Is a xylophone a percussion instrument? What is a xylophone? What is a percussion instrument? When was the first xylophone invented? Who was the first to make xylophones? If you are familiar with the musical instrument xylophone, you should also know that it is a regular in marching bands, military corps, and even orchestra ensembles. So, now the question is, is the xylophone really a percussion instrument? Join us as we are going to have a discussion about some of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to the xylophone.
So, before we start, we are going to first define what a percussion instrument is. A percussion instrument is a type of musical instrument that is struck or hit using a mallet, beater, stick, or even your hand for it to be able to produce a sound. It is typically divided into two categories: the first is the pitched percussion instruments, which are able to produce notes that come with an identifiable pitch, while the second is the unpitched percussion instruments, which are able to produce notes that come with an unidentifiable pitch.
Percussion instruments are considered to be the heartbeat and backbone of a musical ensemble, as they are usually working closely with the bass instruments when available. Although classical compositions put more focus on other family instruments, such as strings, woodwinds, and brass, there is always a pair of timpani included in them. It was only in the 18th and 19th that more and more percussion instruments were getting included in orchestral performances.
Xylophone And Its History
So, now back to the main topic, what is a xylophone really? Based on the translation from an ancient Greek phrase, the sound of the wind, a xylophone is a musical instrument that belongs to the family of percussion instruments. It is made up of a set of tuned wooden keys or other synthetic materials that are arranged similarly to what you see on piano keys.
The said keys are tuned to a pitch of musical scale, whether it is heptatonic or pentatonic; however, there are also some that are tuned in diatonic or even chromatic, depending on where it is made. In an orchestra setup, xylophones are referred to as chromatic instruments with a higher pitch range and a drier timbre compared to a marimba.
Although there are really no established facts when it comes to how the xylophone originated, many historians believe that the musical instrument was created separately in both Africa and Asia. If you base your history on the Vienna Symphonic Library, the first musical instruments that are similar to xylophones were first seen in eastern Asia at around 2,000 B.C. which are called the harmonicon, as they are hung wooden bars that are struck to produce a sound.
When it comes to more definite proof of the first existence of xylophones, more and more people are pointing to the discovery of some musical instruments in Southeast Asia from the 9th century. These musical instruments are wooden bars laid across the musician’s legs, and they began to evolve when resonators started to be added to the instruments. Most of these said resonators were hollowed-out gourds, and they were placed on a stand.
It was mainly in the 14th century when the xylophone started to gain some attention from many musicians, and throughout the years, more and more materials were used in making one, including bamboo and rubber. This resulted in the creation of different variations of xylophones, such as Marimba, Mbila, Gyil, Marimbang, and many more.
Although the exact date is unknown, the first xylophones that were introduced in Europe were during the Crusades. It became very popular in the continent because of its regular use in playing folk music. There were lots of different designs that were invented in Europe, including the four-rowed xylophone, which was made by Michael Josef Gusikov, as they are played with similar notes to a piano.
It was only in 1886 when the two-rowed xylophone was first introduced to the public, which is also now the basis for the modern instrument that is known as the orchestral xylophone. The design was made by Albert Roth and became a huge part of many orchestra and theater performances. It was in 1903 when John Calhoun Daegan started to mass-produce xylophones, and up to today, the musical instrument has been an integral part of almost every orchestral performance.
Educational xylophones are those xylophones that you usually see in elementary schools that are played by the students. These xylophones have a one to two-octave range, and they can also be miscategorized sometimes, as they usually come with metal bars instead of wood, making them metallophones.
If you are looking for the best version of xylophones that are used in orchestral performances nowadays, then you should go for a concert xylophone. This musical instrument has become an integral part of many orchestra ensembles throughout the years, and I do not see any changes in it in the future.
Concert xylophones have also been used in famous films and even in mainstream songs nowadays, so these musical instruments are not just only for orchestral performances. Concert xylophones are also easier to amplify their sound, so they are easier to have when recording.
A smaller version of the more popular Akadinda xylophone in Africa, the Amadinda is made from twelve logs that are tuned in a pentatonic scale. Amadindas are usually played by three musicians, and the two of them sit opposite from each other while playing the same logs. This type of xylophone is known to be traditionally played only by the Royal Court of Uganda and is only owned by rich or other important people.
When it comes to variations of xylophones that were made in Asia, one of the first that comes to mind with many people is the Khmer. This musical instrument has its origins in Cambodia, and it is a twenty-one-keyed instrument that is made of wooden bars that are suspended by string. It has a shape similar to a rectangular and curved boat.
Another type of xylophone made in Africa, the Silimba, comes from Barotseland, Zambia, and its keys are made of wood and they use gourds as their resonators, which is pretty similar to other xylophones found in Africa.
So, is a xylophone a percussion instrument? Yes, a xylophone is a percussion instrument. As its bars are considered to be idiophones, which are able to produce a sound through vibration by themselves when struck or hit by a stick, mallet, beater, or hand, then it makes the xylophone a percussion instrument.