The marimba is Musicologically classified as a xylophone and is similar in many aspects to that instrument. Only known to the Western World for a century, the two instruments share a common ancestry. Since the late 1920s the more refined marimba has become the main instrument of choice for percussionists aiming for a solo career.
Although the early development of the marimba has been confined to Central America, its origin, preceding its recorded history, has many possibilities. It is now widely accepted that the marimba originated in Africa and is closely related to the African xylophones.
The timber used for the "bars" or notes of a marimba is very important, and there are only a couple of timbers that really work well, both of which are now sadly endangered species. Honduras Rosewood is the traditional and probably best choice, although African Padoak has also been used with success in more recent years. The timber needs to be kiln dried to equilibrium moisture content (about 7% moisture and preferably then air dried for a further year or two, before being shaped into bars and tuned. Kelon, which is a synthetic material made from extruded glass fibres is sometimes used for making marimba bars, and is even preferred in some marching bands because of its greater durability, but is generally considered to be inferior in tone etc.
The first commercially produced marimbas were used mainly as an orchestral instrument, or in marimba ensembles. Xylophones were already in popular use, and the marimbas were considered an alternative to the xylophone. It lacked the piercing quality which enabled the sound to cut through an orchestra though, and was not as suitable in character for ragtime music. It was not long however before the mellow warmth of the marimba began to be seen as a useful sound in its own right, and it quickly gained its own place in many compositions.
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XYLOPHONEWe get the word "Xylophone" from the ancient Greek "Xylos" meaning "wood" and of course "phono" which we all know is a reference to sound. So xylophone literally means sounding wood. From a musicological perspective, the word xylophone refers to a category of instruments - in other words marimbas, xylophones, clave, and any other idiophone made of wood can be classified as a xylophone. Instruments with metal bars would come under the musicological heading of "metallophone". From the musicians perspective however, a xylophone is a much more specific instrument. The origin of the xylophone is ancient and not known exactly, but most historians agree that it most likely has its roots in Africa and is related most strongly to the African "Balafon".
The mallets used on a xylophone can of course be varied from quite soft to extremely hard for varying tones - just like marimba mallets. Mostly though, harder mallets are used - particularly if the upper register is to be played.
The xylophone can look similar to a marimba to the uninitiated, but there are a number of differences. The main difference is the pitch range which goes an octave higher on a xylophone and an octave lower or more on a marimba. The 2nd harmonic of the bars are usually tuned differently as well being a semitone higher on the xylophone making it brighter - although this is not always the case. The xylophone's notes sound an octave higher than written whereas the marimba is written at pitch. Also whilst a xylophone's bars tend to be all the same width, the marimba's will usually be graduated so they get wider as they get lower.
As a solo instrument, the xylophone is past its heyday - most soloists these days prefer the vastly more versatile marimba which also has a bigger range and warmer tone. Whilst the xylophone began its introduction to western music in the orchestra and still remains a well used orchestral colour - its meteoric rise to fame happened in the 1920s with ragtime music and vaudeville. It remained a popular "show" instrument in early jazz but became quickly outmoded by the vibraphone in the 1940s shortly after that instrument was invented. You can still hear some great examples of period ragtime on xylophone today by performers such as Bob Becker.
Perhaps the most important contribution to the rise of the xylophone was made by George Hamilton Green and his brother Jo. Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1893, George was proclaimed "the greatest xylophonist in the world" by the time he was 21. The extensive composition, teaching and performing of the brothers raised the profile of the xylophone to a high level, providing a market for keyboard percussion instruments. (Barry Bridwell/Scott Lyons 'Focus on performance: Marimba technique - a salute to George Hamilton Green, Xylophone genius.' Percussive Notes. (25#5, 1987) 54-56.)
The Deagan company made its first chromatic xylophones in 1903, and a few years later began manufacturing marimbas as well. At about this time, other companies also began to manufacture keyboard percussion instruments. Gradually marimbas gained space in the catalogue and by the '30s and '40s had clearly overtaken the xylophone. (Linda Pimentel. 'The Aristocracy Of Manufactured Marimbas.' Percussive Notes. (21#1, 1982) 61-64.)
The variety of note lengths a playing styles available to the vibraphone makes it an ideal soloistic instrument, however its range is limited to three octaves by constructional necessities of the pedal. For this reason its earlier uses were confined mainly to the jazz idiom, often used as a combination rhythm/solo instrument in smaller jazz bands. In modern times however it is slowly growing in popularity as a pure solo instrument as playing techniques develop. It is now quite often used in conjunction with small groups of other percussion instruments - as the heart of a small multiple-percussion setup.
The vibraphone is also growing in popularity as an orchestral instrument as modern day composers realise its potential as an addition to orchestral textures. It can also be really effective played "arco" - with cello or bass bows.
SNARE DRUMMost of the history of the snare drum comes from military bands, and therefore the marching tradition. The type of playing involved is often called "rudimental" playing, as it is based on an ever-growing collection of rudiments. Put simply - rudiments are little combinations of notes in certain rhythms that are played a certain way. These rudiments are like the words that rudimental language is built on. Most repertoire written for solo snare drum is in a rudimental style. This is most likely because most of the interest in a piece of music played on a single drum tends to be technical. There is a small but growing number of solos written for snare drum that endeavour to create interest by exploiting a variety of more unusual performance techniques and sounds created in imaginative ways.
TIMPANITimpani are not really all that well suited to solo performance, as they are somewhat limited. A skilled player can certainly play melodies though, and even simultaneously perform simple accompanying parts. Students studying percussion at a tertiary level will usually be required to perform solos on timpani, although there are extremely few people indeed who specialize in this sort of performance. The real strength of timpani lies in their role in an orchestra or band. There is however a much greater scope available from timpani than most people would ever hear or imagine. Some techniques that rarely get used in orchestras but are very useful in the solo repertoire are: dead strokes (played in the drum's middle), forced harmonics, playing with brushes/fingers and a whole variety of alternative things, playing cymbals inverted on the heads, playing the copper bowls and many more. For more basic information on timpani follow the links below.