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The Marimba is a non-transposing keyboard percussion instrument, made out of large wooden keys, suspended above metal resonating tubes. The keys are struck with yarn-covered mallets, the firmness of which changes both the timbre and volume of the sound.
Like other mallet instruments, marimbas have no set 'types' but rather are available in a variety of ranges. All of these ranges end in C7, but they start in different places.
- 4-octave: C3 to C7 - 4.3-octave: A2 to C7 - 4.5-octave: F2 to C7 - 4.6-octave: E2 to C7 - 5-octave: C2 to C7
Marimbas which go lower than C2 do exist, but are extremely rare. There also exist marimbas with odd ranges - such as only consisting of the bass (C2 to C4, for example), or ending in an F. However, these are uncommon.
In practice, 4-octave marimbas are becoming less common. They exist more as a historical footnote to the time when marimbas were first being introduced, and their ranges were smaller (the first marimba concerto was written in 1940 for a 3.5 octave marimba).
The 4.3-octave marimba is the most widely used range, both in solo works and in orchestral works. 4.5- and 4.6-octave marimbas are also common, but works are rarely written specifically for their ranges (except as a happy accident).
The 5-octave marimba is the second most widely used range, and the one favoured by most contemporary solo and orchestral works. However, it is also the most expensive range, the most fragile, and the most annoying to transport.
Standard/beginner players will use a mallet in each hand, which they use to either play two notes at once or to allow greater flexibility with fast melodies.
More advanced players can use two mallets in each hand, allowing for four concurrent notes. The most common way of writing for four mallets (especially in the mid to late 20th century) used to be as chords to be 'rolled' together, but many modern works have more complicated parts. If writing any form of fast or difficult passage for four mallets, it is best to ask a percussionist for advice. Three or even four mallets in one hand is possible in theory, but should only be used (if at all) for single hits in specific voicings, as any sort of control over the individual mallets rapidly becomes impossible.
Tremolo (called a 'roll', but different to a snare drum roll) is common on the instrument, played using both the mallets on one key. It is also possible to roll on a single (white) note with one hand with two mallets by playing above and below the end of the bar facing the player.
A roll on two notes is slightly less common in orchestral works but just as simple to do.
Using hard mallets in the low range results in a very loud and hard sound, and a tinny sound up high. Writing a fortissimo or sforzando note on the lowest notes of a 5-octave marimba is not advised, as the bars down there are very fragile. Using soft mallets up high leads to an almost inaudible sound, but a very mellow sound in the low register. A marimba player will usually have at least hard, soft, and medium mallets at his disposal (although often only two of each). It's possible to use different mallets in each hand, or two different mallets in the same hand (if using two-mallet technique).
The low notes have quite a long sustain, so fast sections in the bottom register can come out muddy.
High school and community ensembles might not have a marimba (depending on how much money they have), and only the richest will have a 5-octave marimba. If a band wants to play a work containing a part for 5-octave marimba but has one of smaller range, they will either borrow or hire a 5-octave, or (more likely) the percussionist will simply transpose or leave out the parts which go below the range, depending on how important the part is. University ensembles will generally have at least a 4.3-octave, and professional ensembles will often have multiple marimbas in different ranges. If you are writing for a specific ensemble, it is best to ask what they have available.
|Instruments and Voices|
|Woodwinds||Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass) • Recorder • Oboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone) • Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass) •|
|Brass||Horn • Cornet • Trumpet • Trombone • Euphonium • Tuba • Saxhorns|
|Keyboards||Piano • Organ • Harmonium • Harpsichord • Clavichord • Celesta • Accordion|
|Percussion||Tuned: Timpani • Glockenspiel • Chimes • Vibraphone • Xylophone • Marimba • Crotales • Musical saw • Hammered Dulcimer|
|Electronic||Theremin • Ondes Martenot • Synthesizer • Electronic Wind Instrument|
|Stringed||Bowed: Violin • Viola • Violoncello • Contrabass|
|Voices||Female: Soprano • Mezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto) • Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)|