How A Xylophone Works

Posted by Mike Schuck

A xylophone is a cool instrument to add into your music collection! They are notifiable by their striking resemblance to a large gong, but with shorter bars that create a more percussive sound.

The xylo­phones we’ll be talking about here are made out of thin wooden boards or disks that have small bells attached to them. These instruments were originally used as doorstops, so they had to be weighty enough to hold firm while being movable.

Now musicians use these beautiful sounds in many different styles of music, from jazz to techno. Even though this article will go into some depth, you don’t need any formal training to play one!

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This article will talk about how to make your own xylophones using wood scraps left over from other projects. We’ll also take a closer look at some easy ways to modify an existing xylophone to get all sorts of new tonal possibilities. Let’s dive in!

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History of the xylophone

how a xylophone works

The first xylophones were made out of bamboo or dried gourds, which are both very perishable materials. If you ever see someone playing one of these xylophones for real, they probably own many more than just one!
As time passed, musicians in China began to make solid wooden xylophones that sound better.

These early xylophonists would use mallets to tap the bars on their xylophone gently so that there was no noise. Then, people started using drumsticks to hit the middle bar harder, creating additional sounds.

Music makers in India eventually added steel balls to play music on the xylophone. These steel balls create a higher pitched note when struck hard with a stick.

History aside, how does an ordinary xylophone work?

You can place your xylophone between two vertical boards or bars and press it down onto the board. This is what makes it able to produce different notes and tones.

When pressed together, the longer bars will not contact each other, leaving a gap. By adding sand or small stones into the space, the weight of the instrument is balanced, and thus it stays stable.

Stones also help amplify the sound by acting as a resonator. When a player taps a stone with a hammer, it vibrates and repeats this process.

How a xylophone works

how a xylophone works

A xylophone is an instrument that sounds most like a glockenspiel, with metal bars or trays attached to a frame. The bar lengths are different, however, and they’re connected by hammers or levers that are struck as each new tone is played.

The rhythm of the notes comes from the alternating placement of short and long bars at regular intervals. Because there are no slides, the position of each tray doesn’t change when a note is hit- it stays still until another note is played. This creates a steady stream of tones in harmony with the rest of the instruments around it.

A xylophone can be used for fun music making, but it has also been adapted for use in educational settings.

Different types of xylophones

how a xylophone works

There are two main components to an acoustic xylophone – the struck metal bars and the hammers or mallets used to hit them. The hammers can be made of plastic, wood, steel, or any other material you desire!

The length and weight of the hammer determine how loud the instrument is and what tone it produces. Heavy hammers produce lower notes and longer tones, while lighter ones play higher notes and shorter sounds.

A rubber cup attached to the end of the hammer helps keep the stick vibrating by absorbing some of the energy. The size of the cup determines whether the note is pure bass, middle-range, or treble.

Struck bar designs also make a difference in sound quality. Flat bars only rebound off the bell, leaving no resonance effect. This may not matter if you like this style of music, but for others it does. Bowl-shaped bars resonate, creating different effects depending on the area where the bar hits the side wall.

Tips for playing a xylophone

how a xylophone works

One of the most fundamental instruments to play is the xylophone! The xylo- what many refer to as the “woodblock”- is a device that produces sounds when struck. It uses wooden bars, or blocks, set in a frame with springs inside that make it bounce back up after being hit.

The trick to playing one is knowing how to use different types of wood to create various notes. Technically speaking, this isn’t called xylophoning but rather acoustics, but either way you have to know some basics before you get going!

Wooden bars can be made out of almost any material so long as they are soundproofed (damped) enough to produce a note. Many musicians use plastic lumber because it is lighter and doesn’t break down easily like normal wooden planks do. This article will go into more detail about the best type of plastic lumber to use while learning how to play the xylophone!

Strumming the bar gently creates an easy tone, whereas hitting harder causes the bar to rebound slightly and makes a sharper, higher pitched noise.

Xylophone parts

how a xylophone works

As we mentioned before, xylophones are instruments that play different notes depending on what pitch you press down onto the instrument’s keyboard. The most familiar part of anxylophone is the A-frame as shown above. This frame can be made out of many materials such as plastic or wood and has either metal rods or balls attached to it.

When playing the xylophone, you will tap both the bar and the ball at the same time, making one sound and then the other. For example, if your played the bar with no ball attached, that would be a note alone, but adding in the ball, it becomes an interval (two notes that get stacked together) so it would be a tone and a half (a half step).

Intervals are very common in music and are typically not too difficult to understand! More advanced musicians may recognize some as being similar to a major third or minor sixth. That is because each A-Frame has its own unique set of bars and balls which create their own intervals.

Examples of xylophone melodies

how a xylophone works

Xylophones make music by producing sound when small metal bars or rods are pressed together. These rods can be tuned to produce different notes, which is why they’re called tone generating instruments!

The number and size of the rods in an instrument determine what notes it produces. Larger bar sizes contribute higher pitched sounds, while smaller ones give you lower tones.

For instance, a violin has many more strings than a xylophone, so it makes higher pitched sounds. A guitar has fewer strings and thus creates lower pitches.

Some musicians use xylophones for creating their own unique sounds as well.

Examples of xylophone chords

how a xylophone works

An example of an extended chord is called an octave higher. This is done by raising the lower note one full step (or a half tone, as some call it). The most common way to do this is to take your normal bass note and raise it by a whole tone.

For instance, if the bass note is A then the octave up note would be G. To play the octave higher string, you must press both strings at the same time! This is how it sounds in theory, but in reality there are no longer eight strings being pressed simultaneously, so it does not work.

Luckily, we can fix that! By using two notes from our new system’s table, we can create an octave higher chord easily.

Xylophone tones

how a xylophone works

An xylo- what? You may have heard of an instrument called a marimba, which is similar to a bass drum. A marimba has metal rods that are struck with mallets to make different notes. The xylophone uses wood blocks instead!

Xylophones were originally made out of bamboo or willow, but today’s versions are mostly plastic or wooden cubes with small holes in each cube edge. When you hit a tone, some pieces connect together to form a chord (more about this below).

There are two main types of xylophones: pitched and unpitched. Unpitched xylophones can be used to create chords by hitting certain edges, but they cannot be tuned like a guitar. Pitched xylophones have tunable open strings that can be adjusted for higher or lower sounds.

Thinking about how xylophones work makes them seem very complicated. That’s why it is helpful to compare them to other instruments. Just because a violin is designed similarly to a clarinet does not mean that people think more highly of the former than the latter!

Another way to look at it is that while violins and clarinets both use air as their active element, xylophones use solid objects (the block material) instead.

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