orchestral marimba

Also:       xylorimba      xylo-marimba      marimba-xylophone      

Title: NEXUS Now—Marubatoo, by John Wyre; NEXUS. Label: NEXUS. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 10262. Track: 1.

Title: Light in Darkness—Two Movements for Marimba, by Toshimitsu Tanaka; Evelyn Glennie, marimba. Label: RCA Victor Red Seal. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 60557-2-RC. Track: 9.

Contextual Associations

The marimba is a xylophone idiophone first manufactured in the U.S.A. in the second decade of the 20th century. It is today found distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. In its early decades of existence it was more of a vaudeville or popular music instrument, sometimes performed in large marimba ensembles. The marimba is today a standard instrument in the battery of western percussion instruments and is called for in many percussion ensemble works (see Mixed Percussion Ensembles and Keyboard Percussion Ensembles, and listen to the first audio example). Though it is often referred to as the ‘orchestral marimba,’ it has been included in only a relatively small number of orchestral (and band) compositions composed after World War II. This repertoire includes a few marimba concertos, and there are a few virtuosi on the instrument who perform these works with symphony orchestras around the world. There is also a solo repertoire for the instrument that is growing in size. This repertoire is drawn upon by professional soloists and by percussion students in university and conservatory performance degree programs for recital programs (listen to the second audio clip). The marimba, 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.


The marimba pictured here has 61 tuned rosewood bars ranging in length from 7.2 to 21.7 inches, in width from 1.6 to 2.9 inches, and from .9 to 1 inch thick. The bars are arranged in the keyboard fashion, with the ‘black notes’ in a separate row raised slightly above the plane of the diatonic notes (see first detail photo). 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 bars are therefore suspended over rather than resting on the frame. They are tuned in the factory by shaving the bottom sides of the keys to form an arch (see second detail photo), making the middle of the key much thinner than its ends. There are two rows of tuned metal tube resonators of varying lengths, open at their top but closed at their bottom end, one tube located beneath the center of each bar. The external length of these tubes does not always reflect their more crucial internal depth, which ranges from 1 inch for the highest bar to 30 inches for the lowest one. Each tube’s length and volume is attuned to the frequency of its bar and amplifies its sound. The open frame from which the bars and resonators are suspended is made from wood, and this rests on top of a support made of metal pipes the legs of which terminate in casters.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Though it can and often is played by a single performer, some marimba works call for as many as four performers standing side-by-side to play the instrument together. Regardless of the number of performers, they all stand facing the marimba on the ‘white-key’ side of the instrument (in the photo that would be on the near side with their backs to the camera). Stick mallets with fairly large round heads wrapped with yarn are used to strike the bars; depending on the demands of the given piece or style of music, the player holds either one or two of these mallets in each hand. This marimba is a fully chromatic instrument with a range of five octaves, C2 - C7. Parts for it are written in either treble or bass clef, or sometimes on the grand staff, usually at pitch. The large but relatively thin bars, method of suspending the keys, presence of tuned resonators, and use of padded mallets collectively produce a mellow sound quality.  It is used primarily as a melodic instrument and can demand a great level of virtuosity. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on percussion [skip to 3:33 in the video for the segment pertaining specifically to the marimba].


Prototypes of the orchestral marimba were first manufactured by the Deagan and Leedy companies in 1910, but these were likely modeled on chromatic, gourd-resonated marimbas developed and played in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America in the late 19th century. Many marimbas do not have a five-octave range like the instrument pictured here, but such instruments have existed at least since the 1930s. Three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half octave instruments have been more the norm throughout the history of the orchestral marimba.

Bibliographic Citations

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

________. 1984. “Marimba. 2. The Modern Orchestral Marimba.” NGDMI v.2: 615.

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

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

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.212 idiophone--set of percussion sticks: several percussion sticks 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 or multiple

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


92.9 in. length of keyboard

Primary Materials

rope - braided


Marimba One

Entry Author

Roger Vetter