The xylophone is a wonderfully diverse instrument. An instrument on which kids often have their very first experience of playing musical notes. But also an instrument which, when played by a virtuoso, can produce some of the most exhilarating and incredible music that has ever been played.
In between these two extremes, this percussion instrument provides a wide range of musical possibilities: lines in a percussion ensemble, jazz grooves and solos, and the accompanying rhythms to many a pop song or prog rock epic. However, it is these performances that tend to go overlooked.
Here, we are going to look at all the different things you will need to know if you want to become someone who plays this most versatile of percussion instruments.
We’ll take a look at the xylophone’s history as well as the different types of the musical instrument that you might be interested in playing. We’ll look at some of the most inspiring players of the xylophone and its most famous performances. Then, we’ll look at some of the techniques that you will need to play the xylophone yourself – and end by showing you some ways to find a xylophone teacher.
Because the xylophone is not just an instrument on which you can play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ when you are in school. Rather, it is an instrument that will inspire even the most ambitious musician. And, if that’s you, you are in the right place.
Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about the xylophone!
What is a Xylophone?
So, what is a xylophone? Whilst you probably know it in its first definition, it is worth noting that there are in fact two different definitions of this instrument – one quite a lot more specific than the other.
Generally, then, we use the term xylophone to refer to any tuned percussion instrument arranged in wooden bars. This consequently includes things like the marimba, the balafon, and other such instruments as the vibraphone.
However, if you were to ask a specialist – a percussionist in an orchestra, say – they’d tell you something quite different. Xylophones, to them, in their most specific sense, are instruments that quite distinct marimba, say – although both use mallets or beaters.
Where a marimba would have vertical pipes or resonators beneath each of the horizontal bars, a xylophone does not. And, as a result, there is a significant tonal difference – as the xylophone’s sound is much higher pitched and drier than a marimba.
However, all of these instruments mentioned here – including the glockenspiel too – come from the same family of idiophones, instruments that produce a sound through the vibration of the whole struck element. It is important to note, though, that xylophones are made of wood. The metal variety is known as the metallophone.
Consequently, whilst you will see that there are many similarities between the family of tuned percussion, orchestral percussionists need to make very distinctions – as the precise quality of the sound makes an important difference.
A Brief History of the Xylophone.
You can check out a bit about the history of the marimba in our article on how to learn the marimba, yet here we are going to go over some of the key points – as the histories of the marimba and the xylophone often overlap.
We can identify three, probably distinct, histories of the xylophone, coming out of Asia, Africa, and, later, Europe.
The oldest of these traditions is probably that from south-east Asia, where people from Java and Bali are thought to have used the gamelan for potentially thousands of years. Similarly, there is evidence that instruments similar to a xylophone have been used in China for an equal amount of time. And whilst we know a lot about these specific instruments, the chances are that similar percussive instruments have been used across the whole region.
Whilst some music historians have argued that, from there, the instrument moved to Africa, this is not necessarily true: there was probably a distinct tradition of tuned percussion instruments in west Africa that was completely separate from that in Asia. We just don’t know for sure.
In Europe, the first mention we see of the instrument is much later – in the sixteenth century in Germany – yet there is evidence of such instruments in Eastern Europe too. It was Camille Saint-Saens, the Romantic French composer, who first used a xylophone in a piece of classical music.
Are there Different Types of Xylophone?
The diverse history of the instrument would suggest immediately that yes, there are indeed different types of xylophone. In fact, we have mentioned a few of them already.
The balafon is one of the oldest types of xylophone – a west African instrument that is made up usually of twenty-one different keys. These are usually affixed with leather straps to a wooden frame.
At school, we are often told that a glockenspiel is a type of xylophone. However, it isn’t really. Whilst a xylophone has wooden keys, the glockenspiel is one of those musical instruments made of metal – and so is a metallophone instead.
Finally, there is an important difference between xylophones that are diatonic, pentatonic, or chromatic. In the percussion section of a symphony orchestra, say, they will always use a chromatic xylophone – i.e. one which has every note of the scale, across different octaves, with the sharps and flats.
Pentatonic and diatonic xylophones, however, only have the notes of a given major scale – either five, in the case of the pentatonic, or eight in the case of the diatonic.
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Where You Will Have Heard the Xylophone.
So, let’s take a look at some of the most impressive xylophone performances there have been, through the worlds of classical, jazz, and contemporary music. Here, you’ll see that the xylophone is not just the instrument of the classroom, but of all musical worlds – from orchestral percussion to pop.
Potentially the world’s principal percussionist, Evelyn Glennie is a legend of orchestral percussion music – playing with orchestras and solo across the length of her career.
An awesome musician and soloist to begin with, she is known particularly for the fact that she has been deaf since her childhood. However, this hasn’t stopped her doing anything.
One of the most important percussionists of the twentieth century, Lionel Hampton was a huge figure in jazz in his time too.
He played the vibraphone and xylophone with some of the biggest names in jazz.
Pink Floyd – See-Saw.
Before they made it as the UK’s biggest prog band ever, Pink Floyd released the dreamy, which features all sorts of different instruments. One of these is the xylophone, which accompanies the song – beautifully.
Some Things to Know about Playing the Xylophone.
Learning to play the xylophone may look easy. However, if you are hoping to take your xylophone skills to the level of Evelyn Glennie’s, you’ll need to have another look.
As with all musical instruments, nailing the technique is absolutely crucial to progressing with the xylophone. You can’t just hit the beater on the bars willy-nilly: you need to know how to hold the mallets properly.
This means that you need to ensure that you are in a relaxed, balanced posture before you start playing. Ears above the shoulders is crucial here.
Holding the mallet is the next thing. Pinch the stick with your thumb and index finger. Then wrap the rest of your fingers around the stick.
The most important thing here is to stay relaxed. Without that, you aren’t going to get the flexibility of the wrist that you are going to need.
Where to Find a Xylophone Teacher Near You.
There are many ways to find a xylophone tutor. However, the best one is through Superprof, a platform that brings students and tutors together across the world.
You’ll be able to find a percussion tutor to help with your xylophone skills in your area – or, if not, you can take xylophone lessons online, via Skype. This gives you the freedom to take classes from your own home, with your own kit and on your own schedule.
It’s really important to know that, if you want to excel in the xylophone, you need to get yourself a tutor. They’ll show you the right technique, give you inspiring repertoire, and keep you motivated to keep on learning. That’s what teachers are for!