What Are The Differences Between Glockenspiels & Xylophones?

Carrying on with our comparisons of mallet percussion instruments, we'll be going over two instruments that, despite appearing similar from a vantage point, come from very different traditions: The xylophone and the glockenspiel.

What are the differences between glockenspiels and xylophones? The differences are as follows:

  • Xylophones are made with wooden bars. Glockenspiel bars are made of metal.
  • The tones in glockenspiels are brighter and have a longer decay than in xylophones.
  • Both instruments have a distinct range pitch.

Throughout this article, we'll make a more extensive examination of each of these differentiating aspects between the xylophone and the glockenspiel. Nevertheless, it's important also to study their history.

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• Top 11 Best Glockenspiel Brands On The Market
• Top 11 Best Xylophone Brands On The Market

The Backgrounds Of Glockenspiels And Xylophones

Despite possessing a similar standard layout, the glockenspiel and the xylophone come from diverse starting points, even though the birthplace may have been the same.

Let's look at each instrument's history one at a time:

The Background Of Glockenspiels

The glockenspiel's history is closely related to the dawn of metallurgy and the appearance of the first metal bells in China. This art of bell crafting would become widespread later on, proving popular in Western Europe since the middle ages.

In Europe, bells would be initially linked to religious undertakings. It is said that the very first version of the glockenspiel appeared in Germany and consisted of rows of bells of gradient sizes that were hand-struck. These were likened to a smaller carillon.

By the 16th century, a keyboard layout was incorporated to ease playability. The bells were then replaced by rectangular metal bars by the 1600s. At first, they were played via hammers attached to the keyboard. Eventually, the bars were exposed, and the instrument ultimately became the glockenspiel we know today.

The Background Of Xylophones

The xylophone is also suggested to have appeared first in China, but there are also speculations that African and Southeast Asian versions developed roughly around the same period (approximately 2,000 B.C.)

One of the oldest versions of the instrument consisted of a series of hung wooden bars played with beaters (called the harmonicon). The ranat (heavily utilized in Hindu regions) was another ancient take on the xylophone, differing from the harmonicon in that the bars were laid out more similarly to the modern xylophone.

By the 9th century, xylophones became so prominent in Southeast Asia that a plethora of variants emerged, including the Gambang, the Gyil, and the Marimba.

The xylophone presumably arrived in Europe by the 16th century (though some sources point to the Crusades period) and was originally called a “wooden clapper”.

In Western classical music circles, the instrument began gaining notoriety thanks to Michal Gusikov, who is credited with inventing the “wood and straw instrument”, a 4-rowed xylophone that used the same notes as the piano, effectively making it more fitting for elaborate classical compositions and arrangements.

Albert Roth then introduced the ordinary 2-rowed xylophone by the end of the 19th century, known as the modern orchestral xylophone.

What Are The Differences Between Glockenspiels And Xylophones?

Now, we'll be dissecting the differences between glockenspiels and xylophones that were briefly disclosed at the beginning of this article:

Difference 1: Design

First, I argued that

“Xylophones are made with wooden bars. Glockenspiel bars are made of metal.”

This is far from the only design distinction between both instruments, but it's one of the most relevant when considering their status as idiophone instruments. Idiophone instruments rely on their build material to produce a great percentage of their sounds, a point that will be hammered on when delving into the sonic differences.

In keeping with that line of thought, the xylophone's bars are made of a type of hardwood (such as rosewood or padauk). This can be ascertained from the very name of the instrument, which is rooted in the Greek word for timber (xylon). Some xylophones would be made with synthetic materials like plastic or fibreglass, though their status as xylophones would be a subject of dispute.

On the other end, the glockenspiel is composed of plates made of metal (usually aluminum or high-carbon steel). The metal bars are reminiscent of the bells originally affixed to the instrument.

Another distinction worth discussing is the instruments' sizes. In that respect, the standard glockenspiel interface has a 17″ x 14″ frame. On the other hand, Xylophones can almost double that size (at least lengthwise), but you may find xylophones with very comparable sizes to the glockenspiel.

Glockenspiels and xylophones don't vary significantly in their resonance devices. Both may or may not have resonant tubes or pipes at the bottom. In some cases, they may equip a resonant box below the bar rows to project the sound. However, xylophones are more prone to sporting tubes than glockenspiels.

Difference 2: Sound

Later, I stated that:

“The tones in glockenspiels are brighter and have a longer decay than in xylophones.”

This difference is directly linked to the resonant material, as referenced earlier. Wood is a less efficient conductor than metal, which may explain why it struggles more in the reverberance and sustain departments. The tone of the xylophone is also warmer and more focused on its percussive attack.

The glockenspiel, on the contrary, renders significantly brighter and longer-lasting notes, resembling the sound of bells. The glockenspiel, for this reason, is often utilized to fulfill the role of small bells in an ensemble or other contexts.

Difference 3: Pitch Range

Lastly, I affirmed the following:

“Both instruments have a distinct range pitch.”

In this respect, it's worth noting that xylophones tend to have a slightly broader octave range than the glockenspiel, coming in at 3.5 (F4 – C8) or 4 octaves (extending the bass range, which results in C4 – C8). The xylophone is written one octave lower than its absolute pitch in sheet music.

On the other hand, the glockenspiel hardly exceeds three octaves, ranging from F5 to F8 (read as F2 – F5 in the treble clef). Regarding absolute pitch, the glockenspiel is one octave higher than the xylophone, depending on which models are being brought up for comparison.

Read How Glockenspiels Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Xylophones 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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