Instruments | Keyboard Percussion

Keyboard percussion instruments include the western xylophone, marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, the log xylophones and marimbas of Africa and Central America, and the barred instruments played in the Indonesian gamelan.

The orchestral xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel have thin wooden or metal rectangular bars laid out like a chromatic piano keyboard. The back row of bars – the sharps and flats – are raised above those in front. The bars of the xylophone and marimba are suspended on string held between pegs. Glockenspiel bars are held in place with rubber pins. Keyboard percussion instruments are played with beaters with cane or plastic shafts and small oval or round heads made of plastic, rubber, wood or brass. Marimba beaters are commonly overwound with yarn.


The bars of a keyboard percussion instrument are rectangular with a curved underside to ensure that the bar will tune to a true pitch. Tuning the bars is achieved using longer, thinner bars for lower notes, and shorter, thicker bars for higher notes. Fine-tuning is achieved by removing material from the centre underside of the bar to flatten the pitch and filing the underside of the ends of the bars to sharpen the pitch. Any damage to the bar will result in a loss of true pitch and an impaired sonority.

To achieve a resonant sound, the bar is struck either at the very end or in the middle – the points of maximum vibration (antinodes) of the soundwaves produced by the bar. Holes are drilled for supports for the bar at the nodal points, where the bar does not resonate.


Orchestral xylophones, marimbas and some glockenspiels have vertical tube resonators with a stopped lower end, which are placed under each bar. Each resonator is tuned to the same fundamental frequency as the bar, and amplifies the sound. However, the combined vibrations of the bar and the air column in the resonator cause a loud initial attack and a rapid decay. This gives the xylophone and marimba a relatively short sound. The resonators increase in size as the pitch of the bar lowers. On a 4 1⁄3-octave marimba they range in size from 6.25 cm (2.5 in) for c''' to 71 cm (28.5 in) for A. Concert xylophones and marimbas may have a set of dummy resonators on the side of the instrument that faces the audience. These are usually arranged in an arc, with long resonators at the top and bottom of the instrument. These are still tuned in the normal way, but the resonators at the top end are extended below the stopped end.

Playing Technique

Proficiency on keyboard percussion is an important area of competence for the western percussionist. Keyboard percussion instruments are played with a matched grip and the player must develop good memory in order to move around the keyboard fluently. There is a considerable distance between the notes, especially at the lower end of the instrument, and the performers must make sure they...

To read the full article please either login or register .

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


An extensive music information resource, bringing together the talents and expertise of a wide range of editors and musicologists, including Stanley Sadie, Charles Wilson, Paul Du Noyer, Tony Byworth, Bob Allen, Howard Mandel, Cliff Douse, William Schafer, John Wilson...


Classical, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country and more. Flame Tree has been making encyclopaedias and guides about music for over 20 years. Now Flame Tree Pro brings together a huge canon of carefully curated information on genres, styles, artists and instruments. It's a perfect tool for study, and entertaining too, a great companion to our music books.

Rock, A Life Story

Rock, A Life Story

The ultimate story of a life of rock music, from the 1950s to the present day.

David Bowie

David Bowie

Fantastic new, unofficial biography covers his life, music, art and movies, with a sweep of incredible photographs.