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Mallet percussion: marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel!

Get a piano, take out some octaves, enlarge the keys, add some resonators and… here you are! You’ve just created a mallet percussion, which will be the topic of this post that resumes the subject started on the post about the classification of percussion instruments.

Now, is the result a very big instrument so that you have to walk to reach both ends? Ok, you obtained a marimba.

Did you forget to take out the pedal of the piano and the instrument is made of metal? Well, it’s a vibraphone.

Is it short and looks like a little… coffin? Don’t worry, it’s just a xylophone.

What if the instrument produces very high notes and it’s annoying? I’m sorry, it’s a glockenspiel.

Marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel. Let’s see what they are.




Foto by Katie Schenk / CC BY-NC 2.0 / Logo added to original

Let’s be clear: marimba stands for mallet percussion as piano stands for keyboard instruments.

Used mostly as a solo instrument or in modern music ensemble, the marimba is the queen of all mallet percussion in terms of size, timbre quality and original repertoire.

It’s mainly played with four mallets, two for both hands but in recent times we can also find pieces for marimba which requires 6 mallets (as it was simple playing with only two…).

I’m sure that if only Bach knew the marimba at his time, now we would have a fantastic repertoire to study. Without this we have to limit ourselves to transcriptions and modern composers.




Foto by vxla / CC BY 2.0 / Logo added to original

Vibraphone and jazz: the combination of these two words is inevitable. Play a blues scale on any other mallet percussion and then do it on the vibraphone. Is there something else to say?…

But the vibraphone is more that that. It’s quite popular in the world of modern and contemporary music as marimba is. In addition to 3 octaves of metal plates, the vibraphone also has a pedal which can activate a dampener . It also has a small electric motor which starts some fans that are situated inside the resonator tubes giving it’s typical vibrato sound.

To spell it out: do you know the sound children (and not only children) do when they want to mimic American Indians putting a hand in front of the mouth? Well, this metaphor is quite functional.



XylophoneTogether with the glockenspiel it’s the most used mallet percussion in the orchestra and the most common keyboard percussion in musical schools.

There isn’t a particular reason that explains why the xylophone is so used inside the school system. The only reason I can find is because it’s cheaper than a marimba or a vibraphone.

Even though this instrument is beloved by school heads and parents because of it’s cheaper price, unfortunately the xylophone can’t be a valid substitute of the others mallet percussion.

Actually, beyond the reduced extension and the sound that results poorer than marimba, with the xylophone it’s just impossible to start the study of the technique with 4 mallets.

That said it’s undoubtedly a fantastic instrument when used in appropriate contexts. Watch this.




Foto by vxla / CC BY 2.0 / Logo added to original

It’s time to tell the truth and confess my opinion, but I think I’m not saying such an unusual thing as a percussionist: I hate the glockenspiel!

Not only it’s one of those instruments with the hardest orchestral excerpts but also the study on its tiny metal plates is a real pain for the ears because of its acute and sharp sound. Result: damaged ears and sure headache.

Aside from the negative qualities the glockenspiel… well, aside from all these negative qualities, nothing more to say. Small, annoying, useless.

…Ok ok. Maybe I should admit I’ve exaggerated and say that, in SOME CASES, the glockenspiel could result an “interesting” instrument. Watch this video about glockenspiel.



Complete description? Not at all. As always if you appreciated the videos I suggest you to deepen the listening of these instruments looking for some interesting things on the internet.

A better idea: attend some percussion ensemble concert where mallet percussion always are in evidence. I suggest you one group, chose by chance: the Oxygen Percussion Quartet!

I hope you are now better aware of the four main mallet percussion and the next time you’ll see a glockenspiel, please, PLEASE, don’t tell the percussionist: “Hey, what a wonderful xylophone you have!”. Please.



Question: Ok, I want you to know that this will be a stupid question… So here you are: what is your favorite mallet percussion? Otherwise, what is the mallet percussion you hate (mine is glockenspiel!)? Leave a comment!