Developed Antiquity
Related instruments

balafo, Txalaparta, Laggutu
Xylophone with different types of mallets
A jingle played on a xylophone (marimba)

A gamelan xylophone

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The xylophone (from the Greek words ξύλονxylon, "wood"[1] + φωνήphōnē, "sound, voice",[2] meaning "wooden sound") is a musical instrument in the percussion family that consists of wooden bars struck by mallets. 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.

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. The bars of metal sound more high pitched than the wooden ones.


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.[3] Some can be as small a range as 2½ octaves but concert xylophones are typically 3½ or 4 octaves. The xylophone is a transposing instrument: its parts are written one octave below the sounding notes. 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.[4]

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[3] that act as Helmholtz resonators. Others are "trough" xylophones with a single hollow body that acts as a resonator for all the bars.[5] 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.[3]


The instrument has obscure, ancient origins. According to Nettl, it originated in southeast Asia and came to Africa c. 500 AD when a group of Malayo-Polynesian speaking peoples migrated to Africa. One piece of evidence for this is the similarity between East African xylophone orchestras and Javanese and Balinese gamelan orchestras.[6] This, however has been questioned by ethnomusicologist and linguist Roger Blench who posits an independent origin in Africa. [7]

The 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 to have existed in 2000 BC in what is now part of China, according to the Vienna Symphonic Library.[8] The xylophone-like ranat was used in Hindu regions (kashta tharang). Java and Bali use xylophones (called gambang) in gamelan ensembles. They still have traditional significance in Africa, Malaysia, Melanesia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and regions of the Americas.

The 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.



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.[13] 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][14]


Main article: Balafon

The gyil (English pronunciation: /ˈɪlə/ or /ˈl/) 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.[15] Spider web silk covers small holes in the gourds to produce a buzzing sound and antelope sinew and leather are used for the fastenings.[15] The instrument is played with rubber-headed wooden mallets.


A silimba in a Zambian market

The silimba is a xylophone developed by Lozi people in Barotseland, western Zambia.[16] The tuned keys are tied atop resonating gourds.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] as is also the case with the embaire, a type of xylophone originating in southern Uganda.[20]


Main article: Balafon

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.[21]

The western xylophone

Orchestral xylophone (left) and marimba

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").[8][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[24] and the earliest reference to a similar instrument came in the 14th century.[25]

The first use of a European orchestral xylophone was in Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, in 1874.[3] By that time, the instrument had already been popularized to some extent by Michael Josef Gusikov,[26] 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 the musicologist Curt Sachs, Gusikov performed in garden concerts, variety shows, and as a novelty 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, 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 U.S., 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. As of 2006, 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.

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.[27] Xylophones used in American general music classrooms are smaller, at about 1½ octaves, than the 2½ 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.[28]

According to Professor Andrew Tracey, marimbas were introduced to Zimbabwe in 1960.[29] 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.

Extended techniques

The most significant addition to the standard xylophone skill set is the "McLellan Technique", developed at Indiana University in the early 21st century. This technique involves placing the head of a mallet in between two adjacent bars, and rapidly spinning the shaft of the mallet in between the index finger and thumb, thereby causing the head to rotate rapidly and scrape against both bars. This creates a cluster chord with ethereal timbre, and is most commonly used in percussion ensemble repertoire.

See also


  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. 1 2 3 4 "How xylophone is made". Madehow.com. 26 June 2000. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  4. Cook, Gary D. (1997). Teaching Percussion, Second Edition. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Books, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  5. "Vienna Symphonic Library > Vienna Academy > Percussion > Mallets > Xylophone > History". Vsl.co.at. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  6. Nettl, Bruno, Music in Primitive Culture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, SBN 674-59000-7, pp.18–19, 100. Quoted at; https://theoryofmusic.wordpress.com/page/176/
  7. Blench, Roger (November 1, 2012), “Using diverse sources of evidence for reconstructing the prehistory of musical exchanges in the Indian Ocean and their broader significance for cultural prehistory", Prepared for a special issue of African Archaeological Review , p.7–11
  8. 1 2 "Vienna Symphonic Library Online". Vsl.co.at. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  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 2011-11-01.
  11. Encyclopædia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/290356/interlocking
  12. Mitchell, Barry (14 January 2008). "Theory of Music". Theoryofmusic.wordpress.com. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  13. Nettl, Bruno (1956). Music in Primitive Culture. Harvard University Press. https://theoryofmusic.wordpress.com/page/176/
  14. "African Heartbeats". Pointofdeparture.org. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  15. 1 2 Harper, Colter (2008). "Life, Death, and Music in West Africa". Contexts Magazine. Winter: 44–51. Retrieved 2008-05-04.
  16. Marimba History
  17. "~Zambia~". Zambiatourism.com. 21 December 2006. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  18. "akadinda (musical instrument)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 27 April 2009.
  19. "xylophone (musical instrument)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
  20. 1 2 "African music :: Interlocking". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
  21. "The Behlanjeh, the national musical instrument of the Mandingos". Royal Commonwealth Society Library. Cambridge University Library. University of Cambridge. 5 November 2004. Retrieved 26 April 2008.
  22. 1 2 Lois Ann Anderson. "Xylophone". In L. Root, Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
  23. The first citation in the Oxford English DictionaryOxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, OED.com – is the 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'.". However, the word appears earlier in the 1865 The Ladies' Companion, pub. Rogerson and Tuxford, p.152,Google Books Both citations refer to the performance of a child prodigy, Sunbury.
  24. Nettl, Bruno, Music in Primitive Culture, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-59000-7, p 98(1956)
  25. "The Xylophone". Concertgoersguide.org. Oregon Symphony Players Association. Archived from the original on 13 August 2007. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  26. Michael Joseph Guzikow Archives
  27. "American Orff-Schulwerk Association". Aosa.org. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  28. Keetman, Gunild and Orff, Carl. (1958). Orff-Schulwerk Music for Children. English version adapted by Margaret Murray. London: Schott & Co. Ltd.
  29. Tracey, Andrew (26 May 2004). "Marimbas History". African Musical Instruments. Prof. Andrew Tracey and Christian Carver. Retrieved 5 June 2015.


External links

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