What Are The Differences Between Glockenspiel & Vibraphone?

In the world of mallet percussion instruments, it's very easy to confuse one for the other. In this present writing, we'll be touching upon two idiophones that, while looking alike in many respects, likewise differ in many others: The glockenspiel and the vibraphone.

What are the differences between glockenspiel and vibraphone? The differences can be summarized as follows:

  • The vibraphone is exceedingly larger than the glockenspiel and contains more advanced equipment.
  • The vibraphone has a much stronger sound with a more pronounced sustain.
  • The pitch range of both instruments is different while retaining a similar octave count.

In this article, we'll go over the distinctions between glockenspiel and vibraphone that were just briefly outlined. However, first, let's examine their backgrounds.

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The Backgrounds Of Glockenspiels And Vibraphones

Idiophones could be said to exist for as long as humanity itself existed. For those uninitiated, idiophones are percussion instruments that rely on the vibration of their own bodies for sound production without possessing any membrane or string attached. Both vibraphones and glockenspiels fall under this category as they rely on the vibration of the metal bars across their body.

Not surprisingly, the development of the bells played a huge role in the creation of the glockenspiel and, later on, of the vibraphone. Some historians point to Neolithic-era China as the location where the first metal bells were devised, though researchers had already found African pottery cowbells dating from around 5,000 years ago.

Bell crafting eventually found its way into Europe and became very prevalent within religious circles, serving as blueprints for the modern church bells, as well as the glockenspiel.

The medieval glockenspiel consisted of actual bronze bells that were struck by hand. The Rathaus-Glockenspiel that attracts tourists to the heart of Munich is reminiscent of these earlier glockenspiel models.

Towards the end of the Renaissance, the glockenspiel had a keyboard adapted for easier maneuvering, but one century later, the actual bells were replaced by rectangular steel bars.

These rectangular bars proved easier to tune, but back in the day, they just substituted the real bells while the hammer and keyboard setup was still in place. With time, the glockenspiel would become its own instrument, and mallets would be utilized in lieu of hammers.

The vibraphone is much more modern than the glockenspiel. In fact, it would not be invented until the 1910s by an American instrument maker named Herman Winterhoff, who, at that moment, was working for the Leedy Drum Company.

Winterhoff found out how to create a tremolo effect (vox humana) on a mallet instrument by attaching a motor underneath the steel bars. However, these primitive vibraphones lacked a muting mechanism to reduce sustain.

The dampening bar was later devised by William D. Gladstone (specifically, in 1927), which was operated by pressing a pedal. With the dampening bar lifted, the sound of the vibraphone resembled that of the marimba.

What Are The Differences Between Glockenspiels And Vibraphones?

In this section, we'll focus on the distinctions between glockenspiel and vibraphone mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Difference 1: Design

Earlier, I pointed out that:

“The vibraphone is exceedingly larger than the glockenspiel and contains more advanced equipment.”

The sizes may not seem so contrasting until both instruments are assessed side-by-side.

On paper, the difference is staggering. To illustrate, the dimensions of the vibraphone can reach roughly 56″ in length and 32″ in width. Furthermore, the vibraphone carries metal tube resonators as long as 19.2″.

This should dwarf the glockenspiel, which can be as small as 17″ in length and 14″ or less in width. Moreover, since most glockenspiels don't have any tube resonators at the bottom, their height is hardly even measured. Some glockenspiels have a wooden box as a resonating chamber instead of tubes.

The mallets of each instrument also vary in size, with the vibraphone mallets measuring roughly 17″ in length and those of the glockenspiel barely coming in at 7-9″.

The glockenspiel, owing to its compact size, is highly portable. You may often witness them being played by marching bands, something that's simply not possible with vibraphones and other similar mallet instruments like the marimba.

I should also point out how intricate the vibraphone's mechanism is compared to the glockenspiel's.

For one, vibraphones include a dampening or sustain pedal similar to that found on pianos (albeit with a bulkier footboard). This pedal will raise a long beam with a felt covering that rests between the bar rows, effectively absorbing some of the vibration energy from the steel bars as they're struck.

Another distinguishing feature of the vibraphone is the presence of an electric motor that moves a series of flat discs located at the top of each resonator tube.

The oscillation of these discs prompts a vibrato effect that can be adjusted via a panel located at an accessible portion of the instrument. This has been, by far, the most distinctive characteristic of the vibraphone, setting it apart from other instruments in its family.

Difference 2: Tone

The second difference was abridged as follows:

“The vibraphone has a much stronger sound with a more pronounced sustain.”

In this regard, the tone of the glockenspiel tends to have higher frequencies and harmonics. Playing it with the softer side of the mallet would help reduce brightness for a much mellower sound.

The vibraphone's tone is stronger in intensity while also inclined to deliver warmer notes with emphasis on fundamentals. In addition, the vibraphone resonates considerably more due to the presence of the resonator tubes mentioned before (as well as the size).

The vibraphone's ability to deliver tremolo notes should also be stressed. This is thanks to the oscillating discs described in the previous section.

Difference 3: Pitch Range

Finally, I affirmed that:

“The pitch range of both instruments is different while retaining a similar octave count.”

To elaborate, the octave range (the number of notes that can be played measured by segments of 12 semitones) is largely the same in both instruments, as most models don't exceed 3 octaves.

With that said, most glockenspiels have a pitch range from F5 to F8 (with some models extending the bass range toward C5).

Vibraphones, on the other hand, play notes at the lower end of the spectrum. The most common vibraphone models encompass a range from F3 to F6 (two octaves lower than the glockenspiel), while alternative models are made with 4 octaves from C3 to C7.

Related article: Fundamental Frequencies Of Musical Notes In A=432 & A=440 Hz

Read How Glockenspiels Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Vibraphones Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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