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The xylophone (from the Greek words ξύλον - xylon, "wood" + φωνή - phone, "voice", meaning "wooden sound") is a musical instrument in the percussion family which probably originated independently in Africa and Asia. It consists of wooden bars of various lengths that are struck by plastic, wooden, or rubber mallet. Each bar is tuned to a specific pitch of the musical scale. The term "xylophone" can refer to Western-style concert xylophones or to one of the many wooden mallet percussion instruments found around the world. Xylophones are tuned to different scale systems depending on their origin, including pentatonic, heptatonic, diatonic, or chromatic. The arrangement of the bars is generally from low (longer bars) to high (shorter bars).


While the instrument has been around for thousands of years, the term "xylophone" first appeared in print in the April 7, 1866 edition of the Athenaeum: "A prodigy ... who does wonderful things with little drumsticks o­n a machine of wooden keys, called the 'xylophone'."

It is one of the few English words that begins with the letter X.


Gusikow's 'wood and straw instruments', from Lewald's 'Europa'
The xylophone is a historical instrument that originated independently in Africa and Asia. The earliest evidence of a xylophone is from the 9th Century in southeast Asia according to the Vienna Symphonic Library, and there is a model of a similar hanging wood instrument, dated to ca. 2000 BC in China. An older hypothesis that has seen acceptance among some specialists is that the instrument was invented in Indonesia and spread subsequently to Africa. Many however,see this theory as "rash" and even "preposterous", based on the limited amount of evidence to suggest this to be true. The original instrument consisted of wooden bars seated on a series of hollow gourds, with the gourds generating the resonating notes that are produced on modern instruments by metal tubes. Tuning the bars was always a difficult procedure. Old methods consisted of arranging the bars on tied bundles of straw, and, as still practiced today, placing the bars adjacent to each other in a ladder-like layout. Ancient mallets were made of willow wood with spoon-like bowls on the beaten ends.

It is likely that the xylophone reached Europe during the Crusades, though an early xylophone did appear in Slovakiamarker. The earliest historical reference to a xylophone came in the 14th century. German organist Arnold Schlick's 16th-century Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten also mentions one. By the 19th century the xylophone was associated largely with the folk music of Eastern Europe, notably Polandmarker and eastern Germanymarker. The first use of a European-derived orchestral xylophone was by Charles Camille Saint-Saens in 'Danse Macabre', in 1874.

By 1830, the xylophone had been popularized to some extent by a Russian virtuoso named Michael Josef Gusikov,who through extensive tours made the instrument known. His instrument was the five-row “continental style” xylophone, made of 28 crude wooden bars, arranged in semitones in the form of a trapezoid, and resting on straw supports. It was sometimes called the “strohfiedel” or “straw fiddle”. There were no resonators and it was played with spoon-shaped sticks. According to the musicologist Curt Sachs, Gusikov performed in garden concerts, variety shows, and as a novelty at symphony concerts. (Certainly in the 1830’s a xylophone solo was a novelty.) Noted musicians, including Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin, and Franz Liszt spoke very highly of Gusikov’s performances.

The xylophone is a precursor to the vibraphone, which was developed in the 1920s.

The xylophone was frequently used by early jazz bands in the 1920s and 1930s. It was also a very popular instrument in Vaudeville. Its bright, lively sound worked well the syncopated dance music of that time. Red Norvo,George Cary, George Hamilton Green, and Harry Breuer were well-known users. As time passed, the xylophone was exceeded in popularity by the vibraphone. Modern xylophone players include Bob Becker, Evelyn Glennie and Ian Finkel.


The Xylophone-link ranat was used in Hindu regions.

Java and Bali use xylophones (called gambang) in gamelan ensembles. They still have traditional significance in Africa, Malaysia, Melanasia, Center Valley, Indonesia, and regions of the Americas.

A type of xylophone used in India was the kashta tharang.

From Africa, the instrument was imported to South America by African slaves, where it developed into the Marimba.


The modern western-style xylophone has bars made of rosewood, padak, or various synthetic materials such as fiberglass or fiberglass-reinforced plastic which allows a louder sound. Some xylophones can be as small as 2 1/2 octaves but concert xylophones are typically 3 1/2 or 4 octaves.

Concert xylophones have resonators below the bars to enhance the tone and sustain. Frames are made of wood or cheap steel tubing; more expensive xylophones feature height adjustment and more stability in the stand.

In other music cultures, xylophones have wooden bars and a wooden frame. Some versions have resonators made of gourds.

Western classical models

Western-style xylophones are characterized by a bright, sharp tone and high register. Modern xylophones include resonating tubes below the bars. A xylophone with a range extending downwards into the marimba range is called a xylorimba.

Use of Xylophones in American Elementary Classrooms

Many American music educators use xylophones as a classroom resource. Xylophones have been found to assist children’s musical development. These instruments provide options for teaching students to play songs and create their own melodies through improvisation techniques. One method noted for its use of xylophones in the American elementary general music classroom is Orff-Schulwerk, which combines the use of instruments, movement, singing and speech to develop children’s musical abilities. (

Xylophones used in American general music classrooms are smaller, about 1 ½ octaves, than the 2 ½ or more octave range of performance xylophones. There are three major types of xylophone instruments used in the American elementary general music classroom. The first is called bass xylophone. The bass ranges are written from middle C to A an octave higher, but sound one octave lower than written. The second type of xylophone used is the alto xylophone. The alto ranges are written from middle C to A an octave higher, and sound as written. The third type of xylophone used in American elementary general music classrooms is the soprano xylophone. The soprano ranges are also written from middle C to A an octave higher, but sound one octave higher than written. (Orff/Keetman, 1)

Xylophones should be played with very hard rubber, polyball, or acrylic mallets. Sometimes medium to hard rubber mallets, or very hard cord - or yarn mallets are used for softer effects. Lighter tones can be created on xylophones by using wooden-headed mallets made from rosewood, ebony, birch, or other hard woods. (Cook, 99)

In a non-musical context, Xylophones also frequently appear in elementary classrooms as illustrations in books or on flashcards to help teach young children the letter 'X'.

See also


  1. How xylophone is made
  5. Nettl, Bruno, "Music in Primitive Culture", Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-59000-7, p 98(1956)
  6. The Xylophone
  7. Vienna Symphonic Library Online
  8. Michael Joseph Guzikow Archives
  10. Keetman, Gunild and Orff, Carl. (1958). Orff-Schulwerk Music for Children. English version adapted by Margaret Murray. London: Schott & Co. Ltd.
  11. Cook, Gary D. (1997). Teaching Percussion, Second Edition. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Books, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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