What Are The Differences Between Marimbas & Xylophones?

In the realm of mallet percussion instruments, no two instruments are as comparable as the xylophone and the marimba. In fact, it's been established that the latter derived from the former until it eventually became its own instrument.

What are the differences between marimbas and xylophones? The differences can be boiled down to the following:

  • Marimbas are larger than xylophones.
  • The marimbas have a slightly more resounding tone.
  • The instruments have different pitch ranges.

In this article, we'll discuss the dissimilarities between marimbas and xylophones that were briefly described. Nevertheless, let's first go back to the very origins of both instruments so as to offer some context.

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The Backgrounds Of Marimbas And Xylophones

The xylophone is plausibly one of the first mallet instruments to have ever existed, going as far back as approximately 2,000 B.C., though its exact birthplace is a subject of debate.

Some sources claim that China was the country that produced the first xylophones, while others insist that the wooden instrument first appeared on African soil. A third option suggests that the instrument originated in Southeast Asia or that it was developed there in parallel.

One of the earliest examples of a primitive xylophone was the Chinese harmonicon, while the ranat earned significance in Hindu regions at roughly the same time.

In the 9th century, xylophone-type instruments became highly popular, with several versions appearing within the timescale between the 9th and 14th centuries in Southeast Asia and Africa. One of the most iconic examples is the marimba, which is said to have first appeared around the 14th century in either of the regions mentioned.

It's not exactly clear where the marimba came from exactly, but many hints seem to infer that it was devised in Africa. As a matter of fact, the word “marimba” is a Bantú word to describe the xylophone, lending credence to this latter theory.

The marimba would eventually reach South and Central America by the 16th century, during the most dynamic years of the European slave trade and the import of African slaves into the “new” continent. Meanwhile, other versions of the xylophone were already present in Europe, becoming a staple in Western European folk music.

Belorussian musician and craftsman Michal Gusikov was responsible for refining the xylophone by the turn of the 19th century. He achieved this through the design of what would be nicknamed the “wood and straw instrument,” which emulated the notes on the piano, albeit distributed in four rows.

Albert Roth would perfect this concept by 1886 with the two-rowed chromatic xylophone. This particular model started being mass-produced in the early 1900s and would become the orchestral xylophone known today.

In approximately the same period, the marimba will also acquire a chromatic pattern, shifting from its initial diatonic layout. Guatemalan musician Sebastián Hurtado built the first instruments of this kind in the 1890s.

What Are The Differences Between Marimbas And Xylophones?

Throughout this next section, we'll dive deeper into the differences between marimbas and xylophones mentioned earlier in the article.

Difference 1: Design

First, I noted that:

“Marimbas are larger than xylophones.”

When assessing their design, size is possibly the central point of contrast between marimbas and xylophones.

To illustrate this point, some of the largest marimbas can measure up to 107-108″ in length and 41″ in width at the lowest note. The largest xylophone, by contrast, hardly reaches a third of the length and half the width of the marimba. What's more, the marimba is arguably the largest instrument in the category of mallet percussion.

In many other respects, both instruments share an abundance of similarities, which is essentially a given considering how both instruments relate to one another (as was already explained when reviewing their historical record). For example, both instruments are made of various types of hardwood (like rosewood or African padauk) with some synthetic variants.

Notwithstanding, the “steel marimbaphone” – a largely extinct instrument superseded by the modern vibraphone – was an example of a marimba that strayed from the traditional marimba and the xylophone, being built with high-quality steel bars instead of wooden bars.

Conversely, Xylophones have been made with alternative materials such as fibreglass or plastic. These instruments, however, could not be classed technically as xylophones as that would invalidate the meaning of the very term, which comes from the Greek xylon (meaning “wood” or “timber”).

Another feature that both instruments occasionally share is a resonance system consisting of tubes distributed across the bottom portion of the instruments under each bar. This feature is much more prevalent in marimbas than in xylophones. Xylophones might benefit from any resonance mechanism or include a resonance box instead.

Difference 2: Sound

Later, I pointed out that:

“The marimbas have a slightly more resounding tone.”

When comparing marimbas and xylophones of similar construction (with resonator pipes), you will notice that the sound of the marimba has more reverberation and sustain but is much warmer in tone even when playing than the xylophone (even when playing the same notes). Meanwhile, the sound of the xylophone is more focused and drier, with a more aggressive attack and quicker decay.

These distinctions are owed, in part, to how the bars of both instruments are regularly made. In marimbas, the bars are hollower towards the center, granting more space for air particles to vibrate and interact.

Another factor to consider is the way both instruments are tuned.

The marimba's tuning follows even-numbered harmonics (resembling the tuning method of both woodwinds and strings). At the same time, the xylophone is tuned on the odd-numbered third harmonic, apart from the fundamental pitch. This causes the marimba to blend in more with the orchestra while the xylophone delivers sharper notes that cut through the mix.

Difference 3: Pitch Range

Finally, I stated that:

“The instruments have different pitch ranges.”

Undeniably, the marimba has a much broader range than the xylophone, measuring from 4 to 5 octaves. A 5-octave marimba can deliver notes in a chromatic fashion from C2 all the way to C7.

In the meantime, the largest xylophones barely reach 4 octaves, namely, from C4 to C8, two octaves higher on the lower end than the marimbas and one octave higher on the opposite end.

Read How Marimbas 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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