Also:       Xylophon      silofono      

Title: The Gamut—Triplets, by George Hamilton Green, arr. Bob Becker; Robert Hohner Percussion Ensemble. Label: Digital Music Products. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD-505. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

The xylophone is a xylophone idiophone of European origin found today distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is a standard instrument today in the battery of western percussion instruments and is called for in many late-19th century to the present orchestral and concert band works and also in many percussion ensemble works (see Mixed Percussion Ensembles and Keyboard Percussion Ensembles). Historically, it was a much-recorded solo instrument in the popular music of the early decades of the 20th century in part because it recorded well on the equipment of the day (listen to the audio clip for this page on which a composition by a famous performer/composer of this era is performed). The xylophone, 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. Both inside and outside of classical music circles, the xylophone has been used as a virtuosic solo instrument.


The xylophone has 44 tuned rosewood bars ranging in length from 5.3 to 17.3 inches; all bars are 1.6 inches wide and .9 inches 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. 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 1.3 to 10 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. 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 and bars the legs of which terminate in small casters.

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 near side with back to the camera). Stick mallets with round heads of wood, plastic, rubber, or felt 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. The xylophone is a fully chromatic instrument with a range of three-and-one-half octaves, F4 - C8. Parts for it are written in the treble clef usually an octave lower than they sound, though sometimes at pitch. The relatively thick wood bars and the use of hard mallets produce a characteristically bright, brittle and penetrating sound. Its sound has a fast decay so tremolos are used to sustain a pitch. 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 2:28 in the video for the segment pertaining specifically to the xylophone].


Consulted sources do not credit a particular maker with or assign a date for the creation of the modern xylophone. There was some use of xylophones in a few 19th century orchestral works, but the xylophone of that period had resting keys, no resonators, and a different arrangement of the bars. In all likelihood the modern design of xylophone emerged at the very end of the 19th or the early 20th century. The frequency with which composers incorporated the xylophone in orchestral and percussion ensemble works increased steadily throughout the 20th century. 

Bibliographic Citations

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

________. 1984. “Xylophone. 2. Europe.” NGDMI v.3: 871.

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: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

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


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

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

Sounding principle: striking - direct

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

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: none


51.5 in. length of keyboard

Primary Materials

cord - synthetic
spring - spiral





Entry Author

Roger Vetter