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What is a Xylophone?

The entire body of a xylophone vibrates to make sound.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 July 2014
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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.

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.

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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.

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