Sound and Vibration Lesson 5
In this lesson, we learned about the fourth family of musical instruments, Chordophones, and moved to the music of different kinds of stringed instruments to compare and contrast their sounds.
It was fun to start this lesson and see how familiar the students are with me and this subject by now. They are demonstrating a good grasp of this material. Many of them have caught on to the format of my lessons and PowerPoints and were eager to guess today’s lesson before I even introduced it. “We’ve talked about instruments that have a vibrating membrane, vibrating air, the body of the instrument itself vibrates… what do you think we might be learning about today?
“Strings!” “Violins!” “The green ones!” I got a kick out of that last comment.
“That’s right, we’re learning about stringed instruments today! Instruments that make sound with a vibrating string are called chordophones.”
High vs Low Sounds
“We have seen lots of different instruments of different sizes. Larger instruments, or in this case instruments with long strings, make a low sound. Let’s stand up and spread out; we are going to show in our bodies what a low sound might look like. What kind of action should we use? What kind of action should we use for high sounds?”
Mrs. Nelson helped me guide the students to spread out around the room so they each and plenty of space in which to move without hitting their neighbors. Before playing any music, we identified a “high” action and a “low” action for them to use.
“As I play this song, move to show me whether it sounds high or low to you. Do you think this instrument is large or small?”
I played two short audio clips, which can be found in the file linked at the top of this page. The first was a double bass- low- and the second was a violin- high. They children loved dancing around the room, but I didn’t see as much differentiation between their highs and lows as I expected. It was hard to assess whether this was because they didn’t understand the different or just because they didn’t want to move in a way that reflected it.
Bowed vs Plucked
“It’s not just the high or low-ness of the sound that makes chordophones different. We can play them in different ways too. A bow is a piece of wood connected to thin threads called horsehair. When we pull these threads across the strings, it makes them ring out like we heard in this music. It sounds very different from when strings are plucked! Using a bow changes the timbre of the sound; remember that word?”
I took a slightly different approach to timbre in this lesson, giving just a few descriptive words that I assigned to each sound. “Bowed strings sound warm, resonant, and sustained. Plucked strings sound crips, twangy, and bright.” Mrs. Nelson had provided a violin to use in this lesson, so I demonstrated live the two different timbres. I’m not much of a violinist, but I have played a little. I wasn’t focused on technique here, just getting the difference in timbre across to the students.
“Can you show me in your movement what a bowed string sounds like? What about plucked? Let’s dance this difference- dance what you hear!”
The students again moved around the room and danced to several more short audio clips. The first was of a guitar, a plucked string sound. This time it was easier to see the students moving in response the the music; I saw lots of jumping, hopping, and short chopping motions. The next clip presented a greater challenge identifying both high/low AND bowed/plucked. The first was of a double bass played in a jazz style, “slap bass,” and the second was of a ukulele. Some students were able to find ways to show both high/low and bowed/plucked, but others could only seem to focus on one aspect or the other. I wasn’t overly concerned by this; in any classroom instruction, you are going to have students at different cognitive and developmental levels. Expecting ALL of them to understand and perform at the exact same rate is setting yourself up for failure. Some kids could handle the challenge of focusing on two different aspects of the sound at once and some needed to just focus on one thing at a time. That’s fine. The strength of an activity like this is that it allows the students to work at different rates, but everyone is still having fun.
Piano vs Harpsichord
“Did you know that pianos are chordophones too? Inside a piano, there are hundreds of strings. When you press a key, a tiny hammer moves inside the piano and hits the strings.”
I played a short audio clip of a piano.
“This is a harpsichord. Notice how similar it looks to the piano! They are very similar, but with an important difference: Instead of hammers hitting the strings, a harpsichord has a little pick that plucks the string. Think about other plucked chordophones you’ve heard: do you think this might sound similar? Give a thumbs up or thumbs down.” The students all gave thumbs up. I followed this with a harpsichord audio clip.
“When you listen to this song, use your ‘plucked’ string motion if you think this is a harpsichord, and use a different motion if you think it is a piano.”
The nice thing about this set of audio clips was that they were actually the exact same piece of music : Bach Invention #1. Watching the students move to these two different clips really helped with my assessment because I could be sure they weren’t just moving in response to the tempo or mood of the music; it was clear when they were actually responding to the timbre.
We finished off this lesson with a quick review of all four instrument families; idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones. I gave the students a chance to turn and talk to their neighbor, but this time found that many of them didn’t need it. They knew the four families already. That’s good news, because all four of them will come into play in our next lesson!