Imagine one day soon, watching your children with baskets full of plastic eggs, and instead of immediately opening them, they are shaking them to determine what is inside, “Listen… I think this one has coins in it.”  “This sounds exactly like Jelly Beans… gotta be!”  “Whoa, I can hardly hear anything… sounds like paper, maybe it’s tattoos or stickers.”  These children are actively listening, exploring, comparing, and making a theoretical guess, which they can then verify once they open it.  Hmmm. Musical Science !  It is the kid version of the science of  Timbre; learning to hear the difference between distinctive qualities of sound.


It requires the creation of at least TWO instruments that are somewhat similar, but have markedly different sounds.  The Easter Eggs are a good example, they are the same shape, size, and material (plastic), but fill them with different objects, and, voila ! they do NOT sound the same.  Or, using coins in a variety of different containers is also a great way to compare sounds.

For more ideas on Timbre other than homemade instruments, see my blog posting:  Exploring Timbre with Young Children

Design, Create, and PLAY instruments of your own –  to explore different TIMBREs.

Children LOVE this creative process!  It gives them the opportunity to brainstorm ideas, imagine their own designs, take charge in creating them, test to see if what they created does what they wanted to, and learn to ask for help when they need it.  Be aware that this can only happen if the adults back off enough to let that happen – which is hard – real hard for many parents, even me.  I do OK at first, but as the process progresses… I sometimes have a hard time keeping my thoughts to myself, or my hands –  for that matter.  They instinctively move toward the project,  “If I could just fix this ONE thing”, I think.  But then… I think better of it.  I must focus, and WATCH, and be there to answer questions, or even better, ASK questions that help them problem solve and come up with their own answers.

But the rewards are many if the child leads the process and tries to solve their own issues along the way.  They may do it very differently than thought or planned.  It may take a long time for them to complete a process that would be easy and quick for an adult.  And it might not look the best or sound the best.  But Be PATIENT !  It is their best effort for their current skill level.  This discovery process accomplishes much more than just having a finished project.

It is best to start by asking open ended questions:


If they are not sure, you can offer 3 options for most ages of children.  For example:  Are they most interested in making something they can TAP, something they can SHAKE, or something they can RUB/SCRAPE?   For older kids, you might include the options of something they can blow, or something they can strum…).


Take some time to wander around the house (or yard) finding several objects that COULD be made into that kind of instrument.  Gather containers, mallots/scrapers, bags of objects that could be filler for shakers.  Gather several so they can choose from the available options.  Try each of one them out, and be creative in exploring as many sounds as possible with each specific object.  You may even put on some upbeat music during this process to get the creative musical juices flowing.  But not too loud, we need to hear the sounds !  Suggestions:

  • Containers:  Oatmeal cylindars, empty water bottles, empty medication bottles with childproof caps (esp. the ones you can see through), plastic eggs, toilet paper rolls, recycled plastic tubs, wooden box, cardboard box, etc.
  • Mallots/Scrapers:  wooden spoons, metal skewers or spoons, a sturdy straw,  a basting brush, an old toothbrush, unsharpened pencil with good eraser, etc.
  • Fillers:  beans, rice, macaroni, grape-nuts type cereal, paper clips, buttons, marbles, acorns, pebbles, seeds, dice, legos, dominos, coins …  what will fit into the containers you choose?


As I said, encourage them to make at least TWO instruments, that are similar in some way, but that will make different sounds.  Some children may totally get engaged and want to make MANY !!!  With this process, they are learning more about Timbre, how to listen for it, and how to make changes to the instruments so they sound different.


These marbles made a great big clunky sound!

IMMEDIATELY upon completion there should be a grand celebration of the invention of this new sound.  If they’d like, encourage them come up with a NAME for the new instruments, such as Kersplatapop and a Scrape-i-too.  Put some upbeat music on.  Do a Conga line through the kitchen.  Make up a song about these grand inventions.  Gather friends with their own instruments and have a parade down the street !

When the initial fun is done, don’t let these instruments get lost in the bottom of a bag or a closet.   Make it a point to give them a PLACE OF HONOR on the coffee table, or in a place where they can and will be seen and explored freely by the child, as well as by friends and visitors that can also explore and talk to the child about their creations.

When the child shows interest in these instruments later, make time to put on some upbeat music and play along, with each of you having one of the instruments.  STOP the music occasionally and trade instruments so they can really hear and feel the difference in the sounds.

Play a SOUND game similar to Red Light / Green Light:

  • First, make sure your instruments have a markedly different sound and can be heard well across the room.
  • Play one instrument and identify it as Red Light.  Play the other sound and identify it as Green Light.  Have the children go to the far side of the room (but close enough to hear).
  • FIRST LEVEL:   SHOW the instrument you are playing to help them associate the sound with whether they can move closer to you (Green light instrument), or if they should STOP (Red light instrument).  Continue the game until the child has reached you, then give them a GREAT BIG HUG and sloppy kisses !   Many two year olds will even be able to play it this way.
  • NEXT LEVEL:  Play the instrument behind your back or in a place where they can’t SEE it, but they can HEAR it.  Continue the play with just the sound cue.   Most likely, a child will be 3 years or older to connect their actions based on the sound cue.
  • No matter what level you choose, make sure to take turns, so they get a chance to make the different sounds, and watch you respond effectively to just the sound cue.
  • With this game, they are learning to ACTIVELY LISTEN, discriminate the differences, and move their bodies in different ways according to what they hear.  Lots of excellent processing !

She liked the different sounds of the plastic top and the metal bottom of her drum.

I recommend taking pictures of this process, so they can use the pictures to tell stories to grandparents and such about their accomplishment.  AND, if/when the instrument falls apart, it’s OK, you’ve still got the picture of it (besides… a picture fits in the memory book much better.)  And you can start the process anew !

Many of my Kindermusik classes have been challenged to try this activity.  I will be taking pictures and sharing a slide show with you soon!

Related links about Homemade Instruments

Easter Egg Ideas – Before, During, and After is one of my previous posts in which making egg shakers is defined more, and includes many other ideas you might find interesting.

Homemade Instruments Made from Pencils was a Valentine’s idea one year for my classes.  I gave everyone a valentine’s pencil and ask them to make an instrument with it.  Enjoy the slide show of the many creative musical inventions with pencils !

Storytime Songs has a whole page of direct instructions for making instruments.  If your child is having a hard time coming up with ideas, it may be good to look at these pictures to get their creative juices flowing.   I even used the water bottle picture from their page because it was a great one shot photo for demonstrating different timbres.

The Crafty Crow has some colorful and creative unique ideas for homemade instruments.  Check out the full paint can drum set !

PLEASE SHARE YOUR FAMILY’S EXPERIENCES with making homemade instruments to explore timbre in the comments below.  Share new and different ideas.  Show pictures of these grand inventions !