The listening devices on these pages are a great way of getting people to explore hearing. By playing with the ambient sound, they create a starting point for talking about sound and hearing. They’re especially useful for science shows and fairs where it’s really noisy and so other acoustic demos are difficult to do. They’re also great for selfies. Below we also link from the science in the activities, to how the understanding is used by acoustical and audio engineers in their jobs.

Click the links to find full instructions for making the devices. They also include videos so you can hear the devices in action.

  • Confusaphone. Mucks about with how we localise sounds; includes a lesson starter from Teachers TV.
  • The Sea Shell. These looks unpromising, but the sound through them is amazing.
  • Funnelling sound. Give yourself giant ears to hear better.
  • Swanee Whistle (slide whistle). Play a ‘tune’ with the ambient sound.
  • Musical pipes. Using tone holes to change the sound (like a recorder).

Links to real jobs in acoustics

The confusaphone shows the importance of having two ears for locating sound, something that is exploited in virtual reality and new audio technologies.

Understanding how the brain locates sound is important to create believable immersive sound. I worked with Bjork on a binaural installation at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The audio would change as the listener’s moved around, allowing them to discover binaural sounds like hidden Icelandic volcanos and geysers.

Creative Audio Technologist, Tony Churnside

Real more about Tony Churnside, who looks after the technology that drives BBC radio stations and creates innovative radio programmes using new audio technologies.

When we asked acoustical engineers about what they they did in their job, many emphasised the importance of listening as an important skill alongside being able to apply science and maths. This is what Jose Maria Marin from Amazon Alexa Automotive wrote was a key skill in his job,

“Know how to listen. Listening is a sound skill for which humans are very well equipped for, but we often forget to do it carefully enough. As an acoustician, you tend to become good at critical listening, which is extremely helpful as a technical tool, but also becomes very handy in crucial conversations.”

Jose Maria Marin

This exploration of listening also naturally leads to a discussion about protecting your ears from damage. (BTW Make sure people don’t shout into the devices.)

“As a scientist researching hearing loss in workplaces I use the decibel every day, because the risk to hearing is about how loud a sound is (measured using decibels) and how long you’re exposed to it.”

Emma Shanks, Health and Safety Executive

Read more about Emma Shanks and her work protecting hearing in workplaces. The treatment for most common forms of hearing loss are hearing aids, here is a Q&A with Magnus Woodgate who is a software engineer at a hearing aid company.

Other listening devices

You can also take inspiration from some of the listening devices that the military experimented with early in the 20th century to create your own designs!

French aircraft acoustic locator: Illustrated London News

Health and safety

Make sure people don’t shout into the devices.


Outreach event at school for the hearing impaired | Acoustical Society of America- Penn State Chapter · August 15, 2019 at 3:24 pm

[…] and cello while discussing string instrument design and mode shapes. They also got to try out confusaphones to show how much we rely on our hearing to localize our surroundings. The chapter had a great time […]

PSU ASA at Grange Fair 2019 – Ask a Scientist | Acoustical Society of America- Penn State Chapter · September 6, 2019 at 9:30 pm

[…] was excited to interface with a lot of kids & adults from the local area. We showed off the Confusaphones again, as well as demonstrated and explained the basic concepts behind Active Noise Cancellation […]

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