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Xylophone vs. Marimba, More Thoughts

Learning - Enlightenment



Xylophone vs. Marimba - More Thoughts

By Bob Becker, first published May 14, 2013

In April, 2013 I received an email from Jesse Strauss, a student at Belmont University, asking for my thoughts about an article by Vida Chenoweth in which she reached some conclusions about the terms xylophone and marimba. I often speak about the distinctions that differentiate these terms, and there is a posting on my Articles and Interviews area that goes into some detail about it (What is a Xylorimba?). Below is Jesse’s email, and my response to him about it.

JS: I am a student at Belmont University, and I also attended the LHS seminar last summer – it was a pleasure seeing your clinic in both New Jersey and Nashville!

As I was flipping through an old anthology of percussion articles from The Instrumentalist magazine, I came across one by Vida Chenoweth entitled “The Differences Among Xylophone, Marimba, and Vibraphone” (published in 1961). I immediately thought back to your clinic and wondered how Chenoweth might approach the issue, so I read on. It was a brief article, but the conclusion she reached at the end was: “In short: (1) the xylophone is a percussion instrument with a wooden keyboard; (2) the marimba is a xylophone with resonators.” In other words, it seems as though she differentiates the instruments in the same way that we differentiate a rectangle and a square.

In comparison to what I drew from your clinic – that a xylophone is technically no different except that it sounds an octave higher than written – she even makes somewhat of a contradictory statement: “Some people mistakenly identify the xylophone as a treble marimba…”. So, I am wondering what your opinion is on the matter. Is the difference that you established in your clinic one that has evolved over the years, making this very old article simply out-of-date? Or was there really once disagreement or confusion over the topic, even among professionals such as Chenoweth and others? I am also curious about your own experience as you have traveled around giving this clinic; I imagine most students are stumped by the opening question, but do most professionals seem to know the answer? Or are even they scratching their heads on the topic?

BB: I assume you’ve read through my article titled “What is a Xylorimba?”. It’s on my area of the NEXUS website, as well as on the Malletech site. Vida Chenoweth is not only a great marimbist, but also a trained and experienced (ethno)musicologist and researcher. Her definitions of the terms xylophone and marimba are in line with many classic studies of organology, which is the study of musical instrument classification. I had to take a course in it myself when I was in the World Music program at Wesleyan University. If you read books like Curt Sachs’ The History of Musical Instruments, you find the word xylophone as the principal heading for all wooden-keyed instruments. Xylophone is a technical term, with classical Greek roots (xylo = wood; phone = sound), as I probably pointed out in my clinic. It’s similar to a term like metalophone, although xylophone is also a vernacular term that people use for lots of kinds of instruments, including toy glockenspiels. Marimba is from a Bantu root found throughout East Africa, which traveled with the Spanish slave trade to Central America, in particular Guatemala. In some organological texts, the word marimba is used in a technical way to indicate the presence of resonators of any type, including the traditional African kinds made from spherical gourds.

The first keyboard instruments made by J. C. Deagan were, I believe, glockenspiels (real ones – with steel bars). The first documented xylophone he made was in 1893, and had only a diatonic keyboard and no resonators. The first marimbas manufactured in North America were, as far as I know, made by Deagan and were called Nabimbas, a word he concocted but obviously a take on marimba. They were modeled on Guatemalan marimbas, except the resonators were tubular and made of steel or brass, as opposed to the wooden box type resonators found on Central American instruments. All of the Nabimba resonators had the traditional African/Central American feature of a membrane mounted over a small hole (as on a kazoo), creating a buzzing effect for the sound. Clearly they were a more modern copy of the Guatemalan instruments that were heard in the US during tours by the Hurtado family in the 1890s. Hurtado marimba groups also made recordings for the major labels at that time, so it is still possible to hear those instruments and performance styles today.

So I kind of stick with the comment in my article that the meaning and derivation of these terms depends on who is using them (both the terms and the instruments), and when. In my opinion, the modern North American xylophone is a hybrid instrument that evolved primarily through the efforts of manufacturers like Deagan and later Leedy, as well as some players who worked with them, like George Hamilton Green. Modern xylophones share all of the same construction features with marimbas – at least the ones made by the major manufacturers in the US and Japan. Some companies offer alternative overtone tuning (also introduced by Deagan), but the main differentiating factor is transposition. A case can be made for a currently accepted standard range for the xylophone, as well as for the marimba, but ranges have continually changed over time and are really at the discretion of manufacturers and players. My five octave Deagan 268 xylophone is a case in point, as are some instruments called for in the repertoire, like the tenor xylophone part in Orff’s Catulli Carmina.

Bob Becker (May 2013). Reprinted by permission