The xylophone is a component of the percussion section of an orchestra and many instrumental groups. Its unique sound, relative rarity, and appearance make it fascinating to the listener. The xylophone has a close cousin called the marimba. Both instruments consist of wooden keys mounted on a wooden frame over a series of metal tubes called resonators. Hammering on the wooden keys causes the impact to resonate through the tubes. The xylophone has a brittle, metallic sound, while the marimba is somewhat more mellow or wooden to the listener.
The xylophone and marimba differ in range. Depending on the model, a xylophone encompasses two to four octaves. Its highest note is the same as C-88 on the piano. The marimba covers two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half octaves with C-76 the highest note. This means that the marimba is one octave lower than the xylophone in range. Music is written for the xylophone as an effects instrument. It rarely is used to play solos with an orchestra or ensemble. The marimba's large resonators make it sound more like an organ. Composers write more music for the marimba as a solo instrument, and its sound range is so wide that it can make music like a full orchestra.
The sound produced from the xylophone depends heavily on the skill of the player. The player stands to play the xylophone and faces the center of the instrument. He or she must stand erect, hold the mallets (hammers or beaters) between the thumb and first joint of the first finger with one mallet per hand. The wrists are used to move the mallets smoothly up and down; the palms face out. The arms are held down near the keyboard and do not move. The xylophonist plays the lower register by taking one step to the left and the upper register by making one step to the right. The player always returns to center. Notes are struck in the centers of the bars or keys. Flats and sharps are struck along the edges of the bars but not the part of the bar that rests directly on the frame. The lowest end of the xylophone is the widest, and the highest notes are at the narrow end.
The mallets are also important to the sound produced. The instrumentalist must choose the right mallets to either blend in or project above the other instruments, depending on the volume needed and the character of the music. Xylophone players typically use rubber mallets made either of medium, hard, or extra hard rubber. Marimba players use mallets of soft rubber or medium soft woven yarn.
Mallet grip is critical to the proper technique for playing any of the mallet instruments. The player must stay relaxed but completely controlled; ease of movement or flow is very important to the sound produced. Both hands hold the mallets the same way, which is called a "matched grip." The point where each mallet is held between the thumb and the first joint of the first finger is called the pivot point. The other fingers curve around the stick portion of the mallet in a relaxed curl. Any pinching will constrict the sound and tire the player. The pivot point allows the mallet to rebound naturally, and force is provided by the combined movement of the finger, wrist, and forearm. The player will learn to place the pivot point at the point of balance between the ball of the mallet and the end of the stick or handle. The grip is almost the same as the right hand grip for playing the snare drum.
The bars on the keyboard of the xylophone look much like the black and white keys of a piano. The best sound comes from striking the middle of each bar, although very fast passages are played at the ends of the bars. The place where the bar passes over the chord or frame of the xylophone produces a dead sound, so this is avoided. The xylophone is not pounded with the mallets; instead, the correct rebound of the mallets pulls more rounded tones out of the bars. Beginning players learn to strike the centers of the bars to develop their feel for the reach from bar to bar. With increasing skill in getting the right tones from the bars, students can expand the parts of the bars they use to vary the sound and volume.
The xylophone is an ancient instrument that originated independently in Africa and Asia. Wooden bars were originally seated on a series of hollow gourds, and the gourds generated the resonating notes that are produced on modern instruments by metal tubes. For centuries, xylophone makers struggled with methods of tuning the wooden bars. 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.
African xylophonists had the widest variety of instruments, including some that were plucked instead of hammered and lightweight instruments that were suspended on a rope around the player's neck. They used wooden boxes for resonators as well as clay pots in Nigeria and pits in the ground in Kenya and Central and West Africa. They inserted membranes between the bars and resonators to give the instrument a buzzing sound; these membranes were made of spider cocoons or cigarette papers. In southeastern Africa, the Chopi people play xylophones in groups of as many as six instruments of different sizes and ranges.
In the seventeenth century, African instrumentalists took the xylophone with them to Central America where it was modified and became known as the marimba. The marimba remains popular throughout Mexico and Central America and is considered the national instrument of Guatemala. The Africans who were responsible for the instrument's migration also developed an effective method of tuning it. They carved a gentle arch on the underside of each bar and simply continued carving until the bar was tuned accurately. This arch is called an "arcuate notch" and is the key to the tunefulness of the xylophone, marimba, and all other members of the xylophone family.
Another type of xylophone, the trough xylophone, is characteristic of the ancient instrument invented in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and is still played today, especially in Java. The trough xylophone has its bars set across a wooden box with an open top and a bottom that slopes downward toward the bass end. Different ranges of bars from alto to bass can be removed and inserted in the box, so its range can be changed to suit the music. The trough xylophone is a favorite teaching instrument.
Early music for the xylophone was traditional and passed down from teacher to student. A European form of the xylophone first known around the fifteenth century and was developed in Central and Eastern Europe; was probably more closely related to the dulcimer than the African and Asian xylophones. In the nineteenth century, this folk instrument was modified by adding extra rows of bars; four rows became standard. Western composers did not "discover" the xylophone or begin writing classical music for it until the mid-1800s. Hans Christian Lumbye entered the history books as the first western composer to write a score for the xylophone in his 1873 "Traumbilder." The French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) incorporated the xylophone in his 1874 "Danse Macabre." Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) used the xylophone for some percussion in his dances from "The Three Cornered Hat". The Russian composers Aram Ilyich Khachaturian (1903-1978) and Igor Fydorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971) experimented with many percussive types in their pioneering forays into modern Russian compositions. Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" from his ballet called "Gayane Suite" has a challenging xylophone part, and Stravinsky's ballet "Petrouchka" includes his best-known use of this unusual instrument.
Modern musicians returned to the xylophone in the 1960s with another flurry of
The materials needed to make an orchestral quality xylophone begin with rosewood for the bars. Some teaching instruments for schools are made with keys fabricated from synthetic materials, but a true xylophone must have rosewood keys. Resonators are made from aluminum tubing that is also acquired in bulk from a specialty metal fabricator. Cords or pads of felt, synthetic, rubber, wood, or other materials support the keys at the nodal points where they rest on the frame over the resonators.
The frame itself may be constructed of metal or any wood, depending on the preferences of the customer and the manufacturer for the finished appearance of the instrument. Xylophones for high school and college marching
The Manufacturing Process
- Construction of a xylophone begins with a design drawing. Xylophone manufacture is based on traditional designs with little variation, so the design process is limited to selecting the size or range of the xylophone and the finish of the frame.
- Rosewood for the keys is purchased in bulk. Sections long enough to produce several keys are cut and the wood is stored and aged for approximately two years before the keys are cut. The xylophone bars or keys are cut to lengths ranging from long keys for the low notes to shorter keys for the higher notes. The keys are a standard width of 1.5 in (3.8 cm) and a thickness of 1 in (2.5 cm). Holes are drilled at the support ends where the keys will be fitted to the nodes. The craftsman must then carve out the arcuate notch, the gentle arch on the underside of the key that provides accurate pitch. He does this in a series of cautious steps—carving to rough tune, checking the pitch, carving to truer tune, checking the pitch, carving to final tune, and confirming the pitch. After final tuning, the bar is gently sanded. When all the bars are tuned, they are polished, stained, and varnished. Choice of the color of stain is made by the customer and manufacturer.
- Aluminum tubular resonators are made from tubing purchased from a metal fabricator. The tubes must be well made with uniform circumferences and smooth finishes that will not detract from the sound quality. The tubes are cut to lengths that depend more on the finished appearance of the xylophone. Usually, the bottom ends of the tubes have a tapered length with longer tubes at the bass end and shorter tubes toward the higher end of the range, or an arched effect from one end to the other. The length of the tubes does not matter for sound production because the tubes are stopped inside like organ pipes. The closing piece is added near the lower end once the tube has been tuned to its bar.
- The frame is constructed as a separate operation while the keys and tubes are being cut and tuned. The outer perimeter underneath the keys is usually made of quality wood that is finished to match the color of the keys. Legs or supports are made of wood or metal and are bolted to the frame. The feet touching the floor are fitted with castors that can be locked so the xylophone won't move as its being played or with rubber or synthetic feet.
- When the bars are complete, each one is test-fitted over its resonator and the resonator is tuned by inserting the stop. The bars are then fitted over the nodal points and screwed into place with standard wood screws. The tubes are riveted together and suspended on the frame.
- Each mallet or beater consists of two parts, the stick and the head. The stick is made of bamboo, rattan, birch, or fiberglass. The spherical heads or ends are made of hard rubber or plastic with an internal core of cord that is wound much like the inside of a golf ball. Heads made for xylophone and marimba mallets are also woven of tightly wrapped wool. Xylophone players use three varieties of mallets constructed with different combinations of stick and head to produce a wider variety of sound. Players choose the beaters based on the music they are playing, the sound of their instrument, and their own wrist strength and technique.
Xylophone makers are skilled craftsmen with woodworking capabilities equivalent to those of cabinet makers. They take professional pride in producing high-quality instruments that live up to or exceed established standards of xylophone making. Because manufacture is a craft, each step is done according to the quality control requirements of the builder. The iterative steps of tuning the bars is considered the single-most important part of xylophone manufacture, and the repetition itself is a quality measure.
Xylophone makers do generate byproducts. Typically, they offer a line of xylophones ranging from small or piccolo xylophones to bass models for orchestras or individual instrumentalists. Some also make other types of percussion instruments especially those in the xylophone family.
Very little waste results from xylophone manufacture. Rosewood is too valuable a commodity to be used frivolously, and the only wood scrap consists of shavings from tuning the keys and minor end scrap. Aluminum scrap is returned to the supplier for recycling.
The craftsmen handle a limited range of hazardous equipment and almost no hazardous materials. Bench cutters are used to cut the tubular resonators and the wood keys. Hand tools are needed to tune the keys. Safety glasses are worn during all operations. Quantities of stain and varnish are minor; these materials are stored and handled safely, and there are no related disposal or waste hazards.
The xylophone itself is an established player in an orchestra's percussion array; but its range, repertoire, and opportunities for significant growth are limited by both tradition and possibility. In recent years, its close cousin the marimba has grown considerably in popularity because of the interest in Latin, jazz, and percussive music and a broadening of the repertoire. Music enthusiasts hope the xylophone will also increase in popularity, but it will assuredly be a valued orchestra member because of its unique musical voice.
Where to Learn More
Baines, Anthony. The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Bragard, Roger, and Ferdinand J. De Hen. Musical Instruments in Art and History. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.
Dearling, Robert, ed. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments. New York: Schirmer Books, 1996.
Sachs, Curt. The History of Musical Instruments. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1940.
Thamm, Duane. The Complete Xylophone & Marimba Method. Glenview, IL: Creative Music, 1966.
Mallet Works Music. http://www.mallet-works.com (June 26, 2000).
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australia. The Instruments in an Orchestra. http://www.mso.com.au/edu/pages/orchestra/percussion (June 26, 2000).
Scott, W. L. Xylophone. http://www.musicrafts.com (June 26, 2000).
Vibraphone Web Site. http://www.thevibe.net (June 26, 2000).
— Gillian S. Holmes