Xylophone: History & Facts

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  • 0:01 What Is a Xylophone?
  • 0:38 Xylophone and Mallet…
  • 1:28 History of the Xylophone
  • 2:02 Playing the Xylophone
  • 3:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cathy Neff

Cathy has taught college courses and has a master's degree in music.

If you've ever seen a cartoon skeleton dance, you may have heard crisp, high music that sounded like bones rattling. That music was being played on an instrument called a xylophone. In this lesson, learn about the xylophone, its history, its construction, and how it's played.

What Is a Xylophone?

One person may look at a passing vehicle and say, 'That's a car,' while another person might say, 'That's a 1965 Ford Mustang.' Obviously, this second person has learned how to distinguish that make, model, and year of car from all the others. Many times, people hear or see a musical instrument that looks like a short piano keyboard that is hit with a stick and say, 'That's a xylophone,' but often it's not. It could be one of many other similar instruments! So, what exactly is a xylophone? What makes it unique? Where did it come from? How is it played? Well, let's find out!

Xylophone & Mallet Construction

The xylophone is a percussion instrument, meaning it has to be hit by something in order to make a sound. It has wooden bars arranged in order from long to short (low to high) that are attached to a frame and set on a stand high enough for a player to play while standing up.

The xylophone is hit with wooden sticks called mallets that are tipped with rubber or plastic ranging from hard to soft, unlike some other percussion instruments that use mallets tipped with yarn. The harder the mallet, the more distinct the sound, and the xylophone is known for its sharp tone, which is brittle, like the sound of skeleton bones on Halloween. The bars of the xylophone are traditionally made of rosewood, but they can also be made from a synthetic material. The xylophone also has resonators below the keys to help project the sound, but unlike other, similar percussion instruments, the xylophone's resonators are short.

History of the Xylophone

The name xylophone comes from two Greek words: xylon, meaning 'wood,' and phone, meaning 'voice.' Scholars don't agree on the exact origins of the xylophone, but most agree that it originated in Asia and/or Africa, perhaps independently. It was originally made from pieces of wood placed on gourds and hit with spoons.

The xylophone made its first appearance in the English dictionary and in the orchestra in the late 19th century. Today, it's used in concert bands, orchestras, marching bands, percussion ensembles, jazz bands, and classrooms throughout the world.

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