The term xylophone derives from two ancient Greek words which mean wood and tone. Its name has been in use for decades. A series of wooden bars of different lengths arranged according to pitch and struck with mallets essentially comprise this instrument.

Nowadays, the term broadly defines and refers to the xylophone of the European and American orchestras. The xylophone family also comprises the marimba, and the xylo-marimba. Compared to the marimba, the xylophone boasts a higher and narrower range and tougher wood in its construction. This results in a brighter and more penetrating timbre.

The roots of the xylophone lie in the distant past. It’s believed to have originated in Asia and at some point spread to Africa. The earliest traces of the instrument date to the 9th century. A kind of wood-harmonica with sixteen suspended wooden bars existed in China around 2000 B.C. At the same time, a xylophone-like instrument called Ranat existed in Hindu regions. Also, several temple reliefs from south-east Asia portray performances with xylophones. 

Construction of the xylophone

The construction of the modern orchestral xylophone consists of a frame, sitting on a metal stand, on which bars sit in turn. Wheels attach to the frame so that the device is easy to move as needed.

The current xylophone design has chromatically tuned bars set in two rows in the same manner as the piano keys. Nowadays, the bars have holes drilled at their nodal points from which a cord is threaded. This sustains the hanging bars. Pegs separate each one of them from its neighbor, such that they can hang and vibrate freely.

The number of bars varies depending on the range of the instrument, which can vary a lot. The typical range of a modern orchestra xylophone can be between three (C5–C8), three and a half (F4–C8), and four octaves (C4–C8). Five-octave xylophones are not common due to the inferiority of the tone, although some music works exist for them.

The length, thickness, and density of the material determine the pitch of each bar. The width, on the other hand, has no effect on the pitch. The longer and thicker the bar, the lower the pitch. The shorter, thicker, and denser, the higher.

Modern orchestra xylophones are fitted with resonator tubes on the underside, unlike earlier versions. Each bar has a resonator of its own. They serve to extend the sound and soften the tone. Xylophones with no resonators, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries among the American orchestras, had a harder timbre.

The mallets and hammers

Percussionists use lots of different hammers and mallets. Metal mallets, which have a head made of rubber, wood or plastic, appear more often. Alternatively, yarn wraps the heads of softer mallets. Each material provides its own timbre.

As the musicians perform, they play standing with the bars lying lengthwise in front of them. They can carry one or more mallets in each hand. The mallets hit the bars and instantly spring back to avoid damping the vibration of the bars. If the mallet head would stay on the bar, a dead stroke would happen. This is used as a special effect.