Classifying and identifying percussion instruments if you aren’t a percussionist is a challenge. Let’s be honest, it can be a challenge even if you ARE a percussionist. Many people can easily confuse the Xylophone with other instruments that are very similar in shape and sound.
Instruments that are similar to the xylophone include but are not limited to the marimba, vibraphone, and orchestra bells (also called glockenspiel). Other less commonly used instruments that are like the xylophone include crotales, aluphone and chimes (also called tubular bells).
Many people will look at any keyboard percussion instrument and call it a xylophone. It’s not uncommon for someone to call the glockenspiel a xylophone because they haven’t been exposed to the differences between them and may not have the vocabulary to talk about them.
Even fully answering the question “what instruments are similar to the xylophone” often leaves something to be desired.
Want a fun experiment? Find a percussionist friend and ask them to put “temple blocks” in a category.
Temple blocks are similar to the xylophone in that they are pitched, wooden instruments commonly played with mallets. But, even though they are technically similar, they aren’t really close to being the same.
When a percussionist is thinking of instruments that are “similar,” they are thinking about how those instruments could be used in a piece of music. So, while xylophone and glockenspiel may be similar in how they are laid out and how you play them, they are very different in how they are used in music.
The best way to think about instruments like the xylophone is to compare technical similarities as well as functional similarities. So, let’s explore some of the elements of the xylophone and what differentiates it from other percussion instruments.
What is a Xylophone? (Is it Pitched?)
A Xylophone is a keyboard percussion instrument made of either wood or synthetic materials. Common woods used in making a xylophone are rosewood and padouk, while common synthetic materials include Kelon, Zelon, and Acoustalon.
Xylophones fit into a category of percussion instruments called “pitched” or “definite pitch” instruments. This just means that the instrument is playing specific notes rather than general sounds.
A good way to think of this difference would be by comparing the piano to a drumset. The piano has notes and scales where the drums have more of a texture than a certain note.
The keys on a xylophone can be called “keys” or “bars” and are laid out chromatically, meaning its notes are laid out just like the keys on a piano. Metal pipes called “resonators” hang below the keys to help the sound of the instrument project.
Keys on the piano are differentiated by being different colors (black and white) and having some of the keys be a little taller (specifically the black ones). On the xylophone, the accidentals (what would be the black keys on a piano) are raised slightly above the naturals to make them easier to reach.
There are a few big differences between a xylophone (and most keyboard percussion instruments) and a piano, though. A piano has a much bigger range of notes and is played by your fingers whereas the xylophone has a limited range and is typically played by mallets. The piano also doesn’t have metal pipe resonators.
Top Tip: Interested in learning to play the Xylophone? Check out this article just for you! Xylophone Playing (FAQ Guide for Beginners)
Xylophone, Vibraphone, Glockenspiel, Marimba Compared
In modern band music, there are four commonly used keyboard percussion instruments: xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, and glockenspiel (orchestra bells). All four are laid out like the piano in terms of notes and all four are typically played with mallets. Xylophone and marimba are made of wood, while vibraphone and glockenspiel are made of metal.
Wooden Keyboard Percussion
Xylophones have a much brighter, sharper sound that cuts through an ensemble. The xylophone is typically played with hard rubber or plastic mallets that help give them their punchy sound. If a xylophone is being played in a piece of music, you probably won’t have trouble hearing it.
Top Tip: The song “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye. There is a small ascending melody in the intro of that song being played on a xylophone. Check out this article to listen to some awesome clips of cool songs with Xylophone.
Marimbas, on the other hand, have a darker, warmer sound that can blend into an ensemble. One reason for this difference is that the marimba has lower notes than the xylophone.
Like the xylophone, marimbas have resonators that hang below the keys but the marimba’s resonators are much larger to accommodate the lower notes.
Top Tip: The song “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore features a marimba sample in its intro.
Another big reason for the difference in sound is that marimba is usually played with yarn-wrapped mallets that have a softer impact. If you play with yarn-wrapped mallets on a xylophone it sounds dull. But if you play with them on the marimba it sounds full and rich.
The Xylophone is probably most similar to the Marimba in that both are usually made of wood and both share a significant portion of their note range.
Xylophones and marimbas can even look the same at a glance, though the marimba is usually larger. Xylophones are somewhere around four feet long, whereas marimbas tend to be somewhere between seven and nine feet.
Xylophones and marimbas also likely share a large amount of their history. Both are probably derived from instruments like the balafon which can be found in West Africa. The balafon is a wooden keyboard instrument with gourds for resonators.
Metallic Keyboard Percussion
Two other commonly used keyboard percussion instruments are vibraphone and glockenspiel. Both are made of metal and both, like the xylophone, have the same chromatic note layout as the piano.
Vibraphones tend to be a similar size to the xylophone but have several noticeable differences.
- The vibraphone is made of metal
- Tends to have larger resonators
- Has a pedal
- All of the keys are flush with each other rather than having the accidentals be raised
Many vibraphones also have an electric motor that turns a series of paddles inside the resonators to give a vibrato effect to the sound.
If you walk up to a vibraphone, hold the pedal down, and hit a key you will hear that note ring out a pure tone that sustains for a very long time (or until you lift the pedal again). If you turn on the motor and follow the exact same steps the note will have a kind of wah-wah effect as it rings.
The tone of a vibraphone is a soft pure sound very similar to a raw sine wave. Softer, wrapped mallets (similar to marimba mallets) are used when playing which gives the vibraphone a calmer sound. Despite being made of metal, there is nothing clanky about the vibraphone.
The term “glockenspiel” is German and it literally means “set of bells.” The instrument has German roots so the name stuck. It is common to call it “glockenspiel”, “orchestra bells”, or even just “bells,” interchangeably.
The glockenspiel is the smallest keyboard percussion instrument of the bunch. They are small enough to be carried around by the average 6th grader and many beginner bell kits even have a backpack to put them in. This is why the glockenspiel or “bells” are perfect to use in Marching Band.
Top Tip: Read all about Marching band bells in this article! Marching Band Bells (Your Complete Guide!)
Bells have the smallest and highest range compared to xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone.
Similarly to the xylophone, bells are struck with hard rubber or plastic mallets and their sound can best be described as tinkly. The notes typically ring out for a long time unless muted. Unlike the other keyboard percussion instruments they do not have resonators or they have very small resonators.
This chart gives a quick breakdown of what each of these instruments is made of and what it is appropriate to hit them with.
|Made of Wood||Made of Metal|
|Unwrapped (“hard”) mallets||Xylophone||Glockenspiel|
|Wrapped (“soft”) mallets||Marimba||Vibraphone|
Functional Differences & Substitutions
Everything up to this point has been exploring the technical differences and similarities in the xylophone and other instruments. Things like size, material, and what it’s played with have been the focus.
Let’s say that you are a high-school percussionist and you are given a part to play that calls for Xylophone. You look around your percussion section and realize that you don’t have a xylophone but you do have a marimba, vibraphone, and glockenspiel. What instrument makes the most sense for you to play instead of the xylophone?
The short answer is that you should choose the marimba. The long answer is that you can use harder yarn mallets and play at the top end of the marimba to mimic the sound of a xylophone. It isn’t exactly the same, but it’s close enough.
If you didn’t have the marimba and had to choose between the vibraphone and the glockenspiel as a substitute for xylophone, you would want to go with the vibraphone (most likely).
Playing the vibraphone without pushing the pedal down and with medium-hard mallets is going to be the closest you could get.
The very last substitute option would be using the bells to play the xylophone part. The high-pitched, tinkly ringing sound of the bells is so different from the dry, punchy sound of the xylophone that it just wouldn’t sound right.
Having marimba be the first choice to replace the xylophone seems obvious right? By look and sound in certain areas of the keyboard, they are very similar. This is generally true but is not a hard and fast rule.
If, rather than having a xylophone part, you were playing a marimba part that focuses on the middle or lower notes and was meant to blend, a vibraphone might be a better substitute than the xylophone. The calmer, darker sound of the vibraphone might serve the part better even though the vibraphone is made of metal.
The function of a percussion instrument in a piece of music takes time to be able to understand and each substitution decision is taken on a case by case basis.
Instruments Less Similar to the Xylophone
Crotales are tuned metal discs that are laid out chromatically and have a similar sound to the glockenspiel. They are so similar that it is common to use the glockenspiel to play a crotale part if you don’t have access to a set of crotales. Most listeners will not be able to tell the difference.
Aluphone is a set of tuned cone-shaped metal pieces similar to the crotales but with their own unique sound.
Chimes, also called “tubular bells” are large metal pipes that hang vertically and are laid out chromatically. They are typically played with wooden or acrylic hammers and sound like bells ringing in a clock tower. While the notes are the same as other keyboard percussion instruments, they sound and are played so differently that most people do not put them in the same category.
The instruments discussed here are by no means an exhaustive list of instruments that are like the xylophone. The ones included are just ones that most readers are likely to encounter.
There is so much to the world of percussion and the best way to learn about these differences is to go listen to some music that has them in it. Percussion is just awesome and music that features keyboard percussion tends to be pretty cool.
Below are a few links to give you a good idea of the instruments and how they sound.
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