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.
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.