Great Ways to Explore Timbre With String

Luna-Valerie and uke(Like young children, cats are enthusiastic and relentless scientists.)

For years I’ve used strings (mostly ukulele strings and rubber bands) to help young children explore and understand how pitch (the highness and lowness of sounds) works. I plan to write more on this later, and I’ve shared several of these activities in my latest book, “Exploring the Science of Sounds: 100 Musical Activities for Young Children,” but the basic principle is: longer strings produce lower pitches, and shorter strings produce higher pitches. Kinders and older children are also intrigued by how “cutting” a ukulele string in half (by holding the string down just behind the last fret) produces the same tone exactly one octave higher. (Cool trick! Thanks, Pythagoras!)

But… recently I realized that children can also investigate timbre in fresh and interesting ways by plucking a variety of strings.

I bring a variety of string instruments, both traditional and unconventional, including: 

              Ukulele                              
              Rubber bands of different widths and sizes, wrapped around sturdy small
                         boxes (cardboard, wood, or plastic) with one side open to be the 
                         sound hole
              Guitar, if available
              Regular string. A good way to make it “pluckable” is to make a hole in the
                          bottom of a coffee can with a hammer and nail, then thread a 2′ long 
                          string through it. Knot the end to secure it to the can, then step on the 
                          can, pull the string tight with one hand, and pluck with the other 
                          hand like a one-note “bass.”
              Toy ukulele or guitar  – these have light plastic strings, which along with
                         the plastic soundboard produces a different timbre than a wooden
                         instrument
               If you have a piano available (the old-fashioned kind), children LOVE to 
                         pluck the metal strings inside – like a peek behind the scenes.

piano strings

Before we listen to any of the instruments, I explain to the class that they have strings made of different materials. I ask children to predict if these different strings, when plucked, will make different sounds – timbres – and if so, what each kind of string might sound like.

Then we split into groups of four or five and each group explores the various strings (we pass each instrument around so each group gets a turn with each object and material. Children often find it easier to pluck strings by “pinching” them with thumb and pointer finger.

Sometimes children will go off on their own tangents, plucking two or more types of string together, plucking with different fingers or all their fingers at once, and so on. This is a good thing! Inquiry, curiosity, creativity, all that good stuff. Encourage them to share their explorations and results with the whole group.

When each group is done, ask them questions about each timbre they heard, such as:
Did you hear a sound?
How would you describe the sound? Smooth or rough? Clear or indistinct?                        Twangy? Scratchy? Soft or loud? A musical sound or unpitched?
Did you see the string vibrate? (Most of these strings do vibrate visibly.)
Did the sound change if you plucked the string in a different way?

Children may describe sounds in unconventional ways, saying things sound like”monsters,” “someone sad,” “a bouncy sound.” That’s fine. As your class continues exploring sounds, you’ll naturally include science (and music) vocabulary as these words become necessary. For instance, a child may say, “The sound stayed for a long time.” That’s when you can say, “Yes, it did. It was a very resonant sound.”

These kinds of explorations encourage many kinds of learning. Children engage with various instruments and materials in novel ways; they discover science concepts (for instance, here they find that more forceful plucking produces a louder sound), and they learn to collaborate and share information. And all in a playful and relaxed setting, where they feel free to construct their own learning.

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