If you take a drinking straw and squash one end flat for about an inch, and then cut the end to a point – as in the illustration (right) – you will be the proud possessor of a drinking straw oboe. Some of you might now be content with simply owning one of these magnificent instruments without playing it. This is perfectly understandable - we all know that leaving musical instruments lying around your apartment makes you a lot more attractive to the opposite sex... However, I advise you to press on, and acquire the heady skills of the proficient drinking straw oboist.
To play the oboe just clamp it between your lips – about half way along the squashed flat bit - and blow hard enough that the breath squeezes past the pressure of your lips and flows through the straw. You should produce a rather annoyed sounding musical note – rather like a wasp trapped in a lightshade.
If you don’t get a noise, try putting the straw either further into or further out of your mouth and adjusting the pressure of your lips. I find that old fashioned waxed paper straws work better than modern plastic ones – plastic ones refuse to lie flat when you squash them – you can get them to work, but by that time you may be hyper-ventilating from all this blowing – but as all musicians know, you have to suffer in the pursuit of art.
‘Hang on Matey’ you might say, ‘isn’t this the Science Friday website? What has all this palaver got to do with science?’
Well – the science is all in how the oboe makes a musical note in the first place. In fact it makes a note in exactly the same way as a real oboe or clarinet does.
Initially the air squeaks past your lips as a series of random puffs – but within a few milliseconds a resonance effect is built up. This resonance is created by pressure waves bouncing up and down the length of the tube. Each time the ‘beak’ at the end of the straw opens to let some more air through, a pressure wave travels down the tube. After that – it’s a bit like the ‘one in, one out’ rule at the door of a busy nightclub. When one pressure wave leaves the open end of the tube a (low pressure) message is passed back along the tube to instruct another puff of air to enter at the beaked end.
So the beak experiences evenly spaced ‘open now’ messages, and the pressure waves leave the straw with a certain, regular, frequency. In shorter tubes there is less distance for the waves to travel – so everything happens more quickly – and a higher frequency note is created.
If the beak opens and closes regularly at between 20 and 20,000 times a second we will hear the stream of pressure waves as a musical note. For a drinking straw oboe the beak will open and close a few hundred times a second – and the actual frequency you create depends on how short you cut it.
Which brings us on to advanced drinking straw oboe playing …
Once you can repeatedly produce a note, there are two ways in which you can play tunes on your oboe:
One way to produce tunes is to cut a couple of finger holes and use it like a normal wind instrument. Your breath will escape from the first hole it comes to – so you make the tube longer or shorter by blocking off the holes one at a time starting from the end near your lips. Unless you are extremely lucky your holes will be completely wrong for the production of anything other than the randomly pitched notes of an extremely distressed piglet.
At this point you will realise the amount of skill and calculation which goes into choosing the position and size of the holes along the length of a real instrument (not only do holes nearer your lips give you higher notes – but small holes give lower notes than big holes).
But don’t worry – your flatmate/partner/mum will be delighted to hear you playing at full volume for hours on end. Which brings us to another science-based aspect of reed instruments – clarinets and oboes (drinking straw or otherwise) can be played much louder than flutes or recorders. In fact the word ‘oboe’ is an English pronunciation of the French word ‘Hautbois’ which means ‘Loudwood’ or ‘Highwood’.
The reason why the clarinet and oboe can be played louder than a flute or recorder is because these latter two instruments depend on a stream of wind fluttering regularly up and down over a sharp edge. When the flutter goes mostly below the edge, a puff of pressure is sent down the tube of the flute (and the frequency of this process is governed by the same resonance system I described earlier for the drinking straw oboe). But these puffs of pressure are not as energetic as the ones produced by closing and the suddenly opening a reed or beak. You can test this for yourself by blowing across the open neck of an empty bottle (I generally use a beer bottle because, for some unfathomable reason, there are always plenty of them in my kitchen). When you get a steady note going you will find that: a. it’s a gentler, smoother sound and b. you cant make it as loud as the straw – even though it’s a bigger instrument.
The other way to produce a tune from a drinking straw oboe is my favourite – because it’s stupid.
Just put the straw in your mouth and produce your note – then, continuing to blow, take a pair of scissors and rapidly cut several short lengths off the straw – remembering to stop well before you begin impromptu nose surgery. In this way you will get peculiar one-off tunes.
The long winter evenings will just fly by …
By John Powell