Brief description

  • Name: Vibraphone
  • Spelling
    • German: Vibraphon
    • French: Vibraphone
    • Italian: Vibrafono
  • Classification: Idiophone, metallophone, percussion instrument with definite pitch, mallet instrument
  • Metal bars: Light metal, aluminum alloy; width: 3.9-5.7 cm, thickness: 1-1.3 cm, length: 18-35 cm
  • Resonator tubes: Aluminum, 5-6 cm diameter, with covers, that periodically open and close, producing a pulsing note (vibrato effect)
  • Frame in the form of a table: Length: between approx. 124-143 cm, width: 74-82 cm
  • Stand: Metal stand with wheels so that the instrument can be moved around easily
  • Weight: Between 38 and 61 kg
  • Height: 81-94 cm (adjustable)
  • Damper pedal: Stops the damping of a note
  • Motor: 0-12 rotations/sec
  • Mallets: Material: wrapped in yarn, cord or cloth; soft rubber
  • Tuning: Tuned to 442 hertz equal temperament

The onomatopoeic name vibraphone refers to the instrument's vibrating sound and is derived from the Latin vibrare (= vibrate, tremble) and the Greek phoné (= sound). The terms vibraharp and vibes were also common.

This very young instrument, which emerged in the USA at the time of the First World War, is a metallophone with resonators and an electric motor and is based on the metal marimba. The instrument's vibrating sound takes its inspiration from the human voice. The vibraphone is the most mechanically complex and sophisticated of all mallet instruments.

The new instrument, which combines melodic and harmonic characteristics, quickly became a firm favorite with jazz and dance bands and from 1945 succeeded in establishing itself in art music too.


Vox humana: human vibrations

This young instrument developed entirely in the USA at the time of the First World War. In 1916 the instrument maker Hermann Winterhoff began working on the production of vibrato effects with the aid of a motor-driven mechanism for the firm of Leedy in Indianapolis. The aim was to create a vox humana sound, a kind of artificial human voice. He carried out his first experiments on a three-octave marimba with steel bars, a new instrument at the time that was being used in variety theaters. He installed a motor that was connected to the cover disks at the upper end of the resonators by means of a spindle. In this way he achieved the typical pulsing sound, the vibrato effect, which gave the instrument its (original) name: vibraphone. The sound was introduced to the general public via radio recordings in 1924, and musicians began to take an interest in the new instrument.

Vibraphone, vibraharp and vibes

In 1922 the Chicago firm of Deagan began marketing its own version of the vibraphone under the name vibraharp, which boasted several innovative features. Deagan had been making mallet instruments and organs with percussion for half a century, and had been responsible for the production of Leedy's modified steel marimba. The so-called “Model 145” already possessed all the properties of a fully developed vibraphone: its 1.2 cm thick aluminum bars were held in place by a thread, tuned to equal temperament and had a range of F3-F6; it had a damper pedal and adjustable vibration speed. This model served as the blueprint for all subsequent instruments. The basic features of the vibraphone have remained unchanged since about 1927; any modifications have been principally of the size and weight. Different sized instruments were constructed, for example smaller models which were easier to transport. The new instrument rapidly gained popularity; band leaders and percussionists used it increasingly as the lead voice in their ensembles.

While Leedy continued to make vibraphones, other firms began producing instruments which were virtually identical but marketed under different names: vibraphone and vibraharp. This caused some confusion, until the terms vibes for the instrument and vibist for the player became common among professional musicians. To ensure that the instruments could perform a variety of different tasks, all sorts of models were produced, with ranges of three, three and a half or four octaves. At the same time luxury models and portable versions were also made. This variety was also reflected in the choice of alloy for the bars: aluminum, brass, lacquer and gold were all available. Whether this variety was the result of the search for a better sound or a more attractive appearance is hard to say; it is probable that both considerations played a role.

Electronic vibrations

In the sixties experiments with electronic amplification systems were carried out with the double aim of improving the resonators' function and replacing the vibration mechanism. A microphone was installed inside each resonator, which was later joined by a magnetic strip. The difficulty was achieving a pure sound that could be amplified with no restrictions. Today the situation has been improved by means of a purely electronic system that uses a piezoelectric chip attached to the underside of each bar and connected to a control and amplification unit. Whenever pressure is exerted on a bar an electronic signal is sent to the control unit, enabling the musician to regulate the volume and speed of the vibrato.


Lionel Hampton (1909-2002) began playing the vibraharp in a band in California at an early age, and was soon heard by the great Louis Armstrong (1898-1971), who was impressed by the instrument's sound. This enthusiasm led to a joint recording session in 1931, which was probably the first recording session to feature the vibraphone genius Lionel Hampton. The vibraphone's sweeping success in jazz circles next reached the band leader Benny Goodman (1909-1986), who immediately added its vibrato sounds to his orchestra. Orchestras, big bands, jazz sextets and jazz quartets in every conceivable constellation were being enriched by the new instrument's sensitive melody lines and resonant harmonies. The vibraphone is hugely important in jazz not only as a solo instrument (Lionel Hampton, Garry Burton) but also as an integral part of band and big band music.

In the orchestra

The vibraphone was first scored for the orchestra from about 1933, albeit rarely. It began to be used more often from 1945, especially by composers of film and theater music, who were therefore the first to include the new sound in the orchestra. The vibraphone became part of the essential equipment of the recording studio. In modern ensemble and orchestra music it became more and more important, although it never achieved the status of other mallet instruments such as the xylophone, glockenspiel or marimba. Since the sixties it has been scored more often in ensembles than in the orchestra.


Steel bars

The frame with the chromatically tuned steel bars is mounted on a metal stand, which in turn rests on small wheels so it can be moved easily. The steel bars are arranged in two rows in the same way as the keys of a piano. Unlike the xylophone and the marimba the bars are on one level. The bars - steel, aluminum alloy - have holes drilled horizontally at their nodal points (near the end) through which a string is threaded on which the bars are suspended. Each bar is separated from its neighbor by small isolating plates, which stabilize the bars and allow them to vibrate freely. If these plates are too close to the bars, a buzzing sound results.

Resonator tubes and vibrator

*1. Resonator tube
2. Vibrator disc
3. Spindle
4. Sound bar*

Under every bar and at ninety degrees to it there is a corresponding resonator tube which amplifies the fundamental tone. On the upper edge of the resonator the vibrator is fixed; this is a disk which is connected to a motorized spindle. When the motor is switched on the spindle periodically moves to and fro while the disks covering the resonators open and close, on all resonators simultaneously. The air column inside the resonators moves, and an alternate increase and decrease in the pitch of the note is created, the well known vibrato effect. The rotation speed of the motor is adjustable and ranges from about 0-12 rotations per second.

At the bottom the resonators are closed; the length of the air column inside corresponds exactly to the fundamental tone of the bar above. The same acoustic principles apply as to stopped organ pipes (i.e. tubes closed at one end). The fundamental note is determined by the length of the air column inside the tube.

The wavelength is the speed of sound (= 340 m/sec) divided by the frequency. The greatest possible wavelength (= fundamental tone) of a perfect tube open at both ends is half the length of the tube; in a tube like this there is therefore room for half a wave. The greatest possible wavelength of a tube that is closed at one end and open at the other (as a stopped organ pipe) is only a quarter of the tube's length. So in a tube like that there is room for only a quarter of a wave. An example? How long must the resonator for the note C4 be? (Frequency = 260 hertz (= 260 vibrations/sec).
340 m : 260 = 1.30 m
130 cm : 4 = 32.5 cm
The resonator for C4 is 32.5 cm long. In practice, however, the tube must be shortened by the length of the “end correction”, which is 5:3 of the tube diameter. For every octave upward the tube length is halved.

However, to make the instrument look more attractive the resonators are often arranged in a semicircular curve. The two end resonators are the same length, and the tubes get shorter from both ends toward the middle, forming a symmetrical pattern. The resonators of the higher bars, on the left from the audience's point of view, should, of course, be the shortest. But the tubes are closed inside at the point necessary for the pitch of the corresponding bar. In other words, the instrument's appearance does not reflect its acoustic properties.

*1. Construction of vibraphones
2. Acoustic reality: actual length of the resonance tubes*

Damper pedal

The vibraphone owes the great resonance of its notes to the damper pedal. This pedal operates a bar of felt, which is removed from the bars when the pedal is depressed. When the pedal is let go, the felt strip presses against the metal bars, damping them. So the pedal works the same way as on the piano: to achieve resonance it must be depressed.

Generally, modern vibraphones are tuned to 442 hertz equal temperament. However, vibraphone makers produce instruments in various tunings, because these are required by orchestras in different parts of the world.


There are two types of mallet head: round and elliptical. As a rule, hard mallets are used on the vibraphone; metal bars can cope with harder mallets than wood ones can (xylophone, marimba). Depending on the task to be performed the head can also be wrapped in yarn or cord.

Shaft length: 31 - 35 cm.
Head diameter: 2.3 - 3.3 cm.

Yarn-wrapped heads produce a pleasing, soft sound and are used on the marimba, the xylophone and the vibraphone.

Cord-wrapped heads are harder than yarn-wrapped ones and produce a brighter sound. They are suitable for passages that must be played with precision and clarity. They are used on the vibraphone.

Hard rubber
Mallets with rubber heads are suitable for a wide variety of mallet instruments. They range from very hard rubber, which is used on the glockenspiel and the xylophone, to soft for the vibraphone and the marimba.

Further mallet types

Very hard, suitable for the glockenspiel and the xylophone. A wide variety of different sounds can be produced depending on the head's material and size. Honduran rosewood produces a clear (crisp) and definite tone.

Brass heads are used on the glockenspiel and produce brilliant, clear, metallic sounds.

Ebonite with brass core
Is used only on the glockenspiel. It has a large, heavy metal core which creates a powerful sound that projects well.

Double-bass bow
The double-bass bow is used to stroke the end of a bar. This technique produces long notes with great resonance. Owing to the length of time it takes the bow to set the bars fully vibrating, no rapid sequences of notes are possible.


Vibraphone notation is written in treble clef on one staff and sounds as written.


The vibraphone's range varies from three to three and a half octaves.

Vibraphone with three octaves: F3 - F6
Vibraphone with three and a half octaves: C3 - F6

Sound production


The vibraphone consists of two parallel rows of bars. Each bar produces a different 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 nigh notes (= short bars) on the right of the musician.

When playing, the musician stands at the vibraphone with the bars lying lengthwise in front of him, pointing toward him.

One or more mallets can be held in each hand, the maximum being three per hand (six altogether). The mallets strike the bars and are constructed in such a way that they immediately spring back and so avoid damping the vibration of the bars. They are held with the palm facing downward.

The musician has a choice of mallets of differing hardness.

Softer mallets damp the higher partials making the timbre softer, rounder and more lacking in overtones; harder mallets favor the higher partials, making the timbre brighter, harder and shriller.


The vibrator is an electric motor that can be switched on and off. The speed of the vibrator is regulated by a knob at the left hand end of the row of bars. The speed of rotation (= vibrations) ranges from about 0-12 rotations per second.

Damper pedal

The damper pedal on the vibraphone works the same way as on the piano. Without it the notes are automatically damped and sound very short. Damping prevents the full development of the sound. Depressing the pedal stops the notes being damped and allows them to resonate.

If the musician wishes to damp certain notes but allow others to resonate he damps them with the mallet. Only rarely is the hand used to damp notes.

A kind of secco playing is possible.

Playing Techniques


In principle all playing techniques can be performed in four ways: without vibrato (motor), with vibrato (motor), without the damper pedal (secco) or with the damper pedal. Vibraphone players generally use the pedal with great precision to prevent successive harmonies from overlapping.

Single notes

Single notes are sounds that resonate for a long time, providing the damper pedal is depressed.


Playing with the motor switched on.

Vibrato stop

Playing with the motor switched off.


Repetitions with and without accents are possible.


Every type of tremolo, monophonic and polyphonic, is possible. Changes in the dynamic level are possible in the course of the tremolo in all nuances and are very effective for dramatic build-ups and decrescendos.


Trills of all kinds are easy to perform and produce a good effect.


Diatonic (white keys) and pentatonic glissandos (black keys), both singly and parallel, crosswise glissandos, polyphonic glissandos at all tempos and dynamic shading are all possible and very effective. Pentatonic glissandos are very difficult to play owing to the irregular spacing of the bars.

Resonance glissando

After striking the bar with one hand the musician places the second (rubber or plastic) mallet on the non-vibrating nodal point of the bar (where the thread passes through) and slides it toward the middle. This produces a decrease in pitch similar to a glissando of a maximum of a minor or a major second. The greater the pressure on the bar, the greater the volume of the glissando. Sliding the mallet over the vibrating bar damps it, so this effect is of only very short duration and cannot be performed loudly.


Chords are produced by the musician using three or four mallets at once, i.e. two (sometimes three) 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.

Chord tremolo

Tremolo with two mallets in each hand, so that the notes combine to form a static sound.

Double-bass bow

The double-bass bow is used to stroke the end of a bar. This technique produces long notes with great resonance. Owing to the length of time it takes the bow to set the bars fully vibrating, no rapid sequences of notes are possible.

The sound is soft and ethereal. As a rule, two-part chords are scored, both with and without vibrato. This technique is common is modern music.

Dead stroke

The mallet remains on the bar following the attack, thus damping the resonance.


Accomplished players can achieve this effect by damping the preceding note with the hand. The danger of slurring when depressing the damper pedal is great.


If the damper pedal is not depressed the struck note is damped by a bar of felt; in other words, damped notes are produced “naturally”, as on the piano. This means that staccato playing is possible. Sequences of this kind have a secco (short, dry) sound.

Sound characteristics

Metallic, hard, soft, gentle, glassy, oscillating, wafting, lustrous, muted, caressing, gossamer, ethereal, drifting, trembling, voice-like.

The sound of the vibraphone is greatly lacking in overtones. In the lower register the instrument cannot assert itself very well, but in the middle and upper registers the sound brightens and becomes more easily distinguishable, though its audibility remains limited. In tutti passages, when all the instruments in the orchestra play a chord sequence, especially at climactic points and in endings, the vibraphone is inaudible.

The instrument's vibrato helps it to project and assert itself more, since the pulsing sound is distinguishable above other instruments.

Sound combinations

The vibraphone is one of the melody instruments in the percussion group. This is true of all mallet instruments (glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, lithophone) as well. The tasks performed by the mallet instruments in the orchestra are determined by their sound characteristics and are consequently many and varied:

Vibraphone: 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 a solo instrument. Its sound is suitable for all tasks from solo performance to assimilation in the overall tonal background.

Vibraphone + woodwinds
Similarity with clarinets played with a soft embouchure. A good blend is also achieved with the saxophones.

Other mallet instruments

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.

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.

Unlike the xylophone the mellow, warm and gentle sound of the marimba is very well suited for tonal blends with other instruments. It performs chiefly harmonic tasks in keeping with its low register. Its ability to assert itself is limited.

Repertoire (selection)

Solo concerto with orchestra

  • Darius Milhaud
    • Concerto for marimbaphone, vibraphone and orchestra (1947)

Orchestral vibraphone

  • Darius Milhaud

    • L'Annonce faite à Marie (opera, 1933)
  • Alban Berg

    • Lulu (opera, 193*5)
  • Werner Egk

    • Die Zaubergeige (1935, 1954)
  • Roy Harris

    • 3rd symphony (1940)
  • Olivier Messiaen

    • Turangalîla (1949)
  • Leonard Bernstein

    • West Side Story (1957)
  • Karl Amadeus Hartmann

    • Symphonies no. 6, 7 and 8
  • Hans Werner Henze

    • Elegy for young Lovers (opera, 1961)
  • Pierre Boulez

    • Pli selon pli, for soprano and orchestra (1962)
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen

    • Gruppen für drei Orchester (1963)
  • Lesile Bassett

    • Echoes from an Invisible World (1976)

Ensemble Vibraphone

  • Pierre Boulez
    • Le marteau sans maître (1955)

Solo vibraphone

  • Mark Glentworth

    • Blues for Gilbert (1975)
  • Bogusław Schaeffer

    • Konstrukcje