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One-Octave Xylophone


Continued from product description on Folk Instruments' Page Four...

Historical Background: The xylophone is a percussion musical instrument that has a series of graduated wooden bars, which are mounted on a frame. These bars are loosely mounted on the frame at their ends (or nods). In addition to the bars, a gourd or tubular resonator may also be suspended under each bar. Some xylophones use the frame as the resonator and have a cupped trough mounted on the underside of the frame. A xylophone player (called a "xylophonist") holds mallets which he uses to strike the bars. The bars are made from either hardwoods or bamboo.

There are many sizes of xylophones. Some have a single row of bars while others may have two rows, such as an orchestral xylophone. The bars of an orchestral xylophone are arranged like piano keys and have tubular resonators that are tuned to each bar. The range of this instrument is usually four octaves, beginning with the middle C note. Another type of orchestral xylophone is the marimba. This instrument is pitched an octave lower than the xylophone.

Sound is produced by striking the bars with mallets. Two hard mallets can be used to make a dry, penetrating sound; or, multiple pairs of soft, rubber mallets can be used for a soft passage or muted chords.

The name "xylophone" comes from two Greek words: "xylon" (which means "wood") and "phone" (the Greek word for "sound").

Historians believe the xylophone first appeared in eastern Asia or China. The earliest evidence we have are 9th-century xylophones found in southeast Asia. A type of wood harmonicon with 16 suspended bars is believed to have existed in China around 2000 B.C. A similar xylophone-type instrument called a "ranat" probably existed in Hindu regions about the same time. Such instruments are depicted in numerous temple reliefs from this region of present-day India.

The simplest xylophone had just two bars that were laid across the player's legs. Later, more complex xylophones were made using many bars that were mounted on a frame. It is thought that the xylophone was next introduced to the African continent, possibly via the island now called Madagascar. Then again, it is possible Africans invented the xylophone independently. After all, there have been many musical instruments that were created simultaneously in remote parts of the world.

Exactly when the xylophone was introduced (or invented) in Africa is unknown. It is known that this musical instrument existed in Africa before the 14th century. Historical records from the mid-1400s mention xylophones in the Niger River region now called Mali. In the 1600s, Portuguese missionaries reported seeing sophisticated xylophones in Ethiopia. These xylophones had a resonator made of calabash. Portuguese missionary Dos Santos reported seeing a similar type of xylophone called an "ambira" in the African region now known as Mozambique.

Regardless of origin, the xylophone was widely accepted by Africans and became a prominent musical instrument in African music. Although they are not common in every region, the highest concentrations can be found along Africa's east and west coasts. It is interesting to note that it was African slaves who introduced the xylophone to Central America, where it evolved into the marimba and became a characteristic part of Cuban music.

Today, the xylophone is considered a quintessential part of African music because of its ability to produce sounds that express this music's innate sense of rhythm. This important role is augmented by the fact that there are so many types of xylophones. Regardless of the many varieties, they all fall into one of two broad categories. The first group consists of xylophones that have separate bars which can be arranged in any order. The other group are xylophones that have fixed bars which are tied together.

The simplest forms of the xylophone are the "leg xylophone" and the "pit xylophone." Leg xylophones have an unspecified number of bars that are laid on the legs of the player. The open space under the player's legs acts as the resonator. The pit xylophone, on the other hand, is made by placing the bars on rolled-up banana leaves over an open pit. Thus, it is the open pit that acts as the instrument's resonator.

One of the most important types of African xylophones is the "log xylophone." This instrument has the bars laid across two logs or "beams." These bars range in length from 12 to 22 centimeters and have holes near the ends to allow wooden pins on the beams to protrude through and keep the bars in place. In Uganda, these xylophones are called "amadinda." Larger versions were also called "akadinda." Akadindas were used to play music for the courts of African kings.

Yet another type of African xylophone is the "gourd xylophone." This complex instrument uses dried and hollowed-out gourds for resonators. Each gourd is carefully selected because its pitch must correspond exactly to the bar. African musicians have been known to travel great distances to find gourds to suit their needs. Today, bamboo canes, canisters and metal casings are substituted for gourd resonators.

Gourd xylophones make use of a unique form of amplification called "mirlitons." This type of amplification is achieved by drilling a hole in each gourd which is then covered by a membrane. Membranes were generally made with parts of spiders' nests until paper was available. This paper-thin membrane vibrates in sympathy when its corresponding bar is struck. The result is a range of buzzing noises similar to those produced on European frame harps used in the late Middle Ages.

The xylophone was introduced to eastern Europe in the 1500s. It soon became a popular folk instrument in central Europe. It is mentioned in the 1511 work "Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten" by Arnold Schlick, a German organist. Schlick called the instrument "hültze glechter" (German for "wooden laughter"), and this became the name for the xylophone used by German-speaking people.

The xylophone is also mentioned by many influential theoreticians during this period, such as Martin Agricola and Michael Praetorius ("Theatrum Instrumentorum"). The name "straw fiddle" was also commonly used due to the European practice of placing the bars on straw skeins. During the Middle Ages, xylophones were relatively simple and did not have resonators. Straw fiddles became popular with wandering minstrels and as virtuoso instruments in circuses. Popularity for this instrument lasted for centuries and into the 1900s.

The first known depiction of a xylophone in Europe is the famous 1523 painting "Dance of Death" by Hans Holbein the Younger. This painting shows a skeleton playing a portable xylophone in a procession of death imagery. Since then, the xylophone has been closely associated with the rattling of bones to many Europeans.

In the Alpine region of Europe, xylophone bars were arranged in four rows. The middle rows of bars were notes that corresponded to the piano's white keys. And as one might deduce, the outside rows had bars that represented the black keys. Interestingly, these bars were not laid out lengthwise like African and Asian xylophones. Instead, bars were laid crossways to the player, with the longest bar closest to the xylophonist. The shortest bar was the farthest away. As with other European xylophones, this version did not have resonators. Players also used hammers to strike the bars in the same manner as playing a dulcimer. While this bar arrangement may seem unconventional, it did allow one distinct advantage: note sequences that occurred frequently (such as broken chords) could be played at an increased speed.

Polish and Russian performers introduced and popularized the xylophone in western Europe during the early 1800s. However, it would not be until the next century that the xylophone would be seriously considered as an orchestral instrument. The earliest known composition for the xylophone was written by Ignaz Schweigl in 1803. In 1810, Ferdinand Kauer wrote "Sei Variazioni" and included the xylophone in his arrangement.

Despite the increasing acceptance of the xylophone by European composers, its orchestral debut did not occur until 1874. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the first to compose prominent parts for the xylophone in his orchestral works "La Danse Macabre" (1875) and "Le Carnaval des Animaux" (1886). (By the way, the type of xylophone used then was the four-row version.)

A tutor (instruction book) for the four-row xylophone was written by Albert Roth and published in 1886. In his tutor, Roth also introduced a two-row, chromatic arrangement of the bars mimicking the piano key pattern. Roth's work guided the development of today's orchestral xylophone and its two-row, chromatic bar arrangement (with resonators).

In 1903, John Deagan became one of the first manufacturers of orchestral xylophones. This American-made instrument soon became the standard xylophone used by symphonic and theatrical orchestras (as well as dance bands) around the world. Popularity for the xylophone continued in the 20th century with the advent of music records, which is attributed to how well the xylophone sounded on early recordings.

Throughout the 1900s or "the century of percussion," the xylophone played an increasing role in orchestral compositions, along with other percussion instruments. Some composers who placed percussion instruments at the forefront of their arrangements were Béla Bartók, Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen, Karheinz Stockhausen, Igor Stravinsky, and Edgard Varése.

Fun Fact: Traveling virtuosos sparked the interests of composers Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) in the xylophone.

Fun Fact: The word "xylophone" was first recorded in the April 7, 1866, edition of the "Athenaeum": "A prodigy... who does wonderful things with little drumsticks on a machine of wooden keys, called a 'xylophone'."

Fun Fact: The G-E-C note combination was made famous in 1931 by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and was granted the first audio trademark by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Even though chimes were used, many a child in the early days of television tried to mimic this trademark on their toy xylophone.

Fun Fact: Xylophones with metal bars are called "metallaphones." Metallophones with tubular resonators that are rotated by a motor are call "vibraphones."

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One-Octave Xylophone
One-Octave Xylophone
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