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What is a Xylophone?

A xylophone is a musical instrument that belongs to the percussion family. It consists of wooden bars of varying lengths, which are struck with mallets to produce melodious notes. Each bar is carefully tuned to a specific pitch, creating a range of sounds that can enchant and uplift. Discover how this instrument's unique tones can enhance music across genres. Ready to explore its harmonies?
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

A xylophone is an idiophone, a type of percussion instrument that produces sound by vibration of the entire body of the instrument. Triangles and cymbals are other examples of idiophones. The xylophone belongs to the subgroup of idiophones that are played with mallets. Also in this family are the vibraphone, the glockenspiel, the marimba, the chimes or tubular bells, antique cymbals or crotales, and steel drums.

The mallet idiophones may have bars of metal or wood, but the xylophone, whose name comes from the Greek words for wood and sound, is customarily made of hardwood or bamboo, although synthetic reinforced resins are sometimes used. Marimbas are also made of wood, though usually rosewood, while the vibraphone and glockenspiel and other mallet idiophones have bars or tubes made of metal.

The entire body of a xylophone vibrates to make sound.
The entire body of a xylophone vibrates to make sound.

Although they are both wood idiophones and played with similar technique, the xylophone and marimba are quite different. The sound of the xylophone is sharp and brittle, with very little sustain. This contrasts with the marimba, which has a mellower, richer, more sustained sound. Sounding an octave higher than it is written, the xylophone also occupies a higher range than the marimba, which sounds as written.

There are two basic types of xylophone construction. Either the bars are laid over a trough or pit that acts as a resonator or each bar may have a separate resonator, for example, the calabash gourds used on certain African xylophones or the tube resonators used for modern orchestral xylophones. The keys may be fixed or removable, and while the standard orchestral xylophone is arranged like a piano keyboard, other arrangements are used in xylophones around the world.

A typical orchestral xylophone has either a 3 octave range beginning on the F below middle C, a 3 octave range beginning on middle C, or a 4 octave range beginning on the C below middle C. The xylophone is played with the lowest pitches to the players left.

While two mallets are customarily used to play the orchestral xylophone, they may be made of a variety of materials, such as soft or hard plastic, wood, or hard rubber. Yarn mallets are sometimes employed for softer passages. Trills, rolls, glissandi, tremolos, and chords are all possible, with some of these techniques requiring up to 4 mallets.

The xylophone is included in band and orchestral ensembles, where it can be used both for solo work and for back up, and it is also included in drum corps pit percussion. In addition, it has a special role in the elementary school classroom, because of the part it plays in Carl Orff’s Schulwerk, along with metallophones and glockenspiels.

Solo xylophone is featured in orchestral works such as Gustav Mahler’s 6th Symphony, La Carneval des Animaux of Camille Saint Saëns, Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Springs, and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. It is important as part of the ensemble in Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux éxotiques, and Drumming by Steve Reich. Famous xylophone players have included Ian Finkel, Famoro Dioubate, Stephen Whittaker, Kakraba Lobi, George Hamilton Green, Ralph Heid, and Bob Becker.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a xylophone and how is it different from other percussion instruments?

A xylophone is a musical instrument in the percussion family that consists of wooden bars struck by mallets. Each bar is tuned to a specific pitch, allowing for melodic play. What sets the xylophone apart from other percussion instruments is its distinct bright, wooden tone and its ability to play clear, precise melodies. Unlike drums, which produce indefinite pitches, the xylophone produces definite pitches, making it similar to a piano in terms of note clarity.

What materials are used to make a xylophone?

Traditional xylophones are made with wooden bars crafted from hardwoods like rosewood or various types of African hardwood. The bars are mounted over resonator tubes which enhance the sound. In modern times, synthetic materials like fiberglass or metal can also be used for the bars, offering durability and a different tonal quality. The mallets used to play the xylophone typically have heads made of rubber, wood, or plastic to produce varying sounds.

How do you play a xylophone?

To play a xylophone, a musician uses mallets to strike the wooden bars. The bars are arranged similarly to a keyboard, with each one representing a different musical note. Players can create melodies by hitting the bars in succession and can alter the dynamics and expression by varying the force of their strikes. Skilled xylophonists can use multiple mallets in each hand to play complex chords and rapid passages.

What is the history and origin of the xylophone?

The xylophone has a rich history that dates back to ancient times, with early versions found in Africa and Asia. It is believed to have originated independently in both continents around 2000 BC. The instrument made its way to Europe in the 14th century, where it was refined and incorporated into classical music. The xylophone's popularity in Western music grew significantly in the 20th century, becoming a staple in both orchestral and solo performances.

Can the xylophone be used in different music genres?

Yes, the xylophone is a versatile instrument that can be used across various music genres. While it is a staple in classical and orchestral music, it is also found in jazz, where its bright tone adds a unique texture. Additionally, the xylophone is used in folk music from different cultures, in contemporary ensemble pieces, and even in popular music, where its distinctive sound can add an element of playfulness or exoticism to a track.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Raynbow

@heavanet- If your relative knows how to read music and has flexibility and dexterity in her hands, she should be able to pick up playing the xylophone fairly easily.

I think that the biggest problem that most young musicians have with this instrument is balancing reading sheet music while moving their hands. You should have your relative try to play the xylophone at a music store to see if she thinks she will be able to get the hang of it before she commits to playing it in the band.

Heavanet

I'm trying to help a relative choose the best band instrument for her musical interests. She prefers an instrument that she can play with her hands, so I'm wondering if the xylophone is one that she will be able to learn how to play without many difficulties.

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    • The entire body of a xylophone vibrates to make sound.
      By: Oksana Kuzmina
      The entire body of a xylophone vibrates to make sound.