Xylophone

traditional gamel Xylophone and drum sticks

With its distinctive sound that can stand alone, rise above or blend with other instruments, the xylophone has delighted audiences from its earliest form in ninth century Southeast Asia and Africa to modern-day children tapping the keys with rubber mallets.

Xylophone Basics

An instrument in the tuned percussion family, the xylophone has three major construction elements: mallets, keys and resonators. Professional instruments are made by highly skilled craftsman, although handy do-it-yourselfers can also make their own xylophones.

With two to four octaves in range, the xylophone’s highest note is like a piano’s C-88. Xylophone music composition is created as an effects instrument and only rarely as a solo. Xylophone variants include amadinda, balafon, calung, and malimbe.

Origins of the Xylophone

The word xylophone is derived from the Greek word, xylon, meaning wood. Imagine the evolution of the xylophone since its earliest iterations, when wooden keys were placed atop tied straw bundles and mallets were willow with spoon-shaped bowls on the ends. According to historians, the musical instrument developed independently in ancient Africa and Southeast Asia.

During the fifteenth century, a xylophone version developed in Central and Eastern Europe. African musicians carried their wooden instruments to Central America in the seventeenth century, and the xylophone later became the marimba, still popular across Mexico. It took until the mid-1800s for Western composers to begin writing music for the xylophone.

How It’s Made

In short regarding the keys, the craftsman first carves the keys out of rosewood, which has been aged for two years; then cuts resonators from aluminum tubing; drills holes to affix keys to nodes; carves out the arcuate notch in a series of steps to affect pitch; finally, keys are tuned, sanded, polished, stained and varnished. Frames are built separately.

In xylophone construction, wooden keys mount to a wooden frame over a grouping of metal tubes or resonators. Rosewood is essential for orchestral-grade xylophone bars, while school instruments for teaching often use synthetic materials.

Mallet choice material depends on the xylophone player’s preference, which is determined based on their technique, wrist strength, the music they’re going to play and the sound of their xylophone. Mallets consist of sticks and heads. Stick material is birch, bamboo, fiberglass or rattan. The heads are made of hard rubber or plastic. Felt, rubber or wood pads support keys where they rest on the frame above the resonators.

How to Play a Xylophone

Learning to play the xylophone requires mastering three major elements: how to hold the beaters to strike the notes, play individual scale notes and play chords.

Perhaps one of the most familiar, yet intricate pieces played on the xylophone is The Flight of the Bumblebee.

Major Xylophone Composers and Players

Their names may not roll off the tongue like those of piano and trumpet artists, yet gifted xylophone composers and players have mesmerized audiences worldwide with their performances.

  • Ian Finkel — Considered the greatest xylophonist in the world and the son of actor Fyvush Finkel, Ian Finkel has both written for and appeared with Sid Caesar, Madeline Kahn, Ginger Rogers and Michael Feinstein.
  • Red Norvo — Illinois-born, nicknamed Mr. Swing, Red Norvo helped usher in the xylophone, marimba and vibraphone as compatible with jazz instruments. He recorded with Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra. His recordings include Congo Blues, Bughouse, Dance of the Octopus and Hole in the Wall Knockin’ on Wood.
  • Teddy Brown — An American entertainer, Teddy Brown played the xylophone in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He also performed in the 1930 Alfred Hitchcock directed movie Elstree Calling where he played the xylophone single-handed in a later scene.

For audiences who enjoy performances by jazz ensembles, orchestras or soloists, the xylophone’s unique appearance and sound are unforgettable. It’s distant, humble origins are a stark contrast to its place in modern music.

Drums

man with drum sticks over head sitting at a full set of drums

Drums are the backbone of music. The drumbeat is what creates a song’s rhythm, and it’s how musicians keep time with the music. Despite their common use as a rhythmic instrument in bands and orchestras, drums have the capability to create melodic music without accompaniment. Throughout history, drums have proven to be one of the most versatile musical instruments around.

Drum Variations

Drums come in many variations, each producing a different type of sound. Most genres of popular music are produced using an acoustic drum kit, the basic elements of which include a bass drum, snare drum, cymbals and tom-tom drums. While acoustic drums are the most common variation heard and seen in the western world, there are many other types of drums. There are hundreds of styles of drums across the world, but some of the most common include:

  • Conga and bongo drums: Congas and bongos are types of hand drums that originated in Cuba. Congas are rather large, freestanding drums while bongos are their smaller, handheld counterpart.
  • Djembe: Another hand drum, the djembe is native to West Africa. The original djembe drum is a sturdy handheld drum that’s tuned using ropes that are tied taut around the drum’s base and head. Djembe drums are traditionally made of goatskin but may also be synthetic.
  • Steelpan/Steel Drum: Originating in Trinidad and Tobago and popularized in Jamaica, the steel drum features a unique sound that can be described as full and tinny. It’s a large, columnar hand drum that is usually played in slower rhythms. The distinct sound of the steel drum is one of the key elements in reggae and dub music.
  • Tabla: The tabla is a small, wooden hand drum that hails from India. It’s played with the heels of the hands and the fingertips and creates a unique sound that’s rich in vibration. Tabla drums also come in a smaller, metal size that’s called a dagga.
  • Udu: Udu drums are clay-based, hand drums that are popular in Nigeria. The udu drum has a large hole in the top with a smaller hole in the side to amplify its sound. To play this drum, the musician taps the top hole with their palm or fingers.

Drumming in Ancient Times

Drumming dates back to ancient China. Originally, drums were used to send messages. According to The Book of Music, which was written during China’s Sung Dynasty, the drum was a means of communication between the government and China’s people, who would beat a drum when they were displeased with the government’s actions.

Modern Drumming

Today, drums are a prominent feature in all genres of music. Different styles, rhythms and techniques are used to create a variety of different sounds. In popular genres, including rock, country, pop and hip hop, acoustic drums are commonly used in kits of varying sizes. In some cases, though, popular world music features samples of steel drums, bongo or conga drums and djembe drums.

Famous Drummers

Popular and international music have produced many famous drummers throughout history. In Africa, drummers like Leon Mobley and Drissa Kone are known for their djembe drumming skills while Indian drummers Alla Rakha, who played with Ravi Shankar, and Zakir Hussein have helped Indian music to gain international recognition.

In Western World, rock and popular music drummers like John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Questlove (The Roots), Dave Grohl (Nirvana), Ringo Starr (The Beatles) and Danny Carey (Tool) have helped their bandmates to create songs that are considered timeless classics.

The drum is one of the oldest instruments known to man. Whether it’s played on it’s own or as an accompaniment to other instruments, the drum has the capability to create a diverse range of music styles and has lent its sound to the most famous and beloved music around the world.

Snare Drum

person playing the snare drum

Drums evoke a primal response in listeners, arguably representing the earliest form of music played by ancient man around campfires and in deep caverns. Among all drums, the raspy snare stands out for its unique features that allow both novices and newbies to showcase their talent. Learn more about this central instrument’s history and composition.

The Snare Drum from Tension Lugs to Drumhead

The snare drum resembles a hat case or round keepsake box you might find in your grandmother’s attic. Each part can be adjusted to alter the sound produced. Learning the different parts helps new players perform with technical precision.

Looking at the drum from the top, you first see the batter head, which is the surface you hit with sticks, mallets, brushes and other striking tools. The metal rim, or counter hoop, is sometimes struck for a deeper sound, called a rimshot. This short video explains the rudiments of how to hold the stick, where to strike the drum heads and various strokes that a beginner must master.

The top and bottom rims hold the drumheads in place against the cylindrical shell, and the depth of the shell is made of wood, metal or plastic. Tension rods connect the top and bottom rims and are used to tune the drum with a drum key.

The snare head is on the bottom of the drum and eight to 18 snares of nylon, metal or plastic extend across the snare head, giving the drum its characteristic terse, rattling sounds. The earliest forms used animal intestines to make the snares, which were called catgut.

Besides holding the drum together, the tension rods or lugs also impact the sound quality. Most snare drums use split lugs or lugs in tubes. Tube lugs minimize direct contact with the shell, allowing a longer sustain on each stroke.

Snare beds are held by a lever the player can release to move the snares away from the snare head. This can be used to get a deeper sound like a tom-tom drum. Snare beds hold the wires flat against the snare head. Without the snare beds, the sound would be buzzy and uncontrolled.

Modern snares sit in a stand that has three prongs to hold the drum in place atop a tripod base. In classical and big band music performed by symphonies, orchestras and high school bands, the snare is sometimes played alone.

Where the Snare Came From?

The first drum related to the snare was the tabor of Medieval Europe circa 1300. The tabor was a double-headed drum with a single snare.

By the 1500s, the English developed the snare into the larger field drum used in military campaigns. Then, the snare drum was altered for classical music performances and eventually became part of the drum kit, sealing its popularity into modern times.

Best Snare Drum Groups and Players

Rolling Stone magazine lists Led Zeppelin’s Jon Bonham and The Who’s Keith Moon as drummers who had the greatest impact on their genre — Moon was the inspiration behind Animal on the Muppet Show.

Virtuoso performers can be found in elite college marching bands, such as Purdue University’s All American Marching Band, which historically rank among the top drumlines in the nation.

The snare has inspired songs as diverse as the Fall Out Boys rap song Rat a Tat to the Christmas favorite The Little Drummer Boy. Drumbeats were first inspired by the beating human heart and still have the universal power to stir our blood:

Microphone

two Microphones on a stage

Whether in the studio or in front of a live audience, singers and musicians use microphones to amplify the sound of their voices and their instruments. Most people are familiar with the basic function of a microphone, but many are surprised to learn that to sound good on a microphone, singers and sound engineers must master some rather elaborate techniques.

The History of the Microphone

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Telephones contained a device called a telephone transmitter, a technology which was perfected 10 years later by Thomas Alva Edison, who used it to create the first carbon microphone. Carbon microphones were considered the standard in voice amplification until 1916 when Bell Laboratories developed the condenser microphone, which was used in radio broadcasting and motion picture recording.

Bell Laboratories continued working on sound amplification technologies and in 1931 created the dynamic microphone, which had a lower distortion level than the carbon or condenser microphones. The dynamic microphone is still used today in radio broadcasting, recording and performance. Other types of microphones have been created since, including the ribbon microphone and crystal microphone. However, the dynamic microphone is the most commonly used in music and other forms of entertainment.

old time radio and studio microphone

How Microphones Work

Microphones are transducers, which means they convert energy from one form (acoustic) into another (electrical). Inside every microphone is a diaphragm, which is a very thin piece of plastic that vibrates when sound waves hit it. The vibrations in the diaphragm cause the rest of the microphone to vibrate, which is what converts acoustic energy into electrical energy and amplifies the sound.

Using Vocal Processors to Modify Sound

Vocal processors work in a similar way to guitar pedals. Singers can plug their microphone into a small machine that alters and transmits the sound to a speaker. While some vocal processors, such as autotune, simply exist to improve a singer’s pitch or tone, others offer far more advanced effects, such as voice looping, vocal widening, diffusion or megaphone amplification.

Microphone Techniques and the Singers Who’ve Mastered Them

When singing or speaking into a microphone, it’s crucial to follow several techniques to ensure a high-quality, crisp sound. By holding the microphone too close to the mouth or too far away, sound can be easily distorted and muffled.

When recording in the studio, screens, which are called pop filters, are usually placed over the microphone to filter out the popping sound of fast-moving air, which can really stick out in a recording. Sound engineers also use placement techniques and occasionally pop filters when recording instruments, such as drums, bass and guitar, in the studio.

Some of the best and most well-known singers in the world have earned their place in the music industry by mastering professional vocal and microphone techniques that help them sound their best. Singers, such as Jeff Buckley, Luciano Pavarotti and Freddie Mercury (Queen), used microphone techniques in the studio and on stage, allowing fans to hear the true sound of their voices without distortion. Artists such as T-Pain and Ke$ha are known for their use of autotune to create a unique, almost robotic sound with their voices.

In music, the microphone is a pivotal piece of equipment for recording and performance. It helps singers to project their voices beyond their natural range, and it helps musicians perform for larger audiences by amplifying their sound exponentially.