The Physics of KazoosS

Find out how kazoos work, how they might be considered a body modification, and the horrifying way spiders are involved in their history.

Most people know kazoos as the cheap plastic party favors which:

1. Break very quickly, but,

2. Not nearly quickly enough.

To my parent's great relief, as a child I could never use a kazoo. I always thought that it had to be blown into. I would force air into the kazoo until the wax paper stretched over the hole on the top was blown out, balled up, or worn ragged, at which point any effort would become completely useless. Those who are more practiced know that a kazoo needs to be hummed into in order to work. By doing this people are, in a way, making the kazoo an extension of their body.

Vocal cords are not cords, but muscle-controlled folds in the larynx. Their tension and position change the sounds coming out of our mouths. But they don't do it all. The folds are the things making the vibration, but the throat, mouth, nose, head, and even the atmosphere shapes a person's voice. Many people have noticed that, when they're tense, their voice shrinks to nothing. When they 'force' their voice into their nose, it sounds very different than when they force the vibration into their mouth or their throat. Helium changes voices by allowing higher frequencies of vibration to overlap the regular frequencies we make with air. The whole head controls the exact sound of the voice.

When people play the kazoo they are adding another little throat and head for the vibrations to go through. The space in the main tube of the kazoo changes the sounds that are the final product of speech. And then there is the sliver of wax paper that is placed across the hole on top of the kazoo. It acts as another vocal fold, vibrating at certain frequencies. Because it's so light and thin, it vibrates quickly, and massively, amplifying the sound of a person's voice as well as kicking it into very high frequencies. While other instruments require plucking, blowing, hitting, or fiddling, the kazoo is just a suped-up throat to add to your own. It might be considered a body modification.

It's also one of the earlier body modifications. The kazoo, as we know it, was invented in the 1840s, but there are earlier versions of it everywhere. The earliest version is thought to have been made in Africa. A hollowed-out bone would be used for the main body, but the thin vibrating barrier was made of the membrane of the egg sacs of spiders. It's hard to be sure if the spider's tendency to show up in shower drains is payback for our ancestor's massacre of their young, or if the shower-visits are incidental and the actual payback was subjecting the world to the kazoo. Some mysteries can never be solved.

Via Kazoos.com, eHow, Education.com, and Ducksters.