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What is a Marimba?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A marimba is an idiophone, a percussion instrument that produces sound by means of vibrations that travel through the entire body of the instrument. The idiophone family also includes triangles and cymbals, all instruments that form part of the percussion section of an orchestra.

One subset of the idiophone family is the group of instruments played with mallets, and the marimba belongs to this group. In fact, it is the largest mallet instrument in a group that includes the vibraphone, the xylophone, the chimes or tubular bells, the glockenspiel, the steel drums, and the crotales or antique cymbals. While historically, a variety of struck and plucked instruments from Africa and Latin America have been given this name, today the term is mainly used for the modern orchestral instrument.

Like the xylophone, the orchestral marimba is a set of wooden bars, often rosewood, mounted on a stand, with each bar having its own resonator. This distinguishes it from the other mallet instruments that have bars made of metal. It is also distinguished by its resonant, mellow tone, which contrasts with the xylophone’s sound, which has little sustain and can be both brittle-sounding and piercing. The first orchestral marimbas were manufactured in the United States in 1910.

A standard "concert marimba" has a 4 1/3 octave range, while solo instruments are 5 octaves, and it is a non-transposing instrument, usually scored on the grand staff. The lowest pitches are customarily placed to the player's left. The instrument is traditionally played with a variety of mallets, but the hardest mallets are avoided so as not to risk cracking the bars.

An instrument called the xylorimba, or sometimes the xylo-marimba or marimba-xylophone, is a type of xylophone with a range that extends down into that of the marimba. Alban Berg and Olivier Messiaen wrote for xylorimba, but the parts are played on a xylophone. Pierre Boulez wrote for xylorimba in several pieces; in once case, the part is played on a xylophone, in the other, the parts are played on a combination of xylophones and marimbas. Composers for the instrument have included Percy Grainger, Darius Milhaud, Carl Orff, and Igor Stravinsky, who reportedly called for a marimba-xylophone but meant a marimba.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Musical Expert, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By chivebasil — On Oct 18, 2012

I have been thinking of taking up the marimba but I need to know how easy it is to find a teacher that can give me professional instruction. Marimba players seem pretty rare. Can someone with training in the xylophone or a similar instrument show me the basics of marimba?

By ZsaZsa56 — On Oct 17, 2012

Does anyone know where I can buy used marimbas? I am willing to pay some money for a nice used one, but I can't afford the price of any of the new ones I have seen

By backdraft — On Oct 16, 2012
The marimba is a truly beautiful instrument and it has been used in a remarkable range of music.

I think for me the most interesting use has been in the looping music of various minimalist composers. The flat tone and percussive elements of the marimba make it uniquely suited to create hypnotic, droning patterns. Composers like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass have both used marimba with incredible results.

By kylee07drg — On Oct 14, 2012

I had thought about getting a marimba until I saw how much they cost. Even a used marimba cost over $2,000!

Some of the bigger, newer ones were $10,000. This is a serious investment.

Since I just play around with music and I'm not getting paid to play it, I can't afford to spend that kind of money on an instrument. Maybe I should check auction sites and see if I can get a better deal there.

By wavy58 — On Oct 13, 2012

@giddion – I associate marimba music with beach music, but I also associate it with African music. A lot of native songs there use the marimba.

I have actually played a xylophone before, and I loved the clear sound that it produced. Each time I hit a key, it sounded like a bell ringing.

However, I have a special place in my heart for the marimba, as well. I let the style of music determine which instrument I use. For example, I think that holiday music sounds more appropriate on the xylophone, but reggae is great on the marimba.

By DylanB — On Oct 13, 2012

This article cleared things up for me. For some reason, I always thought a marimba was a type of steel drum. I pictured it being like a big bongo with a strap around someone's neck.

I have heard someone playing the steel drum before, and this tone sounds similar to the marimba setting on my keyboard. I think that's where the confusion arose. Also, one of my marimba settings plays the same tone several times in a row when you press the key, and that's a lot like a steel drum, too.

It's interesting that a marimba is so much like a xylophone. That's not what I had pictured at all. I don't think I've ever seen marimbas for sale in any store, so it's no wonder I have no idea what they look like.

By giddion — On Oct 12, 2012

I love the sound of rosewood marimbas. They have a very tropical sound that reminds me of island music, and whenever I hear a marimba being played, I envision paradise by the sea.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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