Last updated

Xylophone (PSF).svg
Percussion instrument
Classification Percussion
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 111.212
(Concussive idiophone or set of percussion sticks whose sound is generated by way of being struck by a mallet)
Developed9th century
Playing range
Sounds from C4 to C8, written from C3 to C7
Related instruments
balafo, txalaparta, laggutu, marimba
Xylophone with different types of mallets Xylophone.jpg
Xylophone with different types of mallets

The xylophone (from the Greek words ξύλονxylon, "wood" [1] + φωνήphōnē, "sound, voice", [2] literally meaning "sound of wood") is a musical instrument in the percussion family that consists of wooden bars struck by mallets. Like the glockenspiel, the xylophone essentially consists of a set of tuned keys arranged in the fashion of the keyboard of a piano. Each bar is an idiophone tuned to a pitch of a musical scale, whether pentatonic or heptatonic in the case of many African and Asian instruments, diatonic in many western children's instruments, or chromatic for orchestral use.


The term xylophone may be used generally, to include all such instruments such as the marimba, balafon and even the semantron. However, in the orchestra, the term xylophone refers specifically to a chromatic instrument of somewhat higher pitch range and drier timbre than the marimba, and these two instruments should not be confused. A person who plays the xylophone is known as a xylophonist or simply a xylophone player. [3]

The term is also popularly used to refer to similar instruments of the lithophone and metallophone types. For example, the Pixiphone and many similar toys described by the makers as xylophones have bars of metal rather than of wood, and so are in organology regarded as glockenspiels rather than as xylophones.

Construction of xylophones

Cameroon, ~1914 Xylophone-pjt1.jpg
Cameroon, ~1914

The modern western xylophone has bars of rosewood, padauk, or various synthetic materials such as fiberglass or fiberglass-reinforced plastic which allows a louder sound. [4] Some can be as small a range as 2 12 octaves but concert xylophones are typically 3 12 or 4 octaves. Like the glockenspiel, the xylophone is a transposing instrument: its parts are written one octave below the sounding notes. [5]

Concert xylophones have tube resonators below the bars to enhance the tone and sustain. Frames are made of wood or cheap steel tubing: more expensive xylophones feature height adjustment and more stability in the stand. In other music cultures some versions have gourds [4] that act as Helmholtz resonators. Others are "trough" xylophones with a single hollow body that acts as a resonator for all the bars. [6] Old methods consisted of arranging the bars on tied bundles of straw, and, as still practiced today, placing the bars adjacent to each other in a ladder-like layout. Ancient mallets were made of willow wood with spoon-like bowls on the beaten ends. [4]


Xylophones should be played with very hard rubber, polyball, or acrylic mallets. Sometimes medium to hard rubber mallets, very hard core, or yarn mallets are used for softer effects. Lighter tones can be created on xylophones by using wooden-headed mallets made from rosewood, ebony, birch, or other hard woods.


Kulintang a Kayo, a Philippine xylophone Kulintang a Kayo 01.jpg
Kulintang a Kayo , a Philippine xylophone

The instrument has obscure ancient origins. Nettl proposed that it originated in southeast Asia and came to Africa c. AD 500 when a group of Malayo-Polynesian speaking peoples migrated to Africa, and compared East African xylophone orchestras and Javanese and Balinese gamelan orchestras. [7] :18–19, 100 This was more recently challenged by ethnomusicologist and linguist Roger Blench who posits an independent origin in of the Xylophone in Africa, citing, among the evidence for local invention, distinct features of African xylophones and the greater variety of xylophone types and proto-xylophone-like instruments in Africa. [8]

Asian xylophone

The earliest evidence of a true xylophone is from the 9th century in southeast Asia, while a similar hanging wood instrument, a type of harmonicon, is said by the Vienna Symphonic Library to have existed in 2000 BC in what is now part of China. The xylophone-like ranat was used in Hindu regions (kashta tharang). In Indonesia, few regions have their own type of xylophones. In North Sumatra, The Toba Batak people use wooden xylophones known as the Garantung (spelled: "garattung"). Java and Bali use xylophones (called gambang, Rindik and Tingklik) in gamelan ensembles. They still have traditional significance in Malaysia, Melanesia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, and regions of the Americas. In Myanmar, the xylophone is known as Pattala and is typically made of bamboo.

African xylophone

The term marimba is also applied to various traditional folk instruments such as the West Africa balafon . Early forms were constructed of bars atop a gourd. [9] The wood is first roasted around a fire before shaping the key to achieve the desired tone. The resonator is tuned to the key through careful choice of size of resonator, adjustment of the diameter of the mouth of the resonator using wasp wax and adjustment of the height of the key above the resonator. A skilled maker can produce startling amplification. The mallets used to play dibinda and mbila have heads made from natural rubber taken from a wild creeping plant. [10] "Interlocking" or alternating rhythm features in Eastern African xylophone music such as that of the Makonde dimbila, the Yao mangolongondo or the Shirima mangwilo in which the opachera, the initial caller, is responded to by another player, the wakulela. [11] This usually doubles an already rapid rhythmic pulse that may also co-exist with a counter-rhythm.

Timbila Timbela (musical instrument).jpg


The mbila (plural "timbila") is associated with the Chopi people of the Inhambane Province, in southern Mozambique. [10] It is not to be confused with the mbira. The style of music played on it is believed to be the most sophisticated method of composition yet found among preliterate peoples. [12] The gourd-resonated, equal-ratio heptatonic-tuned mbila of Mozambique is typically played in large ensembles in a choreographed dance, perhaps depicting a historical drama. Ensembles consist of around ten xylophones of three or four sizes. A full orchestra would have two bass instruments called gulu with three or four wooden keys played standing up using heavy mallets with solid rubber heads, three tenor dibinda, with ten keys and played seated, and the mbila itself, which has up to nineteen keys of which up to eight may be played simultaneously. The gulu uses gourds and the mbila and dibinda Masala apple shells as resonators. They accompany the dance with long compositions called ngomi or mgodo and consist of about 10 pieces of music grouped into 4 separate movements, with an overture, in different tempos and styles. The ensemble leader serves as poet, composer, conductor and performer, creating a text, improvising a melody partially based on the features of the Chopi tone language and composing a second countrapuntal line. The musicians of the ensemble partially improvise their parts. The composer then consults with the choreographer of the ceremony and adjustments are made. [7] The longest and most important of these is the "Mzeno" which will include a song telling of an issue of local importance or even making fun of a prominent figure in the community! [10] Performers include Eduardo Durão and Venancio Mbande. [10] [13]


The gyil (English: /ˈɪlə,l/ ) is a pentatonic instrument common to the Gur-speaking populations in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Ivory Coast in West Africa. The Gyil is the primary traditional instrument of the Dagara people of northern Ghana and Burkina Faso, and of the Lobi of Ghana, southern Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast. The gyil is usually played in pairs, accompanied by a calabash gourd drum called a kuor. It can also be played by one person with the drum and the stick part as accompaniment, or by a soloist. Gyil duets are the traditional music of Dagara funerals. The instrument is generally played by men, who learn to play while young, however, there is no restriction on gender.

The Gyil's design is similar to the Balaba or Balafon used by the Mande-speaking Bambara, Dyula and Sosso peoples further west in southern Mali and western Burkina Faso, a region that shares many musical traditions with those of northern Ivory Coast and Ghana. It is made with 14 wooden keys of an African hardwood called liga attached to a wooden frame, below which hang calabash gourds. [14] Spider web silk covers small holes in the gourds to produce a buzzing sound and antelope sinew and leather are used for the fastenings. [14] The instrument is played with rubber-headed wooden mallets.


A silimba in a Zambian market Silimba-Zambia.jpg
A silimba in a Zambian market

The silimba is a xylophone developed by Lozi people in Barotseland, western Zambia. [15] The tuned keys are tied atop resonating gourds. [16] The silimba, or shinjimba, is used by the Nkoya people of Western Zambia at traditional royal ceremonies like the Kazanga Nkoya. The shilimba is now used in most parts of Zambia.

Akadinda, amadinda and mbaire

The akadinda and the amadinda are xylophone-like instruments originating in Buganda, in modern-day Uganda. [17] The amadinda is made of twelve logs which are tuned in a pentatonic scale. It mainly is played by three players. Two players sit opposite of each other and play the same logs in an interlocking technique in a fast tempo. It has no gourd resonators or buzzing tone, two characteristics of many other African xylophones. [18]

The amadinda was an important instrument at the royal court in Buganda, a Ugandan kingdom. A special type of notation is now used for this xylophone, consisting of numbers for and periods. [19] as is also the case with the embaire, a type of xylophone originating in southern Uganda. [19]


The balo (balenjeh, behlanjeh) is used among the Mandinka people of West Africa. Its keys are mounted on gourds, and struck with mallets with rubber tips. The players typically wear iron cylinders and rings attached to their hands so that they jingle as they play. [20]

Western xylophone

Orchestral xylophone (left) and marimba (right) Xylophone-Antonko-AXF09-Marimba-Antonko-AMC12.jpg
Orchestral xylophone (left) and marimba (right)

The earliest mention of a xylophone in Europe was in Arnolt Schlick's Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten (1511), where it is called hültze glechter ("wooden clatter"). [21] [22] There follow other descriptions of the instrument, though the term "xylophone" is not used until the 1860s. [23] The instrument was associated largely with the folk music of Eastern Europe, notably Poland and eastern Germany. An early version appeared in Slovakia [7] :98 and the earliest reference to a similar instrument came in the 14th century. [24]

The first use of a European orchestral xylophone was in Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre , in 1874. [4] By that time, the instrument had already been popularized to some extent by Michael Josef Gusikov, [25] whose instrument was the five-row xylophone made of 28 crude wooden bars arranged in semitones in the form of a trapezoid and resting on straw supports. There were no resonators and it was played fast with spoon-shaped sticks. According to musicologist Curt Sachs, Gusikov performed in garden concerts, variety shows, and as a novelty act at symphony concerts.

The western xylophone was used by early jazz bands and in vaudeville. Its bright, lively sound worked well the syncopated dance music of the 1920s and 1930s. Red Norvo, George Cary, George Hamilton Green, Teddy Brown and Harry Breuer were well-known users. As time passed, the xylophone was exceeded in popularity by the metal-key vibraphone, which was developed in the 1920s. A xylophone with a range extending downwards into the marimba range is called a xylorimba.

In orchestral scores, a xylophone can be indicated by the French claquebois, German Holzharmonika (literally "wooden harmonica"), or Italian silofono. [22] Shostakovich was particularly fond of the instrument; it has prominent roles in much of his work, including most of his symphonies and his Cello Concerto No. 2. Modern xylophone players include Bob Becker, Evelyn Glennie and Ian Finkel.

In the United States, there are Zimbabwean marimba bands in particularly high concentration in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, and New Mexico, but bands exist from the East Coast through California and even to Hawaii and Alaska. The main event for this community is ZimFest, the annual Zimbabwean Music Festival. The bands are composed of instruments from high sopranos, through to lower soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. Resonators are usually made with holes covered by thin cellophane (similar to the balafon) to achieve the characteristic buzzing sound. The repertoires of U.S. bands tends to have a great overlap, due to the common source of the Zimbabwean musician Dumisani Maraire, who was the key person who first brought Zimbawean music to the West, coming to the University of Washington in 1968.

Use in elementary education

Three Orff-Schulwerk xylophones of different ranges. Tres xilofonos.JPG
Three Orff-Schulwerk xylophones of different ranges.

Many music educators use xylophones as a classroom resource to assist children's musical development. One method noted for its use of xylophones is Orff-Schulwerk, which combines the use of instruments, movement, singing and speech to develop children's musical abilities. [26] Xylophones used in American general music classrooms are smaller, at about 1 12 octaves, than the 2 12 or more octave range of performance xylophones. The bass xylophone ranges are written from middle C to A an octave higher but sound one octave lower than written. The alto ranges are written from middle C to A an octave higher and sound as written. The soprano ranges are written from middle C to A an octave higher but sound one octave higher than written. [27]

According to Andrew Tracey, marimbas were introduced to Zimbabwe in 1960. [15] Zimbabwean marimba based upon Shona music has also become popular in the West, which adopted the original use of these instruments to play transcriptions of mbira dzavadzimu (as well as nyunga nyunga and matepe) music. The first of these transcriptions had originally been used for music education in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean instruments are often in a diatonic C major scale, which allows them to be played with a 'western-tuned' mbira (G nyamaropa), sometimes with an added F key placed inline.

Famous solo works

Famous orchestral excerpts

See also

Related Research Articles

Percussion instrument Type of musical instrument that produces a sound by being hit

A percussion instrument is a musical instrument that is sounded by being struck or scraped by a beater including attached or enclosed beaters or rattles struck, scraped or rubbed by hand or struck against another similar instrument. Excluding zoomusicological instruments and the human voice, the percussion family is believed to include the oldest musical instruments.

Marimba Wooden percussion instrument struck with mallets

The marimba is a percussion instrument consisting of a set of wooden bars struck with yarn or rubber mallets to produce musical tones. Resonators or pipes are suspended underneath the bars to amplify their sound. The bars of a chromatic marimba are arranged like the keys of a piano, with the groups of two and three accidentals raised vertically, overlapping the natural bars to aid the performer both visually and physically. This instrument is a type of idiophone, but with a more resonant and lower-pitched tessitura than the xylophone. A person who plays the marimba is called a marimbist or a marimba player.

Vibraphone Musical instrument

The vibraphone is a musical instrument in the struck idiophone subfamily of the percussion family. It consists of tuned metal bars and is usually played by holding two or four soft mallets and striking the bars. A person who plays the vibraphone is called a vibraphonist,vibraharpist, or vibist.


The xylorimba is a pitched percussion instrument corresponding to a xylophone with an extended range.


The balafon is a gourd-resonated xylophone, a type of struck idiophone. It is closely associated with the neighbouring Mandé, Senoufo and Gur peoples of West Africa, particularly the Guinean branch of the Mandinka ethnic group, but is now found across West Africa from Guinea to Mali. Its common name, balafon, is likely a European coinage combining its Mandinka name bala with the word fôn 'to speak' or the Greek root phono.

The native folk music of Mozambique has been highly influenced by Portuguese and local language forms. The most popular style of modern dance music is marrabenta. Mozambican music also influenced another Lusophone music in Brazil, like maxixe, and Cuban music like Mozambique.

Mallet percussion

A mallet percussion instrument is a melodic percussion instrument played in a particular fashion, with mallets. Mallet percussion includes:

Percussion mallet Object used to strike or beat a percussion instrument

A percussion mallet or beater is an object used to strike or beat a percussion instrument in order to produce its sound.

Shona music is the music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. There are several different types of traditional Shona music including mbira, singing, hosho and drumming. Very often, this music will be accompanied by dancing, and participation by the audience. In Shona music, there is little distinction between the performer and the audience, both are often actively involved in the music-making, and both are important in the religious ceremonies where Shona Music is often heard.


A lithophone is a musical instrument consisting of a rock or pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes. Notes may be sounded in combination or in succession (melody). The lithophone is an idiophone comparable to instruments such as the glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone and marimba.

The glass marimba is a type of idiophone also known as a vitrephone or crystallophone. Marimba translates to "a xylophone-like instrument" from an African language, probably Bantu. The glass keys are made of either hard glass or soft glass. The keys are resonated with either a single open top box or individual resonators for each key. Mallets used to play the marimba can be constructed using a compressed silicone ball attached to one end of a wooden or synthetic dowell. These mallets bring out the purest sound from glass marimba. Other types of mallets are used for different effects. The tuning system of a glass marimba can be whatever is desired. Glass marimbas are utilised by the Brazilian percussion ensemble, Uakti.

Baganda music Ugandan music culture

Baganda music is a music culture developed by the people of Uganda with many features that distinguish African music from other world music traditions. Parts of this musical tradition have been extensively researched and well-documented, with textbooks documenting this research. Therefore, the culture is a useful illustration of general African music.

Andrew Tracey

Andrew Tracey is a South African ethnomusicologist, promoter of African music, composer, folk singer, band leader, and actor. His father, Hugh Tracey (1903–1977), pioneered the study of traditional African music in the 1920s–1970s, created the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in 1954, and started the company African Musical Instruments (AMI) which manufactured the first commercial kalimbas in the 1950s.

The Chopi are an ethnic group of Mozambique. They have lived primarily in the Zavala region of southern Mozambique, in the Inhambane Province. They traditionally lived a life of subsistence agriculture, traditionally living a rural existence, although many were displaced or killed in the civil war that followed Mozambique's liberation from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. In addition, drought forced many away from their homeland and into the nation's cities.

Xibelani dance

The xibelani dance is an indigenous dance of the Tsonga women of the Limpopo province in northern South Africa. The name of the dance comes from the native Xitsonga language and it can translate to "hitting to the rhythm", for example, the concept "xi Bela ni vunanga". The name "xibelani" typically refers to the dance style while the skirt itself is referred to as "tinguvu", however, the term "xibelani" is sometimes used to refer to both the dance and the skirt.

Ranat ek

The ranat ek is a Thai musical instrument in the percussion family that consists of 21 wooden bars suspended by cords over a boat-shaped trough resonator and struck by two mallets. It is used as a leading instrument in the piphat ensemble.

Roneat thung

The Roneat Thung or Roneat Thum is a low-pitched xylophone used in the Khmer classical music of Cambodia. It is built in the shape of a curved, rectangular shaped boat. This instrument plays an important part in the Pinpeat ensemble. The roneat Thung is placed on the left of the roneat ek, a higher-pitched xylophone. The Roneat Thung is analogous to the ranat thum of Thai.

Melodic percussion instrument

A melodic percussion instrument is a percussion instrument used to produce several different notes of different pitches. Melodic percussion instruments are examples of pitched percussion and include mallet percussion and keyboard percussion.

Instruments by Harry Partch

The American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) composed using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation, derived from the natural Harmonic series; these scales allowed for more tones of smaller intervals than in the standard Western tuning, which uses twelve equal intervals. One of Partch's scales has 43 tones to the octave. To play this music, he built many unique instruments, with names such as the Chromelodeon, the Quadrangularis Reversum, and the Zymo-Xyl.


  1. ξύλον, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  2. φωνή, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  3. "Xylophonist | Definition of Xylophonist by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com also meaning of Xylophonist". Lexico Dictionaries | English. Retrieved 19 September 2020.
  4. 1 2 3 4 "How xylophone is made". Madehow.com. 26 June 2000. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  5. Cook, Gary D. (1997). Teaching Percussion (Second ed.). Belmont, California: Schirmer Books, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  6. "Percussion > Mallets > Xylophone > History". Vsl.co.at. Vienna Symphonic Library. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  7. 1 2 3 Nettl, Bruno (1956). Music in Primitive Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN   9780674590007.
  8. Blench, Roger (1 November 2012). "Using diverse sources of evidence for reconstructing the prehistory of musical exchanges in the Indian Ocean and their broader significance for cultural prehistory". African Archaeological Review. special issue: 7–11. doi:10.1007/s10437-014-9178-z. S2CID   162200224.
  9. "Annotated Checklist of Musical Instruments From Sub-Saharan Africa on Display in the NMM's Beede Gallery". National Music Museum. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  10. 1 2 3 4 "Music of Mozambique: Information from". Answers.com. 25 November 2010. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  11. Kubik, Gerhard; Robotham, Donald Keith (27 January 2012). "African music – musical structure". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  12. Mitchell, Barry (14 January 2008). "Theory of Music". Theoryofmusic.wordpress.com. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  13. "African Heartbeats". pointofdeparture.org. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  14. 1 2 Harper, Colter (2008). "Life, Death, and Music in West Africa". Contexts Magazine. Winter: 44–51. doi:10.1525/ctx.2008.7.1.44. S2CID   59623412.
  15. 1 2 Tracey, Andrew (26 May 2004). "Marimbas History". kalimba.co.za. Andrew Tracey and Christian Carver.
  16. "~Zambia~". Zambiatourism.com. 21 December 2006. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  17. "akadinda (musical instrument)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 27 April 2009.
  18. "xylophone (musical instrument)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
  19. 1 2 "African music :: Interlocking". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
  20. "The Behlanjeh, the national musical instrument of the Mandingos". Royal Commonwealth Society Library. Cambridge University Library. University of Cambridge. 5 November 2004. Archived from the original on 27 June 2007.
  21. "History  The world of wooden mallet instruments". Vsl.co.at. Vienna Symphonic Library. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  22. 1 2 Anderson, Lois Ann; et al. (2001). "Xylophone". In Root, Deane L. (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians . Oxford University Press.
  23. "xylophone". Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. 1989. 7 April 1866 edition of the Athenaeum : 'A prodigy ... who does wonderful things with little drumsticks on a machine of wooden keys, called the 'xylophone'.'
    "Leaves for the Little Ones". The Ladies' Companion. Rogerson and Tuxford: 152. 1865. ...and Master Bonnay, on the Xylophone, is always recalled. Both citations refer to the performance of a child prodigy, Sunbury.
  24. "The Xylophone". Concertgoersguide.org. Oregon Symphony Players Association. Archived from the original on 13 August 2007. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  25. Michael Joseph Guzikow Archives Archived 30 December 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  26. "American Orff-Schulwerk Association". Aosa.org. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  27. Keetman, Gunild; Orff, Carl (1958). Orff-Schulwerk Music for Children. Translated by Margaret Murray. London: Schott & Co. Ltd.

Additional sources