The origin of the name
Like the instrument itself the name "marimba" originated in Africa; the words rimba (= xylophone with a single bar) and ma (= a great number of objects) are Bantu (spoken in Malawi and Mozambique). In many African languages the term ma-rimba is therefore used to describe instruments with several bars. In a broader sense the name is also applied to another type of instrument typical of Africa, the lamellophones (= instruments with metal prongs fixed on the outside of a soundbox and plucked by the fingers). The name marimba accompanied the instrument from Africa via Latin America to Europe, where in many countries the suffix -phone (Greek for "sound") has been added.
Technically the marimba could also be described as a low-pitched xylophone, which simply means "wood sounder". But the cultural backgrounds of the two instruments are vastly different; the marimba originated in central Africa but developed independently, gaining its own identity and significance, as the following paragraphs show.
Origins in Africa
Xylophones are not found everywhere in Africa. Various types can be found from central Africa down to South Africa, and the instrument is particularly common on both the west and east coasts (Angola, Mozambique). The first evidence of historical xylophones in Africa seems to show that they originated in what is now Mali in about the 13th century.
It is generally accepted that xylophones with calabashes as resonators, which became the model for Latin American marimbas and gave them the name, were first widespread in central Africa (Tanzania, Congo). In Africa, calabashes are still made out of the dried gourds of the calabash tree; they are the same size as a pumpkin. Suitable calabashes are rare and consequently valuable. The pitch of the calabash must correspond exactly with that of the bar. Such xylophones feature a special means of amplification, a membrane called a “mirliton". A hole is drilled in each gourd which is then covered by a mirliton (of paper or from a spider's nest). This membrane vibrates in sympathy when the corresponding bar is struck and produces a buzzing noise which has the effect of amplifying the sound.
Independent development in Latin America
Africans sold as slaves to Central and South America in the 16th and 17th centuries continued to make their native instruments there. The xylophones known as marimbas underwent further development on the American continent, especially in Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil. In these countries the calabashes were replaced by precisely tuned wood resonator chambers. Mirlitons were still fitted to the resonators which gave these Central American marimbas their distinctive character.
In Latin America the name “marimba" refers to every kind of large xylophone with calabashes as resonators of the type originally introduced from Africa.
In Mexico the marimba is still a very common folk instrument and a wide variety of different versions of it are made. Chromatic instruments with 6½ octaves (C3–F8) and an astonishing 79 bars are the largest in the world and are found in Chiapas (Mexico), Guatemala and Costa Rica where they are called the marimba grande. The Chiapas marimba has the form of a table. There are two kinds: the diatonic marimba sencilla and the chromatic marimba doble. Such large instruments are usually played by several marimbists, each player responsible for a particular register, within the confines of which he is obliged to stay. In addition, instruments with three or four octaves are also used. The resonators are often made of bamboo. Marimba ensembles with several instruments are a notable tradition which is still followed today, especially in Mexico City and Chiapas; a group of musicians plays on one marimba or several. In Europe, Japan and the USA marimbas are played almost exclusively by soloists.
Adaptation for the symphony orchestra
The name marimba was eventually applied to the concert and orchestra instrument that had been inspired by the Latin American model. In 1910 the U.S. enterprises Deagan and Leedy began producing Latin American marimbas and adapting them for use in European and American symphony orchestras. Tuned metal tubes replaced the wood resonators, those for the lowest notes being bent into a U shape. The resonators were tuned by rotating metal discs at the bottom end of the tube, mirlitons were abandoned. These new marimbas were first used to accompany Vaudeville theater and comedy shows.
Although the marimba was in constant use in dance bands and light music, it was some time before it was given important parts to play in the orchestra. It was not until 1947 that the marimba suddenly burst on the scene as a serious instrument in the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone by the French composer Darius Milhaud. A new playing technique had been introduced, namely the use of four mallets, which made it possible to play chords, and this innovation received a correspondingly enthusiastic reception. In the second half of the 20th century the marimba's range of tasks in ensembles and the full orchestra was expanded more and more. Composers such as Leoš Janáček (Jenufa), Carl Orff (Antigonae), Karl Amadeus Hartmann in his symphonies, Hans Werner Henze (Elegie) and Pierre Boulez (Le marteau sans maître) entrusted the marimba with new and extremely challenging tasks. At the same time the instrument's solo repertoire was growing, too.
The frame with its bars is mounted on a metal stand (very occasionally on a wooden one) with wheels.
The modern marimba is equipped with chromatically tuned wood bars arranged in two rows, usually on two levels with one about 4 cm higher than the other. The bars are ordered according to size and have holes drilled at their nodal points through which a string is threaded and held taut. The bars are suspended from this string, which rests on pegs mounted on the frame. This prevents the bars from sagging and at the same time ensures that they can vibrate freely. The number of bars depends on the instrument's compass.
Unlike vibrating strings, halving the length of a bar raises its pitch by two octaves. It is for this reason that the difference in length between the lowest bar and the highest is relatively small.
The bars used on the marimba are made of rosewood and are somewhat softer than xylophone bars. In addition, the bars are thinner than the xylophone's and wider and longer at the bottom end. Marimba bars can be broken by very hard marimba mallets and especially by xylophone mallets.
The pitch of each bar is determined by its length, thickness and the density of the material; the width has no influence on pitch. The longer, thinner and denser the bar the lower the pitch. The shorter, thicker and less dense the bar, the higher the pitch.
The bars can be tuned by adding or taking away material. When tuning, the following rule applies: if material is filed off the ends of the bar, the pitch of the fundamental note is raised. If, on the other hand, material is carved out of the center of the bar (either from the top or the bottom), thus making it thinner, the pitch of the fundamental note is lowered. By removing material from different parts of the bar it is even possible to tune single partials. If it is necessary to improve the tuning quickly, the fundamental note can be raised by adding lumps of wax, a practice common in Africa.
Modern marimbas are generally tuned to 442 hertz equal temperament. However, marimba makers produce instruments in various tunings, because of the differences in tuning pitch used by orchestras in different parts of the world.
Marimbas are equipped with resonator tubes on the underside, the resonators for the lowest notes being rectangular. Each bar has its own resonator.
Resonators amplify the partial to which they are tuned by means of resonance: according to tradition this can be the 1st, 2nd or 3rd partial. The resonators of modern orchestra marimbas amplify the 1st partial (= fundamental). The plugs that close off the resonators at a certain depth can be moved, allowing precise tuning of the instrument. Resonators also have a mellowing effect on the timbre.
To improve the instrument's appearance there are often "false" resonators between the "black keys", which are more visible to the audience than the "white keys". These extra resonators have no effect on the timbre.
Percussionists use a wide variety of different mallets. Softer mallets are used on the marimba than on the xylophone, partly because marimba bars are more sensitive.
Marimba mallets are generally divided into three degrees of hardness: soft, medium and hard.
The heads are made of rubber, wood or plastic and are usually wrapped in yarn.
Shaft length: approx. 28 – 40 cm.
Head diameter: approx. 2.5 – 3.5 cm.
These soft mallets are often used in the lower register, for example to begin a roll from silence. They are also good for creating a soft bass "bedding". They are less well suited to the higher register because mallets that are too soft cannot bring the bars to full vibration, and the fundamental cannot be heard either. This makes the timbre empty and dull.
Filled marimba mallets
Mallets can be filled with seeds or gravel. The attack is accompanied by a rattling sound.
Notation is as for the piano – in treble and bass clef – and sounds as written.
The average range of modern marimbas varies between four and five octaves.
Marimbas with 3 ½ octaves (C3 – F6) are extremely rare.
Marimba with 4 octaves: C3 – C7
Marimba with 4 1/3 octaves: A2 – C7
Marimba with 4 ½ octaves: F2 – C7
Marimba with 5 octaves: C2 – C7
Occasionally instruments can be found that begin at A1.
Sound is produced by striking the bars with mallets. One, two or three mallets can be held in each hand. The technique with three mallets is difficult and requires a considerable amount of time to prepare. The mallets are constructed in such a way that they immediately spring back after the attack and so avoid damping the vibration of the bars. If the mallet head remains lying on the bar it is known as a dead stroke, which is used as a special effect. The mallets are held with the palm facing downward. The low notes require a stronger attack to set the larger bars vibrating.
The chromatic orchestra marimba consists of two parallel rows of bars. Each bar has its own pitch; the shorter the bar, the higher the pitch. The bars are arranged in the same way as the keys on a piano; the low notes (= long bars) are on the left, the high notes (= short bars) on the right of the musician.
As on the xylophone and other mallet-played instruments the width of the marimba's bars varies according to their pitch, which can cause problems. The span of the lowest octave is 61.5 cm, that of the highest 41 cm. The widest possible span for a marimbist with two mallets in one hand is a thirteenth (octave + a sixth), depending on the register.
Choice of mallets
The marimbist can choose from a variety of different mallets which are divided into three degrees of hardness: soft, medium and hard.
Softer mallets damp the higher partials making the timbre softer, rounder and more gentle (although the sound at the top end is muffled and the pitch cannot easily be determined); harder mallets favor the higher partials, making the timbre brighter, harder and shriller (at the bottom end the timbre is so hard that the pitch can hardly be determined).
The resonance is not damped.
Single notes are composed of attack and resonance. Low notes can resound for two to three seconds. On the marimba the same playing techniques are possible as on the xylophone. However, the marimba's greater size means that it is not quite so agile.
Repetitions allow the resonance of the pitches to build, giving the illusion of an unbroken or continuous sound. This is, of course, more effective in the lower register. Accented tones can be easily brought out of this sustained texture.
Every type of roll, monophonic and polyphonic, is possible. Rolls can be linked to create a continuous sound of any length. Changes in the dynamic level are possible in the course of the roll with different kinds of nuances and are very effective for dramatic build-ups and decrescendos. Tremolo can be used to play entire melody lines or for maintaining a background harmonic layer. These two forms of tremolo are, in fact, two of the marimba's principal tasks, especially in Latin American music.
Trills of all kinds are easy to perform and produce a good effect.
Diatonic (white keys) and pentatonic glissandos (black keys), both singly and in parallel motion, crosswise glissandos (i.e. mallets moving in opposite directions), and polyphonic glissandos at all tempos (especially fast ones) are all possible and very effective. Dynamic shading can be added to every type of glissando.
Chords are produced by the musician using three or four mallets at once, i.e. two mallets per hand. The span covered by two mallets in one hand depends on the width of the bars and the length of the mallets. On the marimba, one octave equals a span of between 61.5 cm (lowest octave) and 41 cm (highest octave).
Tremolo with two mallets in each hand, so that the notes combine to form a static sound. This very important technique on the marimba serves to create a harmonic background which blends very well with other instruments.
Adjacent bars are struck simultaneously with another bar, resulting in a dense composite sound, a so-called cluster. This effect is very bright and rich in partials.
Several bars are struck simultaneously with special cluster mallets or ordinary snare drum sticks, producing a cluster.
The bars are stroked with a double-bass bow, perpendicular to the edge of the bar. This technique produces notes which, depending on their pitch, have either longer resonance (up to two seconds) or shorter (about 0.5 seconds). Owing to the length of time it takes the bow to set the bars fully vibrating, no rapid sequences of notes are possible. For this reason two bows or two marimbists with one bow each are occasionally used.
The sound is soft and ethereal. This technique is common in modern music.
The mallet remains on the bar following the attack, thus damping the resonance.
A very effective legato can be achieved on the marimba thanks to the resonance of the low notes.
Because of the resonance, staccato has to be particularly accentuated. Staccato gradations are possible.
Dark, mellow, gentle, velvety, earthy, full, sonorous, dull, hollow, resonant, round, melodious, wooden.
The sound of the marimba is composed of the attack and resonance, which in the low register can last for two to three seconds.
The marimba's timbre is darker, richer, more mellow and more sonorous than the xylophone's. Its notes also resound for far longer.
The sound depends on the diameter and hardness of the mallet head: the harder the mallet the louder the initial attack and the more prominent the higher partials (at the bottom end the timbre is so hard that the pitch can hardly be determined). Soft mallets damp the higher partials making the timbre somewhat darker, mellower, rounder and more gentle (although the sound at the top end is muffled and the pitch cannot easily be determined).
The marimba is important primarily as a solo instrument and in various ensembles (chamber music). However, since the second half of the 20th century it has also been entrusted with an increasing number of tasks in the orchestra. It can be used especially in a thin, open or transparent orchestral setting.
Marimba + other percussion instruments:
Full-sounding combination in unison and octaves with the celesta and the glockenspiel. Interesting blends with other wood instruments. The hard wood instruments – e.g. the xylophone – are dominant.
Marimba + brass instruments
As a harmonic accompaniment to trumpet melodies. Common combination in Mexican folk music.
Marimba + woodwinds
In general, mellow-sounding and sonorous blends in unison and in octaves with the woodwinds, especially with the deep clarinets.
The combination with the saxophones has proven popular.
Marimba + strings
A very problematical possibility which still has a great deal of potential. A lot of research still needs to be done. Full-sounding combination in unison and octaves with the low strings. The strings are dominant, no new composite sound emerges, the blend is incomplete.
A comparison between four mallet instruments
The marimba is equally capable of performing melodic and harmonic tasks. The tasks performed by the mallet instruments – glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, lithophone – in the orchestra are determined by their sound characteristics and are consequently many and varied. Scoring for the various mallet instruments in one single orchestral work requires great subtlety of the composer. In recent decades the use of several different mallet instruments simultaneously has become more common.
Unlike the xylophone, the mellow, warm and gentle sound of the marimba is very well suited for tonal blends with other instruments. In the middle and low registers it performs chiefly harmonic tasks. Its ability to assert itself is limited. A full-sounding combination results from octave doubling with the xylophone, in which the xylophone remains dominant. A good timbral balance with other instruments can be achieved through a transparent orchestration within a chamber music setting.
The extremely bright and high sound adds brilliance to melody lines and doubles them an octave higher. Thanks to the increased brightness provided by the glockenspiel, the melody line becomes more prominent. In smaller ensembles, the glockenspiel also performs solo tasks.
Mellow sound, great resonance. Used to prolong notes or chords. In the lower register it tends to be drowned by other instruments, in the middle and upper registers it can assert itself better. Inaudible in tutti passages. Performs both harmonic and solo tasks, especially in smaller ensembles.
Thanks to the short and very high-pitched sound of the xylophone, note sequences become more sharply defined and can be distinguished even in an orchestra tutti. The sound of the xylophone is audible in every combination of instruments. The xylophone's specialty in the orchestra is the precise definition of immediately recognizable contours and not the blending in with other sounds.
Concerto with orchestra
- Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone and Orchestra (1947)
- Marimba Concertino, op. 21 (1940)
Marimba in the orchestra
- Jenufa (1904)
- Antigonae (1949)
Hans Werner Henze
- Elegy for Young Lovers, Opera (1961)
Karl Amadeus Hartmann
- Symphonies nos. 6 ,7 ,8 (1953, 1959, 1963)
- Latin-American Symphonette (1933)
Marimba in ensembles
- Pierre Boulez
- Le marteau sans maître (1955)
- Pli selon pli, for soprano and orchestra (1962)
Claire Omar Musser
- Various solo works
- Two Mexican Dances
- “Anima" for Marimba and Bass Drum