Also:       vibraharp      

Title: The Best of the Modern Jazz Quartet--Nature Boy; Milt Jackson, vibraphone. Label: Pablo. Format: CD. Catalogue#: PACD-2405-423-2. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

The vibraphone is a metallophone idiophone of American origin. It is today found distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is commonly found in jazz bands and combos (see Jazz Combo), in percussion ensembles (see Keyboard Percussion Ensembles and Mixed Percussion Ensembles), and is called for occasionally in orchestral and concert band works. The vibraphone, like other keyboard percussion instruments, necessitates a level of specialization on the part of the performer to play well, and not every percussionist can be expected to be proficient on it. In the jazz idiom, a few players in particular have elevated the vibraphone to the status of a solo instrument (listen to the audio clip).


The vibraphone pictured here has 37 precisely tuned aluminum alloy bars (ranging in length from 6.9 to 15 inches and in width from 1.5 to 2.25 inches; all bars are .52 inch thick) arranged in the fashion of a keyboard in a single plane. Ropes run horizontally through the bars at their acoustical nodes and are supported by posts positioned between the bars that are attached to the instrument's frame. The keys are therefore suspended over rather than resting on the frame. There are two rows of tuned metal tube resonators of varying lengths (from 2.8 to 19.2 inches long), open at their top but closed at their bottom end, one tube located beneath the center of each bar. Each tube length and volume is attuned to the frequency of its bar and amplifies its sound. A long rod runs the length of each row of resonating tubes and rests in notches at the tops of the tubes. In the top opening of each tube a flat disc or vane with a slightly smaller diameter than the opening into which it fits is attached to the rod (see first detail image). The rods and their discs are rotated by a variable-speed electric motor (see second detail image), which when engaged successively opens and closes the resonators to the energy of their vibrating keys. This creates the vibrato effect (actually, an amplitude or volume pulsation) from which the instrument takes its name. The instrument can also be played without the vibrato effect. Because the rope-suspended metal bars on the vibraphone ring for a considerable period of time after being struck, a dampening mechanism, raised and lowered by a foot pedal, is provided. It is a long beam that runs underneath the seam between the two rows of bars, its top surface covered with felt. When the foot pedal is up, all bars are damped, when down all bars are free to vibrate.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The standing performer faces the vibraphone on the ‘white-key’ side of the instrument (in the photo that would be on the far side facing the camera). A wide variety of mallets are manufactured in various degrees of hardness with either rubber tips or yarn-wound rubber tips. A single pair of mallets may be used, but more often than not the player holds a pair in each hand. The vibraphone is a fully chromatic instrument with a range of three octaves, F3 - F6. Parts for it are written in the treble clef at pitch. The instrument has a mellow tone and, if not damped, a long sustain the intensity of which can be shaped by the rate of vibrato. It is used both as a melodic instrument and a chording instrument. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on percussion [the first 2:27 in the video is the segment pertaining specifically to the vibraphone].


The vibraphone was invented in America in 1921 by Hermann Winterhoff of the Leedy Drum Co. and almost immediately was put to use by dance band and jazz musicians. Starting in the 1930s a few orchestral composers started to occasionally incorporate it in their works. 

Bibliographic Citations

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “Vibraphone.” NGDMI v.3: 720-721.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 1991. Contemporary Percussion. London: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015:

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.222 idiophone--set of percussion plaques of different pitch are combined to form a single instrument, struck with a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker)

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: block - oblong bar

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: separate resonating space/s attuned to pitch/es of sonorous object/s - built into instrument

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - stick with padded ball end

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: none


50 in. length of keyboard

Primary Materials

rope - braided
motor - electric





Entry Author

Roger Vetter