Dancing Rice: Visualizing how our bodies interpret sound

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It can be challenging for many to visualize what sound looks like. This experiment allows you to see the results of sounds through vibration.

The Dancing Rice experiment teaches children about resonance and how our ears and brains interpret sounds through vibration. Rice vibrates and “dances” as a result of the vibration of music and sounds we play through a speaker.

This is a fun experiment to let your child control. Allowing them to play with the volume and the type of music gives them full control over this experiment.

How to make the Dancing Rice sound science experiment

Supplies you will need

For the Dancing Rice experiment, you’ll need the following:

Here’s a fun kid’s book about the five senses that would be great to accompany this experiment!

Before you start

Our rice flew everywhere as we adjusted the volume, so it’s recommended to do this in a box or large container to control the mess.

Instructions

Here is how to do the Dancing Rice sound science experiment with your toddler:

Step 1: Place your sound source in the container

Unless your phone’s speaker is a step above the rest, it would be best to use a Bluetooth speaker, computer speaker, or stereo to act as your sound source.

Our phone’s speakers typically do not have enough bass to force our container into vibration (more on that later).

Step 2: Loosely wrap the Saran or cling wrap on the top of the container

I made ours loose to provide a little cup for the rice to sit in (just to keep it contained).

If you would like to try to see Chladni figures (again, more on that later), you will want to put the wrap on as taut as possible, without ripping it.

Step 3: Dump rice into small crater in wrap

Start with a little bit at first to see what the results are, then feel free to keep adding more!

Step 4: Turn on music and watch it go!

I recommend not turning the music on too loud at first, since it could cause your rice to jump out of the crater and all over the place. Start with the volume lower and gradually increase it.

Get your preschooler involved: Aside from the volume at the beginning, this is a great step for your child to take the reigns! Have them choose the music (perhaps pre-select some to ensure you’ll see results) and the volume to experiment.

The science behind the Dancing Rice sound science experiment

The Dancing Rice sound science experiment teaches:

  • Vibrations through music and sound
  • Resonance
  • What vibration looks like

How it works

The human ear and brain interpret sound by their vibration that travels through the air, into our ear canals, and sends signals to the brain. In this experiment, we are watching how music causes vibrations in the rice, causing the rice to “dance”.

This is how we interpret music and sounds: through vibration!

Vibrations through music and sound

Sounds produce vibration. Whether you feel that vibration through someone beating on a drum near you or through a song with a good amount of bass, sound vibrations are all around us.

How does sound produce vibration?

Simply put, the source of the sound produces a vibration by being hit, strummed, or disturbed, and it “bumps into” the air molecules surrounding it. Those air molecules bump into other air molecules around, until those air molecules “bump into” us.

That vibration travels inside the ear and eventually creates an electrical signal. Once that signal reaches the brain, we interpret it as the sound that we are familiar with.

Resonance

Resonance is defined as one object vibrating at the same natural frequency as a second object forcing that second object into vibrational motion.

In the Dancing Rice sound experiment, we are seeing our rice vibrate as a result of the music we are playing. As the music runs through different frequencies, it causes the container to begin vibrating as a result. That vibration makes our rice begin to dance.

What vibration looks like

The term “vibration” can be challenging to explain to a child.

This experiment provides a visual explanation of vibration. The music coming from the speaker provides a vibration that causes the container to vibrate. That vibration affects the rice or salt, causing it to move with the music (defined above as “resonance”).

If you have the right conditions and frequencies, you can even make beautiful patterns called Chladni figures.

Back in the 18th century, a scientist named Ernst Chladni discovered that sand on top of a rigid plate would shift into different patterns with different frequencies. When he ran a bow (like a violin bow) on the plate, the sand would move away from where the vibration occurred on the plate and toward the nodes (red dots in the animation below).

Node (physics). (2022, October 27). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Node_(physics)

Here’s a great experiment showing salt at varying frequencies of vibration and the resulting patterns in the salt (Chladni figures):

Questions to ask while experimenting

  • What do you think will happen when we turn the music up higher?
  • What is causing the rice to jump? Do you hear any changes in the music that makes it jump higher?

More physics experiments to try out with your child

FAQ about the Dancing Rice sound science experiment

Why is my rice not dancing?

If you have music playing and are still not seeing any results, it’s likely that you do not have enough sound or bass to produce the vibration needed. In this case, you will have to try using a small speaker that has more bass than say, a phone, that may have less bass.

Why does the salt or rice make patterns when vibrating?

If you are lucky enough to see patterns in your rice or salt, you are seeing Chladni figures! These were discovered by Ernst Chladni in the 18th century. The rice or salt is responding to different frequencies. When one of the many resonance frequencies are hit, the rice will form a pattern specific to that frequency.

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