What is timbre?
Timbre is "the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity". Timbre is what makes your voice sound different than anybody else's voice in the world, it's what makes the violin sound different than the piano, it's what makes falling rain sound different than wind blowing through the trees.
Why is teaching timbre important?
When you teach students about timbre it teaches them to listen to the texture and quality of the sound rather than just pitch and harmony. It encourages them to explore with different instruments and sounds.
Teaching timbre with Name the Student game
Begin by explaining the concept of timbre to the students. Explain that all instruments and even all of their voices have a unique sound, and that no two voices sound alike. Have them pick a special word to say ("Banana" was super popular with mine for some reason) and sit in a circle with their eyes closed. Go around the circle tapping a student on the shoulder at random and have them say the special word, all of the other students then try to guess who said the word.
Exploring timbre with sound cups
This exercise is super fun but it takes a little preparation. Start by finding different objects that you have around your classroom or home that make different sounds (I used Legos, pennies, rice, beans, and popcorn)
Take each of the objects and put them each in two different disposable cups (make sure they can't see through them) and put tape over the top (I used colorful duct tape). Make sure you try to put a similar amount of each item in each cup.
If you used the objects that I used you should have 10 cups. Two cups of pennies, two of Legos, two of rice, two of beans, and two of popcorn.
Have the students all sit around the cups and gently shake them trying to match the cups that have the same objects in them. Once they have found all the pairs have them try to guess what is in each cup and describe the sound of each item. Bright, dark, "clangy", chattering, large, loud, quiet, gentle were all words my students came up with to describe the sound.
Of course there are many, MANY more activities you can do, but these are my favorites. Have fun!