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Etymology and Alternative Spellings

Fr: claquebois, xylophone; Ger: Holzharmonika, Strohfiedel, Xylophon; It: silofono, xilofono; Sp: xilofono



A percussion instrument that is made with wooden or synthetic bars arranged in a keyboard fasion. The bars are typically suspended over resonators that are mounted on a frame with wheels. The range for a xylophone can be from two-and-a-half octaves to four octaves. The pitches or notes the instrument contains are from c to c5, or from f to c5. The xylophone also sounds one octave higher than the actual pitches played on the instrument.


Many people will debate whether the xylophone had its origins in Africa or Asia. The music of the time, tunings, and techniques are all very similar. Even though there are differeing opinions of its origin most scholars believe it to have originated in Asia. It is known that about 2000 B.C., there was a wood harmonicon consisting of sixteen wooden slabs, suspended in two tiers. The actual migration of the instrument from Asia to Africa is still unclear, but is known to have been in existence there before the arrival of the Portuguese around the fourteenth century. Missionaries of the time have written accounts of xylophones that contained gourd and buzzer resonators in Ehiopia.

The xylophone is believed to have made its way to Europe from Indonesia. The first instance that a xylophone is visually seen in Europe is 1523. The piece was entitled The Dance of Death by Holbein and depicted a skeleton playing on the instrument to represent bones. The picture has the xylophone being played from near to far instead of from left to right which is different from the xylophone of today. The very first orchestral piece involving the xylophone was Ferdinand Kauer's, Sei Varizioni which was written in c. 1810. This piece contained actual solo passages for the xylophone. Another piece of great influence is Camille Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre written in 1874 which is known for bringing the xylophone into the light of the orchestral world.

The migration of the xylophone to North America have some to believe that the African slave trade was how the instrument came to the country. Although the instrument was introduced to Central and South America through the slave trade it is not so with North America. Many European performers toured North America at the time which was very influential during the end of the nineteenth century. Also Guatemalan and Mexican marimba players toured North America beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century which popularized the instrument. The xylophone has its origins in Central and South America through the slave trade but its development in North America was strongly influenced by performers and players at the time.

Through its development over the centuries the xylophone has gone through many different appearances and construction. Around the 19th century the bars were set into not just two rows but five actual rows for the different pitches. In 1903 John Deagon is accredited with producing a diatonic, two row xylophone like the ones seen today. His innovations on the instrument have become the standard of the professional player.

Sticks, Mallets, Beaters

Mike Balter




Innovative Percussion





Vic Firth



Stroke Style/Type









See Also