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Kulintang a Kayo, a Philippine xylophone
Percussion instrument
Hornbostel-Sachs Classification 111.212
(Directly struck idiophone)
Developed Antiquity

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 in Slovakia.[1] It consists of wooden bars of various lengths that are struck by plastic, wooden, or rubber mallets. 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).



The xylophone is a historical instrument that originated independently in Africa and Asia. 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.[2] Wooden bars were originally seated on a series of hollow gourds, and the gourds generated the resonating notes that are produced on modern instruments by metal tubes. For centuries, xylophone makers struggled with methods of tuning the wooden bars. 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.

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. [3]

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

It is likely that the xylophone reached Europe during the Crusades. The latest historical reference in Europe is in 16th-century Germany in the organist Arnold Schlick's Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten. [3] By the 19th century the xylophone was associated largely with the folk music of Eastern Europe, notably Poland and eastern Germany. By 1830, the xylophone had been popularized to some extent by a Russian virtuoso named Michael Josef Gusikov,[4] 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. Perhaps due to his great influence, xylophonists continued to be featured in theater shows and concert halls until well into the 20th century

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

Other forms of the word "xylophone" include "xylophonist" (a player of the xylophone) and "xylophoning" (the playing of the xylophone).

The xylophone received its name from the Greek word xylon, meaning "wood", and the word phone, meaning "sound". Historically, the xylophone probably had its beginnings in Southeast Asia around the 14th century. The simplest xylophones were a pair of bars that laid across the player's legs. More complex instruments were developed that were mounted on a frame. It developed further as part of the Indonesian gamelan, or percussion orchestra. From there, the xylophone spread throughout Africa and Europe. It became a widely used folk instrument in central Europe, and was first used in a modern orchestra in 1874. From Africa, the instrument was imported to South America by African slaves, where it developed into the Marimba.

The xylophone was probably a frequent member of early jazz bands in the 1920s and 1930s. It was also a very popular instrument in Vaudville. It's bright lively sound would work well with the syncopated dance music of that time. Red Norvo, best known as a jazz vibes player, used the xylophone a lot in the early days of his career. As time passed, the xylophone was used less and less in jazz and popular music, while the vibraphone gained in popularity. A modern xylophone player, Ian Finkle, is enjoying much success performing traditional vaudville, classical, and contemporary music arranged for a large ensemble that he fronts. Ian is a virtuoso musician with impressive technique. His live performances are always exciting.


2000 BC – First xylophone artifacts: Wood harmonicon with 16 kg suspended wood bars found in China, Xylophone-like 'ranat' of Hindi regions. Numerous temple reliefs of musicians playing xylophones support these evidences.

1300 – First written account.

1500 – First brought to Europe, and then to Latino countries by African slaves between 1500-1700 AD. It evolved in Central and South America into the Marimba.

1511 – First European mention by German composer Arnolt Schlick; also listed by Praetorius in his catalogue of musical instruments (also known as the Strohfideln, or Hulzen G'lachter, or Gigelyra, or straw fiddle).

1866, April 7 – The word xylophone is coined, recorded in the Athenaeum: "A prodigy ... who does wonderful things with little drumsticks o­n a machine of wooden keys, called the 'xylophone'."

1874 – The first use of the European-derived orchestral xylophone by Charles Camille Saint-Saens in 'Danse Macabre'.

1910 – 1940 The xylophone's golden age, as a favorite in vaudeville and ragtime. Famous xylophonists of the era include George Cary, George Hamilton Green, and Harry Breuer. It was displaced in jazz by the vibraphone.


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. ([5]

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)[6]

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)[7]

See also

Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article xylophone.


  1. ^ Nettl, Bruno, "Music in Primitive Culture", Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-59000-7, p 98(1956)
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Vienna Symphonic Library Online
  4. ^ Michael Joseph Guzikow Archives
  5. ^
  6. ^ Keetman, Gunild and Orff, Carl. (1958). Orff-Schulwerk Music for Children. English version adapted by Margaret Murray. London: Schott & Co. Ltd.
  7. ^ Cook, Gary D. (1997). Teaching Percussion, Second Edition. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Books, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

Wikipedia has an article on:





From Ancient Greek ξύλον (ksýlon), wood) and φωνή (fōnḗ), sound)


  • enPR: zīʹlə-fōn', IPA: /ˈzaɪ.lə.ˌfəʊn/
  •  Audio (US)help, file
  • Hyphenation: xy‧lo‧phone




xylophone (plural xylophones)

  1. a musical instrument made of wooden slats graduated so as to make the sounds of the scale when struck with a small drumstick-like hammer.
    All I know how to play on my xylophone is "Mary Had a Little Lamb". Would you like to hear it?

Derived terms


See also



  •  audiohelp, file
  • IPA: /ɡzi.lɔ.fɔn/


xylophone m. (plural xylophones)

  1. Xylophone.

Simple English

File:Kulintang a Kayo
A xylophone from the Philippines called a "Kulintang a Kayo"

A xylophone is a musical instrument that is part of the percussion family. It belongs to the group which is often called "tuned percussion" because it can play different pitches (notes). Xylophones have bars which are made of wood. People play the xylophone by hitting the bars with a mallet (a kind of hammer). Each piece of wood is a different length, so they play different notes when they are hit. The bars are arranged like the keys of a piano. Underneath the bars there are long tubes, called resonators, which make the sound louder.

The modern orchestral xylophone developed from xylophones found in Africa and Asia. It came as a folk instrument to countries in Central Europe. It was first used in an orchestra by Humperdinck in his opera Hansel and Gretel. It was also used by Saint-Saëns in his Danse macabre where it is supposed to sound like a skeleton, and in his Carnival of the Animals where it is supposed to sound like fossils.

The xylophone is usually played so that the music sounds an octave higher than written. Because the sound is always very short the xylophone is often used for short solo tunes which are fast and dry.

The marimba is a kind of xylophone which has a softer sound. It is not often used in orchestras. It is usually heard on its own, or with small groups, or in jazz. It was invented in 1910 in the USA.

Xylophones and marimbas are usually played with two beaters, but it is possible for good players to play with four (two in each hand) so that they can play four notes at once. Large beaters like those used for the marimba can also be called mallets.


The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments, Könemann ISBN-10 3-8331-2195-5 9

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