Melodic Percussion: Mallet Instruments
More then just a kids toy
I have a love for everything percussion, from the fast double bass rolls of Slipknot to the backing tambourines of Bob Marley.
There is one group of percussion instruments that rarely get any credit even though they are used constantly in movie and TV soundtracks, advertising, and of course in music rooms around the world.
I am talking about xylophones, marimbas, glockenspiels, and other percussion instruments that have multiple bars or notes and are usually played with mallets. To most people there is no difference but we will look and listen to some of the major differences
Xylophone, king of schools
The word xylophone is often misused for other similar instruments and that is because it is the one most of us have encountered. The word xylophone has been used to describe many instruments with wooden bars, but for now I want to talk about the xylophones that are popular in western societies.
Generally the bars of these are made of rosewood, but sometimes synthetic materials, and they are between two and a half octaves on the small end, all the way up to four octaves for a large concert xylophone. These concert xylophones usually have resonating tubes under the keys for a bigger sound.
Xylophones are still used in schools today, along with all sorts of percussion instruments from around the world. But the fact that they are fun to play, easy to get started, and can teach note scales makes xylophones a favorite of music teachers around the world.
Marimba, more then a big xylophone
The marimba is similar to a xylophone in that it often has rosewood bars and it often has resonators, especially in concert marimbas. The marimba is larger though, and its notes are set up more like a piano, with two rows of bars, the top row representing the black keys.
Marimbas have remained very popular in Latin America, and appear in lots of popular music there. African music often uses them as well as they are often considered the birthplace of the marimba. Orchestras and performers of classical music also like marimbas and their piano like setup.
Nothing sings like a vibraphone
Vibraphones have aluminum keys or bars and have traditionally been three octaves but have recently started growing, sometimes as large as four octaves. Again, the nicer instruments will generally have resonators underneath, often aluminum but not always.
You can often find the vibraphone in small jazz groups or within orchestras. Many schools use cheap versions in their music classrooms thanks to their affordability and durability. You will occasionally find vibraphones in marching bands as well.
Glockenspiel for your rock appeal
This unique instrument is similar to the vibraphone in that it has metal bars but it has a higher range and is generally smaller, around two and a half octaves. You will rarely see resonators on a glockenspiel either as it is favored for its sharp short tones.
These sharp tones are what make it popular today in music studios for movie and TV soundtracks as well as for a lot of popular music. The glockenspiel can create a lot of tension and sounds great in an upbeat song.
Africa's contribution, the balafon
There is some debate but many people believe the balafon was developed on its own, without influence from the Asian line of instruments. It's interesting suspended design, along with the short, round gourd resonators do separate it from other mallet instruments in the percussion family.
Regardless, it is a beautiful sounding instrument that is still played quite often, not just in African countries but all around the world. I have a very small fifty dollar version of a balafon and I never tire of playing it, the sounds are somehow more natural then anything else I own.
Lithophones, the oldest instrument?
Lithophone is a term referring to any number of instruments that are made of stone and produce a note when struck. The simple striking of stones may be the oldest technique to making music, some people speculate.
Regardless, today it is a very rare sight to see a stone keyed instrument but a few are out there and vary in size, shape, and sound greatly.
The most famous of all may be the Musical Stones of Skiddaw, an instrument made in the early to middle 1800's that was a favorite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.