One Instrument, Many Timbres


Recently, a music teacher named Elisabeth Kirby (@JeffersonSings) tweeted that the song “Ghostbusters” uses 3/4 of the vocal timbres: sing, speak and call! (The fourth is whisper.) I admired Ms. Kirby’s observation, and also felt kind of jealous because I’d never noticed this. Also, it somehow makes it seem more “educational” to use “Ghostbusters” in music class! (Not that we need an excuse. Having fun making music is educational!)

But I digress. In this post I’d like to talk about how one instrument can be played in a variety of ways, and how many of those ways will produce different timbres.

Case in point: maracas, or shakers. If all you do with shakers is shake them, you’re missing a lot of fun – and a lot of sounds.

I discovered this when I began musical improvisation with my classes, ages 18 months through six years old. Before this, I demonstrated different ways to play each instrument. But I realized early in my career that exploration and improvisation are important parts of playing music – even for the youngest learners.

When I put on some recorded music with a solid steady beat and pass out maracas to each child (I usually give one to each child, so that they can manipulate the shaker with both hands), I let them freely explore the instruments for a while. They may shake the instrument right away or keep the beat by playing in some other way. But often, children will want to look at it, touch different parts of it, hold it, and turn it around in their hands. It’s like they want to get to know the instrument.

Even toddlers will usually shake it at some point, gently or forcefully. The little ones will often stare intently at the instrument in their hand(s) as they play.

Older children will try other ways to move the shaker. Interestingly, they almost always play to the beat of the music, instinctively. They’ll tap their open palm with the shaker, rub it on their legs, shake it while holding it upside down.

Once we get to Pre-K, I’ll formalize the improvisation process a bit, so the whole group can learn from each child’s ideas. Often I’ll go around the circle and ask each child to play the shaker in a new way. Then we’ll all try out this technique. I love doing this for so many reasons. It gives each child an instant boost to see the whole class trying out their idea; it’s a great way to teach listening with respect to classmates in a very natural way; it shows children my respect for their creative thinking processes and for their individuality; and, best of all, it stretches and develops each child’s creative thinking.

With Pre-K’s and kinders, we discuss which methods of playing the shakers produced different timbres. Aside from the original timbre of shaking the shaker in the air, we’ve discovered whole new timbres by:

Rolling the shaker on the floor (this picks up the sound of the floor)
Tapping it on our palm (a sharper sound than shaking in the air)
Holding it upright and making the shaker “jump” on the floor (a sharp
sound, and louder than palm-tapping)
Shaking the shaker while holding it by the bell (stopping much of the
vibration and softening the sound), both rightside-up and
upside-down (they sound slightly different) and
Shaking it in a circle (the filler inside shifts continously)

So – we discover that we can change the timbre of virtually any instrument (including the voice) by changing how we play it. When young children realize this, they begin every musical experience with a new perspective on their music-making abilities. It’s wonderful to watch them grow in creativity and in confidence!



3 thoughts on “One Instrument, Many Timbres

  1. Love this! There are indeed many timbres to discover and explore from just a single instrument. I did a similar activity with my second graders last month (they used a hand drum in various ways to add sound effects to a song they learned) and just this week in my preschool and kindergarten classes with rhythm sticks!

    • Hi Danielle! I didn’t see this comment before (long story). Glad you liked it. Carrying my “classroom” in bags (like you do on a cart) does inspire creative ways to help children learn, doesn’t it? 🙂

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