Home xylophone 7 Types of Xylophones: Materials & Playing Techniques

7 Types of Xylophones: Materials & Playing Techniques

by Madonna

The xylophone is a percussion instrument consisting of a series of wooden bars of varying lengths arranged in a graduated scale and struck with mallets to produce musical tones. It is a member of the idiophone family, which means that the instrument’s sound is produced by the vibration of its own material, without the use of strings or membranes.

Xylophones have a rich cultural and musical history, with variations of the instrument found in cultures around the world. They play a vital role in both traditional and contemporary music, adding a distinctive and rhythmic element to ensembles and orchestras.

7 Types of Xylophones

Akadinda: Originating from Uganda, the akadinda is a large wooden xylophone with multiple rows of bars arranged in a ladder-like structure. It is played by multiple performers using mallets, and its complex polyrhythmic patterns are a prominent feature of Ugandan traditional music.

Amadinda: Also from Uganda, the amadinda is a smaller version of the akadinda, typically consisting of fewer bars and played by a single performer. It produces a resonant and percussive sound, often used in ensemble settings alongside other traditional Ugandan instruments.

Balafon: The balafon is a West African xylophone with wooden bars suspended over gourds or resonators. It is played with mallets and is commonly used in the music of the Mande people, particularly in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. The balafon’s bright and melodic tones contribute to the rhythmic complexity of West African music.

Embaire: Hailing from Uganda, the embaire is a smaller, portable version of the akadinda, typically consisting of fewer bars and played by a single performer. It is known for its intricate melodies and rhythms, often accompanied by vocals and other traditional instruments.

Gambang: The gambang is a traditional Indonesian xylophone made of wooden bars suspended over resonators. It is played with mallets and is commonly used in gamelan ensembles, which perform traditional Indonesian music and dance. The gambang’s bright and resonant tones add color and texture to the ensemble’s sound.

Gyil: Originating from Ghana and Burkina Faso, the gyil is a type of xylophone made of wooden bars suspended over calabash gourd resonators. It is played with mallets and is an essential instrument in the music of the Dagara and Lobi people. The gyil’s complex melodies and rhythms are often accompanied by traditional drumming and dancing.

Khmer: The Khmer xylophone is a traditional Cambodian instrument consisting of wooden bars suspended over resonators made of bamboo or metal. It is played with mallets and is a prominent feature of Cambodian classical music and traditional ensembles. The Khmer xylophone’s delicate and melodic tones are often used in ceremonial and ritual contexts.

Materials and Construction

Xylophones are typically constructed using a variety of materials, including wood, metal, and resonators. The choice of materials can significantly impact the instrument’s sound and playing characteristics.

Wood: Wooden bars are the primary component of most xylophones, with different types of wood producing varying tones and timbres. Hardwoods such as rosewood, padauk, and mahogany are commonly used for xylophone bars due to their dense and resonant qualities, which produce clear and vibrant tones. The size, shape, and thickness of the bars also influence the instrument’s pitch and resonance.

Metal: Some xylophones, particularly those used in orchestral settings, feature metal bars instead of wood. Metal xylophones, such as the orchestral glockenspiel, produce a bright and shimmering sound that cuts through the ensemble with clarity and precision. Aluminum and steel are commonly used for metal xylophone bars, providing a crisp and articulate tone.

Resonators: Resonators are hollow chambers or tubes attached to the underside of the xylophone bars, amplifying and sustaining the instrument’s sound. Resonators can be made of various materials, including wood, metal, bamboo, or gourds, each contributing to the instrument’s overall tone quality. The size, shape, and placement of the resonators affect the instrument’s resonance and projection.

Playing Techniques

Playing techniques vary depending on the type of xylophone and musical context. However, some common techniques include:

Striking: Players use mallets to strike the xylophone bars, producing musical tones of varying pitch and duration. Different mallets, such as hard or soft, can produce different timbres and articulations.

Rolling: Rolling involves rapidly alternating between two or more adjacent bars to create a continuous and flowing sound. This technique is often used for fast passages or melodic flourishes.

Glissando: Glissando involves sliding the mallet along the surface of the xylophone bars to produce a smooth and seamless transition between pitches. This technique adds a gliding or sliding effect to the music and is commonly used for expressive or decorative purposes.

Muffling: Muffling involves dampening or muting the sound of the xylophone bars by placing a hand or cloth on the bars immediately after striking them. This technique creates a staccato or percussive effect and is often used for rhythmic accents or articulations.

Musical Genres

Xylophones are used in a wide range of musical genres and cultural traditions, including:

Traditional African Music: Xylophones such as the akadinda, balafon, and gyil are integral to traditional African music, contributing complex rhythms and melodic patterns to ensemble performances.

Indonesian Gamelan: Xylophones such as the gambang are essential instruments in Indonesian gamelan ensembles, which perform traditional music and dance from Java and Bali.

Cambodian Classical Music: The Khmer xylophone is a prominent instrument in Cambodian classical music, where it is used in ceremonial and ritual contexts.

Contemporary Music: Xylophones are also used in contemporary music genres such as jazz, pop, and orchestral music, adding texture and color to ensemble performances.


In conclusion, xylophones come in a variety of types, each with its unique characteristics, playing techniques, and cultural significance. From the traditional African balafon to the Indonesian gambang and Cambodian Khmer, xylophones play a vital role in music around the world, contributing rhythmic complexity, melodic richness, and cultural diversity to musical performances. Whether used in traditional ensembles, orchestras, or contemporary bands, xylophones continue to captivate audiences with their vibrant tones and expressive capabilities.

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