From Xylophone to Vibraphone: The Struck Idiophone Family

Many children grew up knowing that “X is for xylophone,” with a vague understanding of what a xylophone was. If you were lucky, your family bought you a small metal xylophone for yourself (though it was actually a metallophone). Either way, many of us had our first instrument in the form of a dinky “struck Idiophone” and we loved it.

The Struck Idiophone Family

Of course, there are all sorts of struck idiophones. The concept is generally the same in all of them. You use a mallet to hit them, and the instrument itself is tuned to vibrate at a note. Technically, everything from a xylophone to a steel drum fits that classification. The family is too large to summarize in one article, but I will try.

One type of division in the category can be made by how the instrument is laid out. Steel drums, hang drums, tongue drums, and other tuned percussion instruments are all in this category, but they are laid out as a central body with areas to hit for effect. Bells of all sorts fit this description, too. Finally, we have the idiophones with xylophone-like layout.

Materials

Idiophones can be made out of almost anything. The simple techniques and low technology constructions are responsible for the bizarre diversity of the family, so be ready to find idiophones made of almost anything. They are easy to make yourself, too. Common homemade instrument use PVC pipe or other widely available materials to make classic instruments.

The Xylophone-like Family

If we restrict our view to just the xylophone-like instruments, we see a great and diverse family of instruments as well. Some use wooden bars, like xylophones and marimbas. Others use metal bars like a glockenspiel or a vibraphone. Each comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, and each creates a unique sound.

The xylophone is traditionally laid out just like a piano. They can be almost as large as well. The bars are made out of rosewood, padouk, or some other synthetic wood. Being made out of wood gives them a characteristic ring, quite different from the bell-like tones from the glockenspiel.

The marimba is similar to a xylophone, but marimbas have resonators. In this case, a resonator is a pipe shaped sound box tuned to the note of the bar above it. It allows the bar to retain some of its energy for longer, and thus ring with a longer sustain. The resonator on traditional marimbas is often made of a gourd, which gives the traditional instrument a unique look. Marimbas are often lower in range than a xylophone.

The metal bar instruments in the family are similar. A glockenspiel is similar to a metal xylophone. It rings with a more bell like character. A vibraphone is the metal marimba, with one major addition. The resonators have motorized blockers, allowing the resonators to close and reopen at a given frequency. The result is an ethereal vibrato effect. It also has a damper pad to close off sustain if the note should be short. Again, the vibraphone is lower than the glockenspiel.

The Celesta

Finally I wanted to cover the often forgotten celesta. The Celesta is a keyboard which produces sound by hitting tubular metal bells. The result is a strangely haunting instrument that can be played as ornately as a piano. Most people can’t place the sound of one directly, since the instrument is relatively uncommon. The only song most people can identify that might remind out of the celesta is the prominent part in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

And Many More…

This is a nearly complete introduction to the struck idiophone family of instruments. More are being invented by the minute by adventurous builders, and they are simple to make yourself with just some basic tools and some patience. With a simple technique to start with (hitting is something most of us can do), these can be a great beginner instrument or a way to branch out into new sounds with your already existing musical talent.

Sources:
African Music Safari: http://www.african-music-safari.com/idiophone.html
Table of Musical Instrument Classifications: http://www.music.vt.edu/musicdictionary/appendix/instruments/instrumentmain.html