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Anatomy of an Instrument: The Xylophone

Laura  Barnes
Anatomy of an Instrument: The Xylophone

While the xylophone is a staple in most school music lessons, the instrument actually has unusual and much debated ancient origins.

In the latest instalment of our Anatomy of an Instrument series, MI Pro outlines everything you need to know about the xylophone.

What is a xylophone?

Part of the percussion family, the xylophone is made up of a series of wooden bars tuned to a pitch of a musical scales. While the term Xylophone may be used generally to include all such instruments such as the marimba, balafon and even the semantron, in the orchestra world, ‘xylophone’ refers specifically to a chromatic instrument of somewhat higher pitch range and drier timbre than the marimba.
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While xylophones should technically feature wooden blocks, the term is also used by instrument makers to describe similar instruments with blocks made from other material such as metal, rock and more. These include the glockenspiel, lithiphone and metallophone.

The xylophone’s origins have been disputed, with some insisting it originated in southeast Asia and came to Africa in 500 AD, while others believe it originated in Africa.

The Asian xylophone is thought to be an iteration of a similar hanging wood instrument said to have existed in 2000 BC. There are numerous xylophone-like instruments found across places such as Gana, Zambia, Uganda, Mali, Ivory Coast and more.

The earliest mention of a xylophone in Europe was in Arnolt Schlick's Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten in 1511, where it is called hültze glechter or "wooden clatter".

This instrument is now used in many classrooms around the world to assist children’s musical development.

How do you play it and what does it sound like?

Xylophone bars should be stuck with hard rubber, polyball, or acrylic mallets to get the desired sound and volume. Medium to hard rubber mallets or yarn mallets can be used for softer effects. Lighter tones can be created on xylophones by using wooden mallets.

There is also an extended technique called the McLellan Technique, which consists of placing the head of the mallet in between two bars and spinning the shaft of the mallet to make its head rotate rapidly and scrape against both bars to create an ethereal timbre.

 Here are a few of our favourite xylophone videos:

Should I stock them?

There is a wide variety of xylophone and other instruments that come under the xylophone umbrella. With the instrument being a staple in lots of schools, stocking child-friendly ones may be a good way of appealing more to local schools or enhancing your current offering to them.

The xylophone is also an orchestral instrument, and so it may be a good idea to stock them if you’re looking to sell more premium instruments or to appeal to orchestral or classical musicians.

Who makes them?

Some prominent xylophone manufacturers include:






Percussion Plus




Read all of our Anatomy of an Instrument articles by clicking here.

Tags: xylophones , Anatomy of an Instrument , xylophone

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