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What Are the Different Types of Keyboard Percussion?

By Judith Smith Sullivan
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are several different types of keyboard percussion instruments. The term typically refers to the mallet percussion instruments found in western orchestras. Included in this family are the marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, and glockenspiel.

Keyboard percussion instruments are played by striking the tone bar with a mallet. The tone bar is typically made of wood or metal, and the mallet tip may be made of wood, metal, rubber, or yarn. Underneath the tone bar is a long, cylindrical tube which allows the sound to project. These are called resonator pipes.

On the vibraphone, there is also is small fan mechanism in the resonator pipes. When engaged, it produces a vibrato effect, which occurs when the sound varies in pitch, very slightly, to produce a warm, rich tone.

The glockenspiel does not have resonator pipes. It is made from metal, often played with metal mallets, and has a sound that is sharp and piercing. It can be heard throughout an entire orchestra without additional amplification.

The largest of the keyboard percussion instruments is the marimba. It is typically made of rosewood and played with soft mallets in both solo and orchestra settings. Multiple mallets are used in both hands to facilitate playing chords and complicated musical passages.

The second largest of these instruments is the xylophone, followed by the vibraphone. The xylophone is used in band and orchestra arrangements but rarely in popular music or as a solo instrument. The vibraphone is actually a very popular solo instrument, especially in jazz music. Lionel Hampton, who began performing in the 1920s, was famous for his use of the vibraphone in jazz bands.

Smallest in the family is the the glockelspiel. German for "playing the bells," it is commonly called "orchestra bells" or simply "bells". Unlike the marimba and xylophone, both the bells and the vibraphone are made of metal.

The size of the instrument is typically dictated by the number of octaves it can play. Marimbas can have up to five octaves, xylophones typically have three and a half, and vibraphones have three. The glockenspiel usually has only two, both located in a very high register.

The tone bar changes in size based on the register and pitch of the note. A marimba usually has longer and wider tone bars than the other keyboard percussion instruments, as it reaches very low notes. The glockenspiel, on the other hand, has small, short tone bars.

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Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Aug 13, 2011

A few years ago, our city gave the playground in the park a major makeover. Volunteers helped build swing sets, slides, and mazes, and someone even donated marimbas and xylophones made of synthetic materials.

Wooden instruments would have warped in the weather, but the synthetic ones resist damage. We have two marimbas and two xylophones in the playground. The mallets are attached by wires to the sides of the instruments so that no one walks off with them.

All of the instruments have resonators, and you can hear them throughout the whole park. I love to hear someone who can actually play a melody using them, but it gets kind of annoying when a kid bangs the same two keys over and over. When used correctly, the instruments can be very soothing.

By Oceana — On Aug 12, 2011

I have always loved the sound of the marimba. It is so reggae, and I envision an island paradise when I hear it. I got the chance to play a real one once.

The keys were made of wood, and they were arranged like piano keys. The accidentals were on the top row, and they overlapped the other keys. It can produce a much broader range of tones than the xylophone.

My keyboard that can produce over one hundred sounds has a marimba setting on it, and I use it when composing beach songs. I don’t own an actual marimba, but the sound is very close to the real thing.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 12, 2011

I got a xylophone for Christmas one year after incessant begging on my part. I absolutely love the sound of it. It reminds me of doorbells.

My first xylophone mallet was made of hard rubber. This let me achieve a louder sound. My mother started getting headaches, so she bought me a yarn mallet that would produce softer sounds while I learned how to play it.

I discovered that I could produce lighter tones by using a rosewood mallet. The keys themselves were made of rosewood, so that helped tone things down.

When I was alone, I always played with the rubber mallet. I loved getting the maximum sound out of my instrument.

By LisaLou — On Aug 12, 2011

Even when I was young, I was interested in percussion instruments. My mother told me the best thing I could do was become good at playing the piano. This would help me learn how to read music and become familiar with a keyboard.

Today I know how to play several different percussion instruments, and I must say that she was right. If you didn't know how to read music or know how to count the notes and rests, it would be much harder to be good at playing any kind of percussion instrument.

Now I can switch between playing a piano or keyboard instrument without any problems at all.

By honeybees — On Aug 11, 2011

My father plays the marimba in a local orchestra. He can play a lot of different percussion instruments, but for some reason, the marimba is one of his favorites.

He is very particular about the type of mallets he uses when playing the marimba and has purchased several Leigh Howard Stevens mallets over the years.

I wouldn't have any idea about what makes one mallet better than the others, but he says these are the best, and that is all he will consider buying anymore.

By bagley79 — On Aug 10, 2011

The percussion keyboard instrument that I am most familiar with is the xylophone. I remember having a colorful xylophone as a kid, and though it was much smaller than what an authentic xylophone is, it was still a lot of fun.

Anytime I have worked with the toddlers at church there is one of these toy xylophones. Even though they are colorful, it doesn't seem like it holds their attention for very long. Maybe there aren't enough sound effects and flashing lights to keep them very interested.

When a toy xylophone is played gently and follows a familiar tune, you can see how they could add the right touch to an orchestra.

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