Xylophone Vs Marimba – What Is the Difference Between Them?

People who are not in the know when it comes to music often mistake xylophones for marimbas. The main reason is that the two look quite similar. So to make it clear, let’s dive deeper into the difference between xylophone vs. marimba.

A xylophone comes with shorter resonators. It also comes with a mallet coated with or entirely made of hard rubber or plastic. On the other hand, the marimba has longer resonators, and its mallet typically uses yarn for its coating. Probably the most important difference is the way these instruments sound. Xylophones produce sharper tones while marimbas emit mellower tones.

Read on to learn more about the xylophone vs. marimba debacle, their differences, histories, and other interesting things about them.

Xylophone Vs. Marimba – What Are the Differences?

Xylophone Vs Marimba

For most normies, if you place a xylophone and a marimba next to each other, they will tell you that they’re the same instrument. There is also a high chance that they would call both instruments xylophones. To the untrained ear, they might even sound the same.

However, if you study both instruments more closely, you will find many differences between the two. Once you learn such differences, you will wonder how you didn’t notice them before as they are quite obvious:

1. Tonal Range

Xylophone

In terms of tonal range, there is a bit of a difference between the xylophone and marimba. The xylophone has a range of 2.5 to 4 octaves, while the marimba can have three to five octaves. The newer models can go even higher. Since most musical concerts today use the 5th-octave key, new marimbas are commonly integrated into most orchestras.

Marimba

There are different variants of the modern marimba, and their tonal ranges vary from each one. For instance, the typical marimba used in elementary and high school bands can cover four octaves. The standard octave range of the instruments used in music schools can be anywhere between 4-½ to 5 octaves. These are also the ones used by professionals.

The reason why these instruments are extended is so they can play notes in the lower ranges. The timbre of the marimba’s low notes provides its signature warm sounds, which is the selling point of the instrument. Moreover, the greater the number of notes, the wider the instrument’s repertoire.

2. Materials

In terms of materials used for construction, the xylophone and the marimba are quite the same. The mallets used for xylophones typically use hardwood, like rosewood, for the higher-end brands. As for the more affordable ones, expect the mallets to have more synthetic materials.

However, many marimba players (or marimbists) sometimes use mallets made from Paduk. It is a type of wood native to South and Southeast Asia and in Western Africa. Paduk has similar characteristics as rosewood, but it is much cheaper.

3. Usage

The xylophone and marimba also differ in terms of where you can play them. You can usually find xylophones during band concerts. In some cases, you can find them in symphony orchestras.

On the other hand, the marimba is an instrument you can often play solo. Sometimes, you can play it along with other percussion instruments in small ensembles. However, newer marimba designs are also showing up more and more in many band concerts these days.

4. Coating or Covering

The hammers used to play the xylophone typically have hard rubber or plastic coatings. This, along with its unique-shaped bars, allows the xylophone to produce distinctive sharp and clear tones. Although most marimbas use the same type of wood for making the bars of xylophones, they still have different cuts and shapes.

Moreover, the mallets used for playing the marimba use yarn or any similar cord for its cover. This configuration allows the marimba to make mellower tones compared to xylophones.

5. Length of Resonators

Another notable difference is the length of the resonators. Xylophones have relatively shorter resonators that usually extend just above the height of their frame. Meanwhile, the marimba has longer resonators that usually extend almost to the base of the frame. 

A Short History of the Xylophone

difference between xylophone and marimba
Harmonicon

Ancient Origins

Pinning down the exact period when the first xylophone was made can be tricky. This is especially true since some historians claim it originated in Asia while others say it came from Africa.

Harmonicon

However, the first instruments that bore the most similarities to the modern xylophone first appeared in Eastern Asia at around 2,000 B.C. This is according to the records in the Vienna Symphonic Library.

Ranat

The instrument was called a harmonicon, simply a set of wooden bars hung on an elevated vertical bar. You have to strike them to create sounds. There is also a similar instrument called the Ranat. It existed in Hindu regions at around the same time as the harmonicon. 

The first definitive evidence regarding the ancient origins of the xylophone was discovered in the 9th century in the Southeast Asian region. These primitive instruments were simple hardwood bars laid across the player’s legs as they sat on the floor.

Resonators Were Added

As the design started to evolve, you can see resonators added to the bottom of the bars. This greatly increased the sustain of each note. In addition to using hollowed-out gourds as resonators, people also started placing them on stands for easier playing.

Gained Popularity in the 14th Century

The xylophone started to gain popularity in the 14th century. Through the years, different materials have been used for making the instrument, including bamboo and natural rubber. This was also the time when many different variants of the xylophone were created. Most of them, like the marimba, gambang, and Mbila, are still in use today.

Xylophone’s European Debut

Although the exact date is still a mystery, the xylophone first got into Europe during the Crusades. The xylophone has become hugely popular in Europe since then due to its extensive use in folk music. However, the xylophones back then had very rudimentary designs. They did not even have proper resonators. 

Four-rowed Xylophone

One of the biggest steps towards creating the modern xylophone was the creation of the first four-rowed xylophone. It was made possible by the then well-known musical virtuoso Michael Josef Gusikov.

This xylophone used the same notes as a piano. Gusikov often used his xylophone to introduce the instrument to European audiences, and they were immediately hooked.

Albert Roth Created the First Xylophone

It was not until hundreds of years later, in 1886 when Albert Roth created the first xylophone with two rows and followed a chromatic note pattern.

This is the predecessor of today’s modern orchestral xylophone. In 1903, American businessman John Calhoun Deagan was the first to mass-produce xylophones. This made the xylophone a regular in all orchestras from then on.

Again, xylophone vs marimba – what’s the difference between them? Compared to a marimba, a xylophone has shorter resonators and rubber or plastic-coated mallet. Meanwhile, a marimba has longer resonators and a yarn-coated mallet.

History of the Marimba

marimba vs xylophone

Ancient Origins

According to legends, the marimba was first made in Africa. Africans dug holes in the ground, and wooden bars were laid across them. The bars were then struck with wooden sticks to produce a sound. This was technically a very crude and rudimentary xylophone that used wooden bars to create a sound. The hole was for resonance.

Dried-out Gourds as Resonating Chambers

Later on, instead of holes in the ground, dried hollowed-out gourds were used as resonating chambers for the wooden bars. Interestingly, there are also old Zulu folk stories that tell of an African goddess named Marimba. This goddess created a xylophone with gourds attached to it, hence the name “marimba.”

Coming to the Americas

The instrument that became the ancestor of the modern marimba crossed the ocean with the African slaves when they arrived in Central and South America. Instead of using dried gourds, the involuntary African immigrants used “proper” resonator pipes made from wood.

Later on, the wooden pipes were replaced by the more conveniently sourced metal pipes. This is the precursor to the modern marimba used today.

Fun Facts About the Xylophone

  • The instrument that most people refer to as the xylophone, the one indicated in pictures as starting with the letter X, is not a xylophone at all. That instrument is a glockenspiel.
  • Aside from playing music, some cultures found other uses for the xylophone. For instance, the people in Senegal use makeshift xylophones to scare away birds and monkeys from vegetable gardens.
  • The type of wood used to make the bars of a xylophone can result in a vast difference in sounds. Makers have always used hardwoods. Recently, more sustainable materials, like bamboo, are gaining popularity.
  • Foley artists use xylophones to recreate the sounds of bones hitting each other. They are the people who create the sound effects used in movies and TV shows.

Fun Facts About the Marimba

  • The “stone marimba” is one of the oldest musical instruments. Experts discovered it in Vietnam in 1949. Archaeologists estimate that this particular marimba is more than 5,000 years old.
  • Although marimbas were used in folk music for centuries, they only became somewhat regulars in classical orchestras in the 1940s.
  • The marimba is the national musical instrument of Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
  • The marimba was also used in mainstream pop music on more than one occasion. The Rolling Stones’ songs “Out of Time” and “Under My Thumb” both heavily featured the marimba in their backing track.
  • Elton John also used the instrument in his song “Island Girl”. However, the most popular song that made use of the marimba is ABBA’s “Mamma Mia”.
  • World-famous Icelandic musician Bjork collaborated with celebrated percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, on several songs using the marimba.

Xylophone Vs. Marimba – Do They Play the Same?

Are you wondering if learning how to play the xylophone first also means that you can play the marimba? Yes, you could, somewhat. The skills you develop while learning to play any standard idiophones will transfer to the others.

Xylophones and marimbas use the same pitch layout, which is similar to that of a piano. They also use the same sheet music. However, the marimba has a wider octave range.

If you’re interested in learning how to play the xylophone and marimba, I suggest starting with the xylophone. Aside from being more affordable than marimbas, you will also learn the same set of skills to play both instruments.

Conclusion – Xylophone Vs. Marimba

The most obvious difference between a xylophone vs marimba is the size of their resonators. The xylophone has resonators that reach up to half the length of its frame. Meanwhile, a marimba has significantly longer resonators, often almost reaching the floor.

Moreover, the tips of the mallets used to play the xylophone have hard rubber or plastic coating. Those used for marimbas have soft yarn or cord to cover or coat them.

Regarding the sounds produced, the xylophone makes higher and sharper sounds. The marimba, on the other hand, emits lower and mellower tones.

However, even though the xylophone and marimba are different instruments, they also have similarities. They are similar in that you can play the marimba if you know how to play the xylophone, and vice-versa.

This means that you can start your learning journey on any one of the two. You will only need to depend on your preferences when choosing which one to start with.