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Ten fun facts about the xylophone

You’d probably recognize the rainbow-patterned, lap-size plastic xylophone in the playroom, popular among music-minded toddlers. But what do you know about the real thing? The xylophone is a wooden percussion instrument with a range of four octaves, and can be used in a variety of musical genres.

  1. No one really knows the xylophone’s origins. Although they are present in the traditional music of Melanesia, Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and more, its birthplace and date remain a mystery. In 1511, it was called “wooden clatter” and later a “straw fiddle” in Europe.
  2. Often confused with its cousin the marimba, the xylophone has thick, hardwood bars and elicits much sharper, shorter notes, so the two instruments are often used together for a more varied tone.
  3. Although the xylophone is often identified by its piano-esque appearance, this layout wasn’t established until the 20th century. In Eastern Europe in the 16th century, xylophone bars were laid out on straw in four rows (instead of today’s two rows), and this practice continued for over 300 years.
  4. Think a xylophone on top of straw is odd? In East Africa, a quick, makeshift xylophone, called a “loose bar xylophone”, was placed over banana stems, and this may have actually been what inspired the straw technique. The debate continues as to which is a more efficient method.
  5. The xylophone was an essential part of comedy duo Harrigan and Hart’s routines during the late 19th century. It was probably because of the duo’s success on Broadway that the xylophone is still a staple in American musicals today.
  6. Although it’s an essential part of any orchestra or concert band today, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the xylophone became as important to classical music as it was to musicals. In the 1970s it even became a featured instrument in ragtime, particularly in the music of percussionist Bob Becker and his ensemble NEXUS.
  7. In Senegal, xylophones have been used as part of initiation ceremonies, played by young girls and boys. Among other practical uses, it was also used to scare birds, monkeys, and other pests out of the gardens.
  8. In Latin America, the xylophone is actually interchangeable with the marimba, and has been used in Guatemala since before the 17th century, when it was first documented. When Guatemalan independence was celebrated in 1821, the marimba became the national instrument.
  9. Today’s xylophones are usually made of hardwood, but can also be constructed from other types of wood, including maple or even bamboo. However, you’re likely to get a much different sound depending on what type of wood you use.
  10. The xylophone is often used to to effect the sound of clanking bones, making it as relevant in a Halloween movie as in jazz.

The above are only ten facts from the extensive entry in the The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. Did we leave out any of your favorite facts about the xylophone?

Featured image: Xylophone. Photo by Frédérique Voisin-Demery. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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