(from Gk. xylon: ‘wood’; Fr. xylophone, claquebois; Ger. Xylophon, Holzharmonika; It. silofono)
Percussion instrument consisting of two or more bars of graduated length. The xylophone may take several different types of construction and form: a set of bars of tuned bamboo, wood or synthetic material, logs or tubes, supported at two nodes of vibration and struck with sticks. There may be one resonator for the instrument (a pit or trough), or there may be individual resonators for each ‘key’.
Hornbostel and Sachs classified the xylophone as an Idiophone, ‘sets of percussion sticks’ (111.212), and divided xylophones into two major types: those with bedded keys and those with suspended keys.
In addition to Western art music, xylophones are found in Africa where they are considered an important instrument of the funeral ceremony, Central and South America, South-east Asia (mainland and insular), Melanesia, and the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia. In Europe, xylophones are used in the traditional music of Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries. Many 20th-century composers have scored for the instrument.
In India and China, the xylophone with trough resonator and suspended keys is considered a foreign instrument, Burmese in origin. Outside China, the xylophone with trough resonator and bedded keys is associated with Chinese communities. In West Java, for example, the Gambang xylophone is played by the leader of the ensemble (gambang leromong) that accompanies song and dance plays at Chinese weddings. As a solo instrument, the gambang was played by Javanese females of Chinese ancestry to accompany the singing of pantun poetry. In Japan, the mokkin with 16 or 17 bedded keys is used in the geza off-stage music for kabuki theatre. A similar xylophone was associated with Japanese societies that performed Chinese music of the Qing dynasty beginning in the 1820s and 30s.
Around the world
The first mention of the xylophone in Europe was in 1511, when Schlick (Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten) referred to it as hültze glechter (‘wooden clatter’).
The European xylophone before modern times was a simple instrument, the wooden slabs loosely strung together, or resting on ropes of straw, giving rise to the name ‘straw fiddle’ (Strohfiedel). It was very much an instrument of the itinerant musician until the 19th century, when it rose to prominence as a solo instrument and attracted the notice of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt, all of whom spoke of the expertise of Michał Guzikow.
During the 19th century the xylophone appeared under various disguises (xylosistron, tryphon etc.). The orchestral instrument had four rows and was similar in many ways to that of Guzikow. The lowest notes were those nearest the player, with the centre two rows corresponding to the white notes of the piano and the outer rows the black keys. Ferdinand Kauer’s Sei variazioni (c1810) contain solo passages for the xylophone, possibly the earliest orchestral use of the instrument. In 1852 it was mentioned in J.-G. Kastner’s Les danses des morts. Better known is Saint-Saëns’s use of the instrument to represent the rattling of the bones of the dead in his Danse macabre (1872), and later (as ‘Fossiles’) in Le carnaval des animaux (1886). The playing technique of the four-row instrument was totally different to that of the modern xylophone, and apparently sight reading was particularly difficult. The modern xylophone originated around the turn of the century, although the four-row instrument is still used in Eastern Europe. Early 20th-century composers to use the xylophone include Mahler (Sixth Symphony, 1903–4); Puccini (Madama Butterfly, 1904); Strauss (Salome, 1903–5); Elgar (Wand of Youth, Suite no.2, 1908); Debussy (Ibéria, 1910); Stravinsky (The Firebird, 1909–10); and Delius (Eventyr, 1917). In his final work (Turandot, completed by Alfano, 1926) Puccini wrote for xylophone and xylofon basso (the latter part is usually now played on a marimba using fairly hard sticks). An extended (and florid) part for xylophone occurs in the third movement of Havergal Brian’s Symphony The Gothic (1919–27).
The xylophone part is normally written (mostly in the treble clef) an octave lower than its sounding pitch, although both Messiaen and Birtwistle have mostly (but not always) notated xylophone parts at sounding pitch. Normally only one staff is used; rare exceptions include Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (1908–10; ‘Laideronette’), where it is given a double staff.
The arrangement of the modern European instrument follows that of a piano keyboard, and, as is the practice with bar-percussion instruments, the bars are suspended from cords passing through their node points, or rest on a cushion of felt or similar insulation. In general the row of bars corresponding to the black notes of the piano is raised, keyboard fashion. The compass of the orchestral xylophones in general use is either four octaves ascending from c', or three and a half octaves ascending from f' or g'. The larger instrument is preferable for the demands of modern composers. The bars are of the finest rosewood (or wood of a similar resonant and durable quality), or of new synthetic bar materials such as Kelon or Klyperon, prepared from synthetic reinforced resins. Synthetic bars are generally regarded as having an inferior tone quality. The pitch of each bar is governed by its length and depth; the shallowing of the underside of the bar lowers the pitch considerably. In the modern orchestral xylophone each bar is suspended over a tube resonator in which the air-column frequency matches the pitch of the bar. The bars give a bright penetrating sound when struck with hardheaded mallets. Softer beaters produce a mellow sound and are especially useful on the lower notes.
Oral traditions mention the xylophone in the 13th-century kingdom of Mali; the first written reference, also from Mali, comes from the mid-14th century. Describing two Muslim festivals at the court, Ibn Battūta (Travels in Asia and Africa, trans. H.A.R. Gibb, 1929) mentioned an instrument made of reeds with small calabashes at its lower end. In the second half of the 16th century, dos Santos, a Portuguese missionary living among the Karanga in what is now Mozambique, mentioned the ambira, a gourd-resonated instrument. From the mid-17th century onwards, European travellers to the western coasts of the continent refer to the instrument, most often with calabash resonators; the most common names for it were bala, balafo(n) and ballard(s) in West Africa and marimba in the Bantu-speaking areas – the same terms used by writers referring to the instrument in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Free key xylophones
For performance, loose keys are assembled on temporary supports, which may consist of the player’s legs, banana-tree trunks, straw bundles, or logs padded with grass. Keys may be completely loose with upright sticks placed between them to prevent their striking each other and stopping vibration. Alternatively, holes may be bored at the side of the key near each end through which a cord is strung and twisted around the dividing upright sticks. Sticks may also be placed vertically between keys at one side of the instrument and through a hole in the middle of each key at the other side. Keys are normally struck at their ends with wooden sticks.
A xylophone type intermediate between free and fixed keys is found among the Sena people in central Mozambique and the Lozi in western Zambia, where keys strung to each other are temporarily mounted on straw bundles; performers may strike the middles of the keys with wooden or rubber-tipped sticks.
Leg xylophones can be found in Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin, south-east Nigeria, Central African Republic, Zambia, Malawi and Madagascar.
Pit xylophones can be found in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, south-east Democratic Republic of the Congo, north-west Uganda and southern Malawi.
Log xylophones can be found in Guinea, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Chad, northern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and south-west Ethiopia.
Fixed key xylophones
Fixed key xylophones can be with or without calabashes. In the multiples calabashes case, there would be eight types of setting the instrument to sound: with resonators suspended from rods, with suspended keys, with quadrilateral frame, with calabashes suspended obliquely, with centre board and bridges, with centre board and insulating cushions, with centre board set within oval frame, with open frame. Each type will make the instrument sound differently and is found in specific parts of Africa.
South-east Asia and the Pacific
Insular South-east Asia
Of the many different types of xylophones found in this area, the instrument with keys resting on cloth or rattan strips at the edges of a wooden trough (trough xylophone with bedded keys) is commonly associated with Gamelan and other ensembles in various parts of Indonesia. Xylophones with suspended keys or tubes are found in the greatest variety. A few examples of a type with keys suspended over individual resonators are found in Bali (e.g. in gamelan gandrung), but that island’s most ancient ensembles (caruk, gambang and luang) have a trough-resonated xylophone with suspended keys. A common term for the xylophone in South-east Asia is gambang (gabbang, gambangan), but it may mean a different type of instrument depending on the ensemble in which it is used; in Sabah, Malaysia and the southern Philippines, gabbang always refers to a trough xylophone with bedded keys, played with rubber-tipped beaters which are curved on the underside and delicately carved in a bird- or kidney-shape.
Mainland South-east Asia
Comparatively few xylophone types are found on the mainland. A two- or four-key xylophone has been reported in West Malaysia. Suspended tubes or wooden keys in a rope ladder arrangement are found in central Vietnam and north-east Thailand. Among the Jörai, Bahnar and Rhade people in Vietnam, the torung consists of 14 to 20 tubes suspended between the two players, one of whom holds an end of the cord; the other end is tied to the second player’s leg. In Thailand, the kaw law or bong lang with 12 wooden keys is played by the Lao people in Kalasin province. The upper end of the instrument is tied to a tree and the lower end to the player’s leg. These instruments resemble the calung renteng of West Java.
The trough-resonated xylophone, Gambang, with bedded keys is found only in the Malaysian court gamelan of Trengganu, where it accompanies the joget dance. The xylophone with keys suspended over a trough resonator is important in instrumental ensembles in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and is also used for chamber music in Myanmar. The ranāt ēk is featured in the Thai pī phāt and mahōrī ensembles. In some types of pī phāt a larger xylophone (ranāt thum) is added. The same type of xylophone may have been used in an ensemble that accompanied the ashek dance at the 16th- and 17th-century Malay court of Patani, and later at the Kelantan court. In Myanmar, the pat-talà is played with the end-blown flute (palwei), or in chamber music as vocal accompaniment; it is taught by hsaìng-waìng musicians as a beginner’s instrument. It was also played at the Chinese court during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911); a description (in the Da Qing huidian, 1899) of the smaller of two Burmese ensembles that played for banquets includes the 22-key ‘pat-talà’, as well as harp, the mí-gyaùng zither, a three-string bowed lute, the palwei flute, a drum and a pair of cymbals.
The leg xylophone is found in scattered areas in west Melanesia, and is used primarily for courtship; in some areas, women are not allowed to see it. The instrument has been found on the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain, on New Ireland, the Duke of York Islands and Tami Island, and in Morobe Province of eastern Papua New Guinea. Usually two wooden keys (convex on the upper side, flat on the underside) are laid over the player’s thighs and are struck with two sticks.
Names for the instrument include tinbuk, timbuk, timbul, tinbut, timboik, tutupele, or lau lau. The two-note instrument is used for playing signal patterns. On New Ireland and the Duke of York Islands, the xylophone is played for dancing; only on Tami Island have women been known to play the xylophone. Its sound draws the attention of males undergoing initiation to the women’s presence, and thus keeps them apart.
The xylophone in Latin America, known as the ‘marimba’, is found in Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil; in Suriname (as gambang) it is used in gamelan ensembles by musicians of Javanese descent. In Brazil, however, it has lost its former importance as a solo instrument, and is now used only to accompany such dramatic dances as the congada. The two types of marimba still in use are portable and have six and eleven keys respectively, struck with wooden sticks.
The earliest account of the marimba in Guatemala is found in the work of Domingo Juarros, a 17th-century historian, who lists it among instruments played by Amerindians in 1680. During the 18th century it became widely dispersed among Amerindians, and its presence is noted at public events, both civil and religious. The growing popularity of the marimba among Ladinos in the 19th century led to the expansion of the keyboard to five and, later, six and seven octaves, allowing the addition of a fourth player to the normal practice of two or three players. During the celebration of national independence in 1821, the marimba took its place as the national instrument.
In the highlands of Chiapas in Mexico, in Guatemala, in north-west Costa Rica and south-west Nicaragua near Masay, marimbas show resemblance to African xylophones. The marimba de tecomates is a xylophone consisting of a keyboard of parallel tuned wooden bars or percussion plates suspended above a trapezoidal framework by cords which pass through threading pins and the nodal points of each key. While the marimba de tecomates is now seldom played by Guatemalan Ladino musicians, who prefer the more Westernized forms of the instrument, in Amerindian highland Guatemala the surviving repertory is different from that of the rest of Mexico and Central America, some of it distinct from European tradition. It serves in both public and ritual contexts.
The addition of chromatic keys to the diatonic keyboard was a late 19th-century development, usually attributed to Sebastian Hurtado in 1894. The name of this type, marimba doble, refers to the double row of keys for diatonic and chromatic pitches. Unlike the arrangement of a piano keyboard, in which sharp keys fall to the right of their corresponding naturals, in many Guatemalan instruments the sharps are placed directly behind the naturals.
The marimba-orquesta, an ensemble incorporating a marimba, is widespread; such groups are widely popularized in Mexican tourist centres. The instruments are frequently municipal property, and musicians may be exempt from certain other civic responsibilities by virtue of their service in these groups. The ensemble plays music from the son repertory, and makes constant use of Corrido accompaniments. The tradition is strongest in the state of Chiapas and, until recently, in the southern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where it is being replaced by ensembles playing música tropical. The term marimba refers both to the instrument and collectively to the musicians of the ensemble, while the musicians individually are called marimbistas.
In the urban centres of Mexico and Guatemala, the marimba ensemble is principally an interpretative medium rather than a primary source of original music. In its repertory, the marimba is greatly influenced by popular styles but itself exerts little influence on other styles. It is a regional ensemble, but unlike others, it has an unlimited eclectic non-regional repertory, as well as a small, limited core repertory of sones exclusively typical of marimba ensembles. Marimba ensembles commonly play mainstream popular music including rock, tropical and other styles. The ensemble is flexible and may include electric guitars, electronic keyboards, etc. National popularity and prestige are won by those who are recorded commercially, most of whom are recruited in Chiapas, Mexico, where marimba ensembles develop markets through public performances. The majority of marimba ensembles are financially marginal. The marimba players wear no traditional costume, and seldom have accompanying singers, although the combination of mariachi ensemble and marimba is gaining popularity.
In Colombia and Ecuador, the marimba tradition is found exclusively among peoples of coastal African cultures.
Playing the xylophone around the world:
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
The suggested URL references are a result of research on the web and are not cited in the New Grove.
- Anna Kokenyessy
- Christopher Michael
- Garabet Nerces
- Ibrahim Jaber
- Mia Ionica Popescu
- Szymon Pawel Urbanszyk
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