The tuning and sequence of the bars differ from culture to culture, but what all xylophones have in common is the arrangement of the bars in scales from the low notes to the high. The number of bars can be anywhere from one to enough to cover several octaves. The xylophone is an old instrument and bears a variety of names in different cultures: In Africa, for example, it is known as the amadinda or akadinda (Uganda), the balafon (Sudan), the carimba (Angola), the kidimba (Congo), the kundung (Nigeria), the marimba (Congo) and the silimba (South Africa). In Asia it is called the bakagong (Malaysia), the gambang (Indonesia), the dan go (Vietnam), the gabbang (Bali), the gambang calung (Java), the muqin (China), the patatag (the Philippines), the patti taranga (India) and the ranat ek (Thailand).
The arrangement of the bars in a scale makes the xylophone the ideal learning instrument, and as a result it is also played by children in many cultures. In around 1930, for example, Carl Orff was inspired by Asian trough xylophones to write his famous Method.
The possible playing techniques range from the simplest sequences of notes to virtuoso performance. In many cultures the xylophone has always been a feature of art music. In Europe on the other hand it did not attain this status until the latter years of the 19th century, after having spent the previous 400 years as a "lowly" folk instrument played by wandering minstrels.
There is no great difference between modern orchestra xylophones and their predecessors. The only significant changes were the addition of resonator tubes for each bar and variations in range.
History - The world of wooden mallet instruments
The origins of the xylophone lie in the far distant past and are difficult to trace. Most historians believe that the first xylophones appeared in eastern Asia, whence they are thought to have spread to Africa. The first evidence of the instruments is found in 9th century south-east Asia. In around 2000 BC a kind of wood-harmonicon with 16 suspended wood bars is said to have existed in China. At the same time a xylophone-like instrument called the ranat is reputed to have existed in Hindu regions. Proof that xylophones were widespread in south-east Asia is provided by numerous temple reliefs depicting people playing such instruments.
The various types of xylophone with bars made of hardwood or bamboo are still an integral part of today's various gamelan orchestras. One single gamelan orchestra can include as many as three gambangs (trough xylophones with bars made of bamboo or hardwood). Technically, most Asian xylophones are trough xylophones, i.e. the instrument has one single hollow body which acts as a resonator for all the bars. The 14 to 20 – and sometimes more – bars are fixed with metal pins on strips of material which are attached to the edges of the wood resonator box. The bars are tuned to scales of five or seven notes. Xylophones are played together with other instruments at court, as solo instruments at various fertility rituals and at festivals for the purposes of entertainment.
Trough xylophone ("gambang")
Exactly when the first xylophones reached Africa is unknown. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that it was long before the 14th century. Historical sources from the middle of the 14th century mention xylophones in what is now Mali, on the Niger. In the 16th century Portuguese missionaries in Ethiopia reported sophisticated xylophones with a resonator made of a calabash and a type of kazoo (mirliton) which produced resonant buzzing noises. A xylophone with the same properties, known as the ambira, was also reported by the Portuguese missionary Dos Santos in the region of Mozambique.
Xylophones are widespread in Africa, although they are not common in every region. High concentrations can be found on the west and east coasts (Angola, Mozambique). The xylophone is regarded as the quintessential African instrument, probably because it is ideally suited to expressing the innate African sense of rhythm.
The important role that this instrument has always played on the African continent is underlined by the wide variety of different types of xylophone found there. There are two main categories: xylophones with separate bars which are arranged independently of one another, and xylophones with fixed bars which are tied firmly together.
The simplest forms are the leg xylophone and the pit xylophone. Leg xylophones consist of several bars which are laid across the lap and played. The space under the legs acts as the resonator. Pit xylophones are made by placing the bars on rolled-up banana leaves over a pit which serves as the resonator.
One type of xylophone which is very important is the log xylophone, which consists of bars resting on two beams. The bars are between 12 and 22 cm long and are usually fixed by long wood pins to stop them shifting position when they are struck. In Uganda instruments of this type, called the amadinda, are widespread. Larger versions, which used to be played at the court of the king, were also known as the akadinda.
A more complex form is the so-called gourd-resonated xylophone, on which each bar has its own resonator. The resonators are usually dried and hollowed-out gourds. The gourds are chosen with great care, because their pitch must correspond exactly to that of the bar. Musicians often travel long distances to find suitable specimens. Sometimes bamboo canes, canisters or metal casings are used as resonators. These xylophones feature a special means of amplification, the mirlitons. A hole is drilled in each gourd which is then covered by a membrane (of paper or from a spider's nest). This paper-thin covering vibrates in sympathy when the corresponding bar is struck and produces a buzzing noise.
Buzzing noises were also produced on European frame harps in the late Middle Ages by contriving to make the vibrating strings touch the hooks provided for this purpose.
The European folk instrument
It is probable that the xylophone arrived in Europe during the Crusades. In 1511 the German organist Arnold Schlick mentions it in his work Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten, calling it "hültze glechter" ("wooden laughter"). It was this name by which the instrument was known in German-speaking regions. In the following years the xylophone is mentioned by many influential theoreticians of the age, including Martin Agricola and Michael Praetorius in his Theatrum instrumentorum. The name "straw fiddle" was also commonly used and referred to the fact that the bars were laid on skeins of straw. In the Middle Ages xylophones were very simple instruments without any kind of resonator. Straw fiddles were popular as virtuoso instruments in the circus and were also played by wandering minstrels. This situation remained unchanged until the 19th century.
In his famous painting Dance of Death from 1523 Hans Holbein the Younger imbues the xylophone with death imagery; a skeleton in the procession plays a portable xylophone, the sound of which thus comes to symbolize the rattling of bones. This is the first known portrayal of a xylophone in Europe.
*Hans Holbein: Dance of Death, 1523*
On older xylophones – also on those from the Alpine region – the bars were arranged in four rows. The two middle rows corresponded more or less to the white keys of the piano, the two outside rows to the black keys. The bars did not lie lengthwise in front of the musician, as on the modern orchestra xylophone and African and Asian instruments, but crossways, the longest bar nearest to the player, the shortest furthest from him. There were no resonators, and the bars were struck with hammers as on the dulcimer. The advantage of this bar arrangement was that certain note sequences that occurred frequently, such as broken chords, could be played at very high speed. Traveling virtuosos excited the interest of composers such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847) and Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849) in the instrument.
The xylophone is discovered as an orchestra instrument
It was not until the 19th century that the xylophone was discovered as an orchestra instrument. Michael Josef Guzikov, a Pole, was one of the best known traveling virtuosos. The first compositions for the xylophone were probably presented in 1803 by Ignaz Schweigl and in 1810 by Ferdinand Kauer (Sei Variazioni). The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the first to use the xylophone in orchestral pieces, in his programmatic works La Danse Macabre (1875) and Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886). The instrument used was still the four-rowed version.
In 1886 Albert Roth published a xylophone tutor for the four-rowed instrument in which he also introduced a two-row chromatic arrangement of the bars following the pattern of piano keys. This led to the development of the modern orchestra xylophone with its two-row chromatic bar arrangement and resonators. From 1903, the American John Calhoun Deagan became one of the first major manufacturers of the modern orchestra xylophone, which soon established itself as the standard instrument in theater and symphony orchestras as well as in dance bands. The fact that the xylophone sounded particularly good on early records may also have contributed to its popularity. The parts entrusted to the xylophone and the growing percussion section by composers during the 20th century became ever larger and more important. Composers such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez and Karheinz Stockhausen are just a few of those who placed percussion instruments at the forefront of musical performance. The century of percussion had begun.
Construction of the orchestra xylophone
Rather than describe the many different types of xylophone that have appeared all over the world in the course of history, we will restrict ourselves here to a detailed description of the modern orchestra xylophone only.
The frame on which the bars are mounted rests on a metal stand, which has wheels for ease of transport. This is necessary because percussion instruments often have to move to a different position.
The modern orchestra xylophone has chromatically tuned bars, which are arranged in two rows in the same way as the keys of a piano. The row of bars which corresponds to the piano's black keys is slightly elevated. Nowadays the bars have holes drilled at their nodal points through which a string is threaded on which the bars are suspended. Each bar is separated from its neighbor by pegs, so that it hangs and can vibrate freely.
On older xylophones or other types of xylophone (trough xylophone, Orff Method xylophones) the bars rest on a pad of felt or rubber.
The number of bars varies according to the instrument's range, which is virtually impossible to define. The average range of modern orchestra xylophones can lie anywhere between three (C5–C8), three and a half (F4–C8) and four octaves (C4–C8). Most orchestras use several xylophones, one of which has a range of four octaves. Five-octave instruments failed to gain acceptance due to the inferiority of the sound, although parts have been written for them.
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 on African xylophones.
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 and the highest bar is relatively small. A xylophone's bars are between roughly 2.5 cm and 4.6 cm wide, between 1.5 cm and 2.5 cm thick and between roughly 38 cm (lowest note) and 13.5 cm (highest note) long.
Modern orchestra xylophones are generally tuned to 442 hertz equal temperament. However, xylophone makers produce instruments in various tunings, because of the differences in tuning pitch used by orchestras in different parts of the world.
Unlike earlier models, modern orchestra xylophones are equipped with resonator tubes on the underside. Each bar has its own resonator. The resonators serve to amplify the sound and soften the tone somewhat; xylophones with no resonators, common in the 19th and early 20th centuries in orchestral music, had a harder timbre.
Which wood should be used for the bars?
Every type of wood has a particular timbre; soft woods such as alder and poplar have a softer, more gentle sound.
Very hard woods such as maple, or exotic woods such as Honduras or Brazilian rosewood have a sound which is richer in partials and more resonant. They sound brighter than soft woods.
On modern orchestra xylophones very hard and usually exotic woods such as Honduras rosewood, Japanese birch or Burmese padouk are used. Softer woods are preferred on children's instruments. When choosing wood for a musical instrument it is very important that it should be evenly matured, because it is only in wood with this quality that a sound rich in partials can develop. The sound is also influenced by the way the bars are finished; depending on how they are carved, which is usually on the underside, either the fundamental tone (= 1st partial) or a higher partial can be made more prominent.
Xylophone bars are often tuned in such a way that the 3rd partial (= octave + a fifth above the pitch of the fundamental) is more prominent, whereas on marimbas this is more often case for the 2nd partial (= octave above the fundamental). However, on xylophones it is also usual to enhance the 1st partial (= fundamental tone), which softens the timbre.
Wood is very susceptible to changes in the environment and is therefore less capable of maintaining a tuning than synthetic materials. The quality of its sound, however, is far superior. Touring musicians prefer to use synthetic bars. Instruments with synthetic bars are of course still called xylophones (= wood sounder).
Hammers and mallets
Percussionists use many different hammers and mallets. On the xylophone, mallets with a slightly flexible shaft and a small, round head are generally used.
The head is made of rubber, wood or plastic. The heads of softer mallets are wrapped in yarn. Each material provides its own timbre. On the xylophone, harder mallets are preferred because of the particular tonal properties they offer.
Softer mallets damp the higher partials, the timbre becomes softer and rounder; hard mallets bring the higher partials to the fore, making the timbre brighter, harder and shriller.
Shaft length: 30–40 cm.
Head diameter: 2–2.8 cm.
Material: ebonite, rosewood, Lexan, ABS, rubber, yarn wrapping.
Mallets are divided into eight degrees of hardness: extra hard, very hard, hard, medium hard, medium soft, soft, very soft, extra soft. These categories are more relevant to playing practice; in scores only three degrees of hardness are generally indicated: soft, medium and hard.
The modern orchestra xylophone sounds an octave higher than written. It is therefore a transposing instrument. Notation in treble clef on a single staff is customary.
Some composers write actual pitch. This is then indicated in the score.
The average range of modern orchestra xylophones varies between three and four octaves.
Xylophone with three octaves: C5–C8
Xylophone with three and a half octaves: F4–C8
Xylophone with four octaves: C4–C8
The orchestra xylophone 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 xylophone with the bars lying lengthwise in front of him, pointing toward him. One or more mallets can be held in each hand. 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. 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 width of the bars on xylophones and other mallet instruments often varies, which can cause the musician problems.
The xylophonist has a choice of mallets of differing hardness. Softer mallets damp the higher partials making the timbre softer, rounder and more gentle; harder mallets favor the higher partials, making the timbre brighter, harder and shriller.
Single notes are sounds of very short duration.
Repetitions with or without accents are among the most effective playing techniques on the xylophone.
Every type of tremolo, monophonic and polyphonic, is possible. Tremolos make it possible for the musician to link the extremely short notes of the xylophone to create a continuous sound of any length. 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.
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 xylophone, one octave equals a span of about 32 cm.
Tremolo with two mallets in each hand, so that the notes combine to form a static sound.
Because the sound is very short a legato effect can be produced by only the most accomplished xylophonists. In reality it arises from a variation of the degree of staccato.
Because the sound is very short, all note sequences sound staccato. Nevertheless, varying degrees of staccato are possible.
Hard, wooden, bright, rattling, incisive, penetrating, sharp, accentuated, precise, piercing, brittle, dry, bubbling, drop-like, shrill, hollow, ticking, transparent, clear.
What distinguishes the sound of the xylophone is the impression of precision it creates and the lack of resonance.
A further characteristic of the instrument is that it is often difficult to hear the octave positions correctly, especially the highest registers. This is due to the greater proportion of higher partials. Consequently it is admissible and sometimes necessary to transpose individual xylophone parts down an octave in order to meet the requirements of the room.
The sound depends on the diameter and hardness of the mallet head: the harder the mallet the higher the number of partials that sound and the brighter, harder and shriller the timbre. Softer mallets damp the higher partials, the timbre becomes darker, softer and rounder.
The point at which the bar is struck can also influence the sound.
The xylophone's timbre remains consistent throughout its compass, differences between the registers are not distinguishable.
Because of its ability to play bright and incisive notes, the xylophone in the classical-modern orchestra has been given the task either of accentuating the top notes of a melody line or of doubling the melody line of another instrument an octave above it. A further "classic" role of the xylophone is the doubling of rapid runs and figures one or two octaves higher. Such sound combinations achieve a scintillating brilliance that is audible above the entire orchestra. The xylophone is the instrument that can etch sharp lines against a background of sound.
In 20th century music the number of tasks entrusted to the xylophone has increased. In ensembles it features more and more as a solo instrument. Its sound is suitable for all tasks from solo performance to assimilation in the overall tonal background.
Xylophone + other percussion instruments
Full-sounding combination in unison and octaves with the celesta and the glockenspiel. The xylophone is dominant.
Xylophone + brass instruments
Penetrating effect in unison and octaves with the trumpet. Octave and double-octave combinations are possible with the French horn and the lower brass; in these combinations the xylophone sounds like a kind of shrill overtone.
Xylophone + woodwind instruments
Good effects in unison and octaves with the higher woodwinds such as the flute, clarinet and oboe. The xylophone is dominant. In octave and double-octave combinations the xylophone sounds like a shrill overtone.
Xylophone + strings
Full-sounding combinations in unison and octaves with the violin and viola. The xylophone is dominant and lends the strings' pizzicato more of an edge, enabling it to assert itself better. In octave and double-octave combinations the xylophone sounds like a shrill overtone.
Xylophone + harp
Full-sounding combinations in unison and octaves with the harp. The xylophone is dominant.
- Xylophone sonata
- La Danse Macabre op. 40 (1875)
- Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886)
- 6th symphony (1906)
- Salome (1905)
- The Firebird (1910)
- Petrushka (1911)
Karl Amadeus Hartmann
- Late symphonies
- Jenufa (1904)
- Three pieces for orchestra, op. 6 (1914)
- Wozzeck (1925)
- Ma mère l'Oye (1912)
- Gurrelieder (1913)
- Turandot (1926)
- Symphonies no. 5–8
- The wooden prince (1916)
- The miraculous mandarin (1919)
- Music for strings, percussion and celesta (1936)
- Belshazzar's Feast (1931)
- Piano concerto in F (1925),
- An American in Paris (1928)
- Porgy and Bess (1935)
- Appalachian Spring (1944)
- Antigonae (1949)
- Turangalîla (1949)
- The Young Person's guide to the Orchestra op. 34 (1946)
- West Side Story (1957)
- Double concerto for oboe and harp (1980)
- Concerto for orchestra (1954)
Ensemble works with xylophone
- Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1938)
- Les Noces (1923)
- Le marteau sans maître (1955)
- Oiseaux éxotiques (1956)
- Drumming (1971)
- In Ancient Temple Gardens