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The xylophone is a keyboard percussion instrument consisting of graduated tuned wooden bars and played by being struck with small hard or soft mallets held in the hands. The xylophones compass extends from middle C upwards for 4 octaves. Usually played with two mallets, one in each hand, it is occasionally played with four, for more demanding, virtuosic compositions.


The xylophone originated in African and Javanese cultures in the 14th Century. It was first mentioned in Europe in 1511 as "wooden clatter", later becoming known as the "straw fiddle" as the wooden bars were layed on straw. It was first used in a Western orchestra by Saint-Saens, in Danse macabre movement of his carnival of the animals, it's sound being particularly apt for the depiction of rattling skeletons. Since then, it has featured regularly in the percussion section of the orchestra, and has become very prominent since the beginning of the 20th Century. Notable compositions including xylophone include Mahlers 6th Symphony, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Strauss' Salome, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, as well as numerous contemporary compositions by Steve Reich and many others.


The instruments original use was in the traditional musics of Africa, Asia, and Oceania. In modern Western society, however, the xylophone may be included in band and orchestral ensembles, where it can be used both as a solo instrument and as accompaniment, and it is also included in drum corps pit percussion.

In addition, it has a special role in the elementary school classroom, as an enjoyable introduction to music and musicality. With this purpose in mind, Carl Orff gave it an important role in his "Schulwerk", along with metallophones, glockenspiels, and other percussion instruments.

Practical considerations for the composer

One important thing for the composer to note is that there is an immediate delay time between a key being struck and the note being sounded. As with many percussion instruments, the sound of a xylophone note decays almost immediately and very quickly after being struck, even with some modern instruments constructed with resonation tubes of steel vertically positioned under each key. A xylophone roll to sustain some sort of sound should be used very carefully indeed, as the sound of each stroke of the roll can be heard quite distinctly, and could often be heard as comic or ludicrous.

In the lower register of the xylophone, the sound is darker, warmer, and less brittle than the upper register, which when struck, can be akin to the sound of breaking a stick, or snapping a piece of hardwood.

As for many tuned percussion instruments, and especially those made from wood, one should be careful of specifying dynamics of ff or fff in the lower register, as the long bars are likely to crack, warp or break when struck with great force.

The xylophone can fulfil the same function as a piano in some situations- works have been composed for solo instrument with xylophone accompaniment. Although rare, it proves to be an interesting approach to the genre, adding a feel of exoticism and ethnicity.

Instruments and Voices
Woodwinds Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass)RecorderOboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone)Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass)

Bassoon (Contrabassoon)SaxophoneBagpipes

Brass HornCornetTrumpetTromboneEuphoniumTubaSaxhorns
Keyboards PianoOrganHarmoniumHarpsichordClavichordCelestaAccordion
Percussion Tuned: TimpaniGlockenspielChimesVibraphoneXylophoneMarimbaCrotalesMusical sawHammered Dulcimer

Untuned: Snare drumBass drumTriangleCymbalsGongsTom-tomsShakersDrumset

Electronic ThereminOndes MartenotSynthesizerElectronic Wind Instrument
Stringed Bowed: ViolinViolaVioloncelloContrabass

Plucked: HarpGuitarMandolinBanjo

Voices Female: SopranoMezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto)Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)

Male: TrebleCountertenorTenorBaritoneBass-baritoneBass