The xylophone is a pitched percussion musical instrument made from wood. It is actually consisting of a diverse length of wooden bars. The wooden bars are well-tuned and struck together serially with non-vibrating belts of straw (or felt). The xylophone produced its sound by struck its a wooden bar with a wooden stick or hammer or padded mallet. It derives its name from Greek words that mean wood and sound. The “xylon” is wood in Greek and phōnē actually means sound in Greek.
The xylophone is one of the famous percussion instruments around the world. It looks like another instrument called marimba but the two instruments are not actually the same. Their tuning method and sound quality are totally different. It is a dynamic instrument that can be played in different types of music. In fact, the xylophone is an essential instrument in any modern concert band or orchestra nowadays.
Xylophones are in different shapes and sizes ranging from trough xylophone to frame xylophone and fixed xylophone. Moreover, xylophone exists in different tones with timbre range from high to low and hollow to resonant. The sound range of this percussive instrument is varied and it’s around four octaves. Small xylophone can have a range of just one or one and a half octaves and the larger ones can have a range up to three octaves of five or seven notes scale. A person who plays the xylophone as an instrument is called a xylophonist xylophone player.
Origin and History of Xylophone
The xylophone is an ancient instrument and it has been in existence for a long period of time. However, there are different narratives about the actual origin of the instrument. Some narratives pointed to Southeast Asia or Oceania as the origin of the xylophone before it was introduced to Africa in 500AD. It was believed that a group of Austronesian from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean speaking Malayo-Polynesian migrated to Africa with the xylophone. Also, they reported that there was 16 suspended bar xylophone-like instrument called wood-harmonicon in China around 2000BC. Likewise, a similar instrument ranat was found in Hindu regions at the same time.
Xylophone In Africa
In contrast, there are other narratives that said the African kind of xylophone is separately invented in Africa. However, most people behind the history agreed that the xylophone was first seen in southeastern Asia in the 9th century. In particular, the actual time the first xylophone sighted in Africa is obscure. But it was said that it was a long time before the 14th century.
Another narrative said that the African slaves carried xylophone to island SE Asia. This narrative was based on Chinese records that African slaves were transported to SE Asia from an undeveloped period. In addition, it was established that xylophones are played in the aforementioned districts are likely to happen through the source of the slaves.
Xylophone in Europe
The xylophone was suggested to reach Europe during the Crusade and no actual date for that. The German organist and composer of the Renaissance Arnolt Schlick recorded as the first to mention xylophone in his work Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten. He called xylophone “hültze glechter” which means “wooden clatter” in German.
Thereafter, other notable names for instance “straw fiddle” were given to the Xylophone. Then, the xylophone was peculiar to the folk music of Eastern Europe like Poland and eastern Germany. The Russian virtuoso called Michael Josef Gusikov let people of Europe know xylophone to some extent through his broad tours with the instrument. Of course, Michael Josef Gusikov created his own version of xylophone with four-rowed and piano notes that he toured with.
Furthermore, the first music written for the xylophone was perhaps in 1803 by Viennese violinist Ignaz Schweigl. Also, in 1810 by an Austrian composer and pianist Ferdinand Kauer. In addition, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns uses the xylophone in 1875 in his works “La Danse Macabre”. Also, he used the instrument in “Le Carnaval des Animaux” that is Carnival of the Animals of 1886. Specifically, he used the xylophone to imitate the rattling of bones sounds. The version of the xylophone used by Camille Saint-Saëns was the four-rowed as well.
However, the term xylophone was used around the 19th century in Europe. Also, Albert Roth brought in the concept of a two-rowed xylophone that has a chromatic note arrangement. And that is the version of the xylophone we have today as the orchestral xylophone. A few years later and probably 1903, the mass production of xylophone began by the American John Calhoun Deagan. Afterward, the xylophone starts to grow in popularity and now it was part of almost all the orchestra.
Construction of Xylophone
There are different modes of constructing xylophone and it all depends on the form of xylophone you want to make. Nevertheless, the concept is almost the same but the design can be different. However, in the course of this article, we will briefly discuss how to construct a modern orchestra xylophone with wood. More detail about how to build a xylophone of this nature was discussed in Basic Construction of Xylophone.
Wood and Bar Keys
To start with the construction, the size of the xylophone must be known. Also, the dimension of the longest key bar should be defined. Afterward, we have to select the material to use for the key bars which is actually a dense hardwood. There is much wood that can do justice to this but Honduras Rosewood is the best. Other dense woods that can be used locally are African padauk, Wenge, Merbau, and few others.
The wood is then cut into bars with lengths that suit our predetermined size of the xylophone. How many bars we have depends solely on the range we want our xylophone to have. For the sake of simplicity, the range can be one and a half or two octaves. For example, between C4 to A5 for one and a half or C4 to C6 for two octaves. Though modern orchestra xylophones have a range between three to four octaves.
In cutting the bars, we have to put the length and thickens into consideration after we have selected the wood with a good density. The reason is that the density, length, and thickness of the material used have an effect on the pitch of the key bar. In short, the denser, thinner, and longer the bar, the lower the pitch we get. Likewise, the less dense, thicker, and shorter the bar, the higher the pitch we get. Obviously, the width has no impact on the pitch of the keys and we don’t need to stress much about it.
Nodal Point and Key Bar Tuning
Having our set of key bars ready, we go ahead and find the points where no vibration occurs on the bar. This point on the key bars is known as nodal points. We determine the nodal point and drill it out to enable mounting of the bars on the frame. The hole on the nodes of the bars is used to bind the key bars together with soft and hard ropes.
After the nodal point has been determined and drilled, the next thing is to tune the bars. Tuning of the bar is carried out by carving an arch under the bar to get accurate tonal quality. How to determine the nodal point and further tune the bar is discussed in Basic Construction of Xylophone. Well-tuned bars are then slight stain with lacquer to protect them and also makes them shiny.
Mounting Of Key Bars and Resonator
Mounting is done after each bar is tuned to its final desired pitch. The mounting is done in such a way that allows the bars to vibrate freely when struck. For instance, the drilling point on the nodes is somewhat bigger than the binder and this gives room for the key bars to vibrate properly. Also, the key bars need to be supported by soft material on the frame and also between the bars.
And finally, to boost the volume and enhance the sound quality of the xylophone, resonator tubes are used. These tubes are typically designed with a stopper inside and usually made of aluminum material. The resonator tubes are properly aligning and fixed vertically inside the frame that key bars will sit on. The tubes are fixed directly under the key bars. Specifically, each key bar of the xylophone has its own resonator tube.
The frame of the xylophone is usually made of wood material as well. In addition, the frame is supported by movable legs made of wood or metal materials.
Playing The Xylophone
The xylophone is a percussion instrument with a defined pitch. Xylophonist plays the instrument by hitting the key bars with a ball head stick called a mallet. Mallet is like a drum stick but with a ball head made of hard rubber or any other soft materials. The ball head of the mallet made contact with the xylophone key bars to produce sound.
Because xylophone is a pitched instrument, each bar produces different tones when stuck with a mallet. The pitch of the sound from the instrument depends on the pitch of the bar stroked. The sound produced by the bars is extended by the resonator attached underneath the bars. Xylophones are usually played using two mallets. But some skillful xylophonist plays the xylophone with four mallets by holding two mallets in each hand.
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