Xylophones are a percussion instrument consisting typically of wooden bars struck by various types of mallets. Each bar or “key” is tuned to one specific note on the scale. The notes are arranged similar to a piano.
Xylophone can be a broad term used to refer to many instruments with similar makeup, to include the marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, lithophone, metallophone, balafon, semantron, and many others.
Orchestrally speaking, however, the term xylophone refers to a specific chromatic instrument; one that has a higher pitch range and drier timbre than, say, the marimba.
The term xylophone is also used to describe many children’s toys, though because the bars are metal they are actually metallophones rather than xylophones.
Different Types of Xylophones
Xylophones have obscure origins and old xylophone-like instruments can be found in both Africa and southeast Asia.
Originating in Buganda, now modern-day Uganda, the akadinda started as an instrument with twenty-two keys that later became seventeen. It is made out of banana stems, distinguishing it from other types of xylophones.
Historically, it was played only for the Ugandan king.
The smaller version of the akadinda, the amadinda is crafted from twelve logs tuned to a pentatonic scale. It is usually played by three people, two of them sitting opposite each other and playing the same logs.
It was traditionally played only by the Royal Court and owned by rich or otherwise important men.
The balafon is a twenty-one key instrument originating from Balafon. Sometimes the keys are fixed together with leather straps on a wooden frame with a calabash under each key as a resonator. Other times, the keys are free and are just placed on any padded surface.
The embaire comes from eastern Africa. It is another twenty-one keyed instrument. It is played by six people, three on each side of the embaire. Interestingly, rather than striking the keys in the middle of the bar, the ends are struck instead.
This instrument originated in Indonesia and the Southern Philippines. Size ranges from seventeen to twenty-one keys. The kayu has wooden bars and the gangsa has metal bars, technically making it not a xylophone.
The gyil comes from western Africa, seen in countries like Burkina, Faso, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Mali. It is a pentatonic instrument typically played in pairs. Traditionally the gyil is played by men who learn to play as young boys. One person can play a gyil, it does not have to be played by two people.
The gyil is made of fourteen wooden keys held together by antelope sinew and leather, stabilized by a wooden frame. Calabash gourds function as the resonators. Gyil are played with rubber-headed wooden mallets.
The khmer originated in Cambodia. It is a twenty-one keyed instrument consisting of wooden bars suspended by string. The khmer is shaped like a curved, rectangular boat. One of the khmer variations, the roneat thung, is a low pitch instrument and will often be placed next to the higher pitched instrument, the roneat ek. In Thailand, the khmer is called the ronat.
The mbila originated in Mozambique with the Chopi people. It is a heptatonic-tuned instrument made out of wooden keys that have masala apple shells for resonators. While they have the typical xylophone construction, they are also very large and can be played by up to eight people simultaneously with heavy rubber-headed mallets.
The timbila (plural form) can come in several sizes, though if they get too big they are considered dibindas or gulus. The gulus use gourds for resonators due to their large size. All variations of the mbila have nineteen keys.
The silimba comes from Barotseland, Zambia. The keys are wooden and they use gourds for resonators.
Instruments resembling a modern xylophone were first mentioned in Germany in the early sixteenth century. The term was not coined until the 1860s, however. The instrument was seen a lot in Eastern European folk music, most notably Poland.
The first xylophones were made of twenty-eight wooden bars resting on straw supports. The mallets were spoon-shaped sticks. The instrument gained popularity in the early twentieth century, though lost out in some popularity compared to the metal-barred vibraphone.
These are smaller one-to-two octave xylophones that are used in elementary schools to teach basic music theory and percussion. Sometimes they are misnamed because the keys will be metal rather than wood or fiberglass, making them metallophones.
There are many instruments that are set up similarly to a xylophone but are not actually xylophones. These include marimbas, vibraphones, glockenspiels, and other types of metallophones. Xylophones are classified by their wooden key makeup rather than metal.
Glockenspiels are small with metal bars. They play in the upper registers and their sheet music is often transposed down two octaves because of that. They range from having two and a half octaves to three and a half octaves. They are highly portable and used often as an accent instrument in modern orchestras.
Marimbas look very similar to xylophones, though they are bigger as they are both lower in pitch and have more octaves. They usually have four octaves plus a third or five full octaves. Their bars are thicker to allow for lower notes and a warmer tone than a xylophone.
Like a xylophone, their bars are made of wood or fiberglass. Because of their range, their sheet music does not need to be transposed down. However, to further differentiate marimbas from xylophones, they are tuned to different harmonics and create different sounds.
Vibraphones have metal keys and have a cloth dampener that can be activated by a pedal to allow the keys to resonate more or less. In addition to the dampeners, the resonators will have butterfly valves that help create a vibrating sound. They have a similar octave range as xylophones.
A xylorimba is a lower-pitched xylophone that has a full five octaves. Due to the prevalence of marimbas and other percussion instruments, xylorimbas are hard to come by.
This instrument is set up like a xylophone, but the keys are made of rocks. The rocks are different sizes to create the different pitches. The mallets typically resemble a hammer more than a traditional mallet.
This instrument comes from India. It is consists of porcelain bowls, filled with varying levels of water to create different pitches. The bowls are struck with bamboo mallets.
Modern western xylophones have keys made typically of rosewood, bamboo, or padauk. Some keys are made from fiberglass to allow them more volume.
At their smallest, xylophones have two and a half octaves, though a standard concert xylophone will be three and a half to four octaves. Because of the limited range of notes and where they fall on the concert scale, xylophone music is generally written one octave below the sounding notes so the notes aren’t too far above the staff.
Concert xylophones will also have resonators made out of fiberglass or metal to sustain and enhance the tone. Others, called “trough” xylophones will have a hollow body that acts as a resonator for all the keys. The frames are made out of wood or steel tubing. More expensive stands will allow for height adjustment.
The keys are strung together with tightly wound cord. Generally, the keys can be removed from the stand and rolled up. This enables easier transportation options as well as the ability to make repairs easier. Around the world, keys can be strung together with straw and other plant-based materials.
It can be easy to mistake many xylophone like instruments for a xylophone when they are actually considered another type of instrument. On the flip side, there are many xylophones that might not look like a xylophone, but fit the technical definition of one. However, these instruments are a great addition to concert music and can be played by themselves as well.