Timbre (pronounced “tam-ber”) is the distinctive quality of a sound. Just as we recognize the importance of developing a large spoken vocabulary, it is important for us to recognize the importance of developing a similar vocabulary for sounds. This will help children tune in to subtle distinctions in both music and speech. Even at the earliest age, a baby responds to the voice of his mother differently than any other voice. A toddler actively teaches herself about what sounds like what as she takes a wooden spoon and taps it on anything and everything she can find. A child learns to recognize the difference between an egg shaker, rhythm sticks, and jingle bells. With continued learning experiences, the child may learn to recognize each of the different instruments of the orchestra and pick them out, even when all the instruments are playing.
During our Kindermusik classes, we experience a variety of timbres. We listen to the sounds of percussion instruments made from different materials, wooden, metal, plastic, and even rawhide. We have played different sizes and types of drums (with the hand to get a better variety of sounds). The Imagine That class listens to how a drum is played and matches that sound to a similar movement. The drum tells us to March, to Run, to Slide, to Twirl around, to Jump, and many more loco-motor movements. The Young Child class has been choosing and using different timbres to represent the sounds of animals during a story song.
Even ordinary household objects, such as paper bags or plastic eggs, can become an amazingly rich source of hands on learning, when we keep an open mind, and explore with a focus of finding different sounds.
Why build a rich vocabulary of sounds?
- It improves interest and ability to hear, distinguish, and recognize sounds, even when the sound maker is not visible. (Like knowing Mommy’s voice, or recognizing the recorded music is played by a piano or a guitar.)
- It helps them understand the relationship between the feel and look of an object to the sound it makes. Bigger things make deeper sounds, smaller things make higher sounds.
- It allows them to recognize that even though something may look the same, it may sound different (if different objects are inside it). Or things that look different may sound very much the same. It builds generalization skills.
- Research shows that as the variety of sounds in an environment increases, the more the child is interested in making new sounds themselves, allowing them to explore more fully all the sounds they can make. This in turn has a huge effect on their ability to articulate words when it is time.
- The neural connections they are building with these basic sounds are the foundation of knowledge, on which they can expand as they develop. Recognition of a metal sound, leads to recognition of a horn sound, and on to a saxophone sound, and on to a tenor saxophone sound, and on to the specific style a particular artist plays the sound on that tenor saxophone.
- And finally, it leads to a lifetime of enjoyment in making music. This lady seems to continue to enjoy a variety of diverse sounds even in her later years!
How can I help my child enrich their vocabulary of sounds as they progress through different ages and stages?
For the youngest babies, keep a few sound makers nearby, such as next to the changing table, especially those that can be worn on their hands, such as “mittens” or “bracelets”, or on a “mobile of sounds” they can tap or kick. To be able to gain the maximum benefit from this play, the baby should be able to explore ALL the different sounds an object makes (often with your help). They are using all of their senses to learn about an object: What does it look like? What does it feel like? What is the texture? What does it taste like? Is it heavy or light? Which parts move? What movement can I do that will make the sound? Of course they are not asking these questions, but their explorations answer them.
Parenting TIP: This “learning” is enhanced greatly if an significant adult or sibling TALKS about all these things while the baby is exploring. Answer the questions their brain is asking. Describe, describe, describe. OK, in all reality, this is relevant for ALL ages, as it builds language skills and conceptual awareness.
For older babies and toddlers, provide a “basket” in a popular play location (play room, kitchen cupboard) that will display 2 – 4 objects that make a variety of sounds. As they get older, add more objects at a time. If possible, have some objects that look the same but sound different, such as similar containers with different materials inside. Or similar objects (wood) that have subtly different sounds. Keep the same objects in the basket until the child seems not as interested in some of them, then switch those out for totally different objects. FYI – these do NOT have to be purchased. Explore sounds of household objects, or make your own homemade instruments that are safe for baby to explore.
Very young children (and even the older ones) really enjoy exploring the sounds in a kitchen. Once a floor is cleaned, partner with your child to pull out items from the cupboard, plastic, metal, wood, etc. (glass, only when supervised with a parent to ensure safety.), as well as a variety of mallets from kitchen drawers, wooden, metal, etc. Cutting boards make great sounds. I like to keep a picnic basket full of kitchen sounds so that I don’t have to continue to clean each item after they play with it on the kitchen floor.
Parenting TIP: FIRST, Watch what they do with it and describe what you see happening. As well as building language skills, this also lets them know that you VALUE their ability to teach themselves, and see them as a competent explorer, building their confidence. Then, jump in on the fun. Your child will absorb sooo much from this kind of play – about Timbre, and so much more.
Children 2 and older love to MAKE their own instruments. For some excellent ideas on enjoying this process with your children, and creative ideas for using these instruments, including a fun SOUND game, you have just GOT to check out the blog posting: Your Child can Design, Create, and PLAY their Own Instruments to Explore Timbre
All ages of children love to explore the different sounds that their mouth and voice can make, as well as how they can use their body as a sound making device. I think many 5 – 8 year olds excel in this area as they are more able to snap their fingers, whistle, and make fart noises in their armpit ! But even very young children can enjoy crunching or slurping sounds, or click their tongues. Explore the different sounds you can make in these ways. Make it a copycat game: one person makes a set of sounds with their body or mouth, and the other person has to copy what the first person did. Take turns. EVEN with very young babies. Wait for them to make a sound and copy it. With older children, hide behind some barrier, and allow the other person to guess how that sound was made, or make it a game to see if they can figure out HOW to use their mouth or body to make that sound. This is also a wonderful way to improve their listening and problem solving skills.
Of course, you can take Field Trips to explore Sounds.
- What kind of sounds can you find, or make, at the park?
- Go visit a Music Store. The Guitar Center in Lakeland is very family friendly, and allows children to enjoy hands-on exploration (as long as an adult is there to guide and direct their explorations for the safety of the people and the instruments).
- Spring time is filled with Music Festivals in which you can hear musicians play a variety of instruments and musical styles, and the vendors often have a diverse array of unique instruments to explore. The Sertoma Youth Ranch is just on the other side of Plant City, and is a great place to camp for the weekend and enjoy a music festival.
- Or find and join an informal Drum Circle nearby, like the one that meets in downtown Winter Haven on the second Friday of each month, which I know is very family friendly. Although this one is not listed online, just do an online search Drum Circles near you, and it is amazing what you will find.
There are several previous blog postings you may want to explore that include ideas for your family to explore timbre:
- Easter Eggs – before, during, and after Easter – making Timbre Eggs
- Homemade Instruments made from Pencils – see a slide show of child created examples
- Vocal Play in the Kitchen? – Oh, YES! – of course your mouth and voice can make produce an amazing amount of different timbres.
I can do a lot of this at home. How would Kindermusik make a difference?
First of all… YES, have fun at home with all these ideas… that’s why I am sharing them with you. You are your child’s primary teacher… always… and home is where the real learning happens.
Well, one real plus is that we Kindermusik Educators have a tendency to have a lot of fabulous instruments ! OK, you might say we are a little addicted to the collection of sound makers. Some people collect stamps or coins; I collect SOUNDS… all kinds ! And I LOVE to share them. ALL of them are ready for hands-on exploration by children of all ages. Percussion instruments with unique sounds call to me like Chocolate calls to some people. My husband has traveled and brought me instruments from other countries; a Korean Bell, a Japanese bamboo flute, a guiro from Brazil. Music Festivals have been fertile grounds for finding unique delightful sound treasures: Seashell Flutes, shekere gourds, an African finger piano (a kalimba), and a really interesting friction drum with the head of the drum attached to a rosined stick that makes all kinds of fun sounds. I have drums galore, including a snare drum, a djembe drum that you can still see the cow hairs on the sides of the drum head, a Native American Pow Wow drum, and a talking drum from Africa. Can you HEAR these different Timbres in your head? Many of my students can. When the Young child students are studying music of the Appalachian mountains, they get to explore real stringed instruments: guitar, banjo, mountain dulcimer, and a “fiddle” (otherwise known as a violin and used for many other demonstrations). And it is fun to bring out my accordion when we are studying music from Germany and Austria. I could go on and on. So, besides Mrs. Debbie’s collection of sounds, there is more…
In Kindermusik, we FOCUS on specific developmental areas, like Timbre, each week, and we are trained in many multi-sensory teaching methods. PLUS, we are always on the WATCH for new ideas and methods. Different children learn in different ways, so we “fill our tool box” with presentation strategies. Many are part of our fabulous curriculum based on research and developed by professionals in music education and child development. Some are part of our sharing process between our many licensed, experienced and creative educators. And some come through our own recognition and inspiration as we watch and learn from the children that we see each week. Sometimes we teach them, sometimes, they teach us ! And ALL these ideas flow through to our families we see each week, hopefully inspiring and helping these families find just the right way to reach their child.
Wonderful article, Debbie. Thank you for sharing! Ben and I are counting the days (years, really) until we can venture to Jazz Fest in N.O. again and bring River along, too! The musicians, instruments, food, color and fun are awesome!!! PS – we’ve discovered River’s favorite song…”Old McDonald” she spins and dances and smiles and “E-I-E-I-Os” to her little hearts content! See you soon!
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