch were a result of different heights of columns of air above the water.

Back to Top

Suggested Readings

Sound: More Than What You Hear
Christopher F. Lampton. Enslow, 1992.
This book explores what sound is, how we perceive it, how it's recorded, and how it's used to transmit information. The natural sonar of bats and dolphins and the man-made sonar used underwater by the Navy are discussed in one section.

How Bats "See" in the Dark
Malcolm Penny. Benchmark Books, 1997.
Here, readers will find a brief but thorough explanation of how bats use ultrasonic echolocation to fly safely and locate food in the dark. Many photographs and drawings illustrate the way that bats, as well as other animals and humans using technology, use sound to "see" their world.

Lockheed SR-71: The Mach 3 Blackbird
Paul F. Crickmore. Reed International Books, 1997.
This photo-essay about the SR-71 Blackbird includes a pictographic tour of the plane to explain its capabilities, as well as a demonstration of the ground and air support it requires to fly its missions. The reader can also witness an entire training flight from the pilot's suiting up, through the mission itself, to the plane's return the earth.

Back to Top


FamilyPlay Indoor Activities: Sound Machine
This is a great site filled with learning activities for kids. This particular activity shows kids how different pitches can influence light patterns in a homemade experiment.

Center for Sound Communication
This is the Web site for CSC, an organization that specializes in sound communication and hearing in animals. Find out how your favorite animal communicates!

Back to Top


Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    acoustic
Definition: The total effect of sound, and the ability of an enclosed space, such as an auditorium, to reflect sound waves to produce distinct hearing.
Context: The acoustics in the building were superb, making it an ideal place for a concert.

speaker    compressional wave
Definition: A wave that carries sound energy.
Context: Compressional waves need a medium to travel.

speaker    echo
Definition: The repeating of a sound caused by reflection of sound waves off a surface.
Context: When they shouted into the canyon, their voices echoed back up to them from the rocks.

speaker    energy
Definition: The ability to perform work.
Context: The sun can be a powerful source of energy.

speaker    medium
Definition: A material (solid, liquid, or gas) through which a wave travels.
Context: Liquid mediums, like water, are good conductors of sound.

speaker    sound
Definition: Energy traveling away from a vibrating object.
Context: He was aware of a low sound, a hum, coming from the electric generator.

speaker    vibrate
Definition: To move rapidly back and forth.
Context: The string vibrated after being plucked.

speaker    wave
Definition: A transfer of energy as it travels away from the energy source.
Context: She threw a rock into the water, causing a ripple of waves to spread outward in all directions.

Back to Top


This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: Science
Understands motion and the principles that explain it.
Knows that vibrations (e.g., sounds, and earthquakes) move at different speeds in different materials, have different wavelengths, and set up wavelike disturbances that spread away from the source.
Benchmark: Knows that an object that is not being subjected to a force will continue to move at a constant speed and in a straight line.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Science
Understands motion and the principles that explain it.
Knows that waves (e.g., sound, seismic, water, light) have energy and can transfer energy when they interact with matter.

Back to Top


Joyce Nelson Bailey, master science teacher, nature lover, and freelance science writer.
Tracy Coulson, middle school special education teacher, Fairfax County Schools, Virginia.

Back to Top