What is a Marimba?

Do you know what a marimba is? Do you know the difference between a marimba and a xylophone?

Do you know what a marimba is? Do you know what it looks like? What makes a marimba different from a xylophone? And who invented the marimba? Where did it come from? Let’s explore and find out about the marimba.

What is the Marimba?

Family Connections

The marimba is a member of the percussion family. All the instruments of the percussion family must be “hit”or “struck” to produce the sound. Drums, triangles, cymbals, even pianos are percussion instruments. The sound of a marimba is produced by hitting the tone plates with mallets.

Marimbas are close relatives to the xylophone, the vibraphone, and the glockenspiel. They are all like cousins. All of these have tuned bars arranged like a keyboard. The players of these instruments use mallets to strike the tone plates. You need to be able to read music to play these instruments. Marimbas and xylophones are usually made with bars of wood, while vibraphones and glockenspiels are made with metal bars.

What Does a Marimba Look Like?

Marimbas are large instruments. They have two rows of wooden bars, or tone plates, arranged like a keyboard. One row of bars is slightly raised behind the other row of bars. A large frame supports the tone plates, and then a full stand holds the frame. Here is a picture.

This is a picture of a marimba.
Here is a picture of a marimba. Notice the resonator tubes under the tone plates.

Underneath each wooden bar is a long tube that acts as a resonator. Each tube is open on the top and closed on the bottom. The lower notes on a marimba require longer resonator tubes, and the higher notes need smaller, or shorter tubes.

Sometimes you will see a marimba with a nice-looking arch in the resonators. This is just for looks – the tubes are closed, or blocked, inside at the appropriate length.

How do You Play a Marimba?

You play a marimba the same way you play a keyboard. Sort of. The person playing reads notes on a page of music. The tone plates on the instrument are arranged like the keys on a piano. Instead of using fingers on a keyboard, a marimba player uses mallets to strike the tone plates on the instrument.

Since we have two hands, you might think a marimba player uses two mallets. And, you might be wrong. A good player often uses two or more mallets PER HAND! That means playing with 4 or 6 mallets! That calls for some good coordination!

What Does a Marimba Sound Like?

A marimba produces a deep, rich, mellow sound. It is softer and darker than the sound of a xylophone. This sound blends well with other instruments. Because of the resonators under each tone plate, the sound can resonate up to 2 or 3 seconds. The length, thickness, and density of each tone plate determines the pitch, or how high or low it sounds.

How Do You Tune a Marimba?

Very Carefully! Actually, you don’t really tune a marimba. Over time, though, some of the tone plates do get out of tune. Usually, the marimba player takes the tone plates off his instrument, packs them up, and ships them off to a professional who will work with them to get them all back in tune with each other. Usually that involves carefully reshaping of the wood on a tone plate. Not really a job for most of us! From what I read it costs between $50 – $100 per octave for tuning. (Most marimbas are over four to five octaves.)

How Much Does a Marimba Cost?

A good marimba will cost at least $10,000 to $20,000. A lot, right!? The best tone plates are made from Honduran Rosewood. Problem – those trees are now on the endangered species list. That may drive up the price for good marimbas even more.

Where Do Marimbas Come From?

Most music historians seem to think that marimbas originated in Africa, but some say there is evidence of marimbas in Asia as well. Originally pieces of wood were arranged over a hole in the ground. Then people used sticks to strike the pieces of wood. The hole acted as a resonator to amplify the sound. Later the pieces of wood were elevated, and a hollow gourd was hung under each wooden piece to act as the resonator.

Marimba = “Wood that Sings”

The word marimba in the Bantu language of Central Africa means “wood that sings.” The Zulu tribe of South Africa has a legend of a goddess named Marimba who makes and plays an instrument of wooden bars with gourds underneath the bars.

Marimbas and Central America

Most likely the marimba came across to Central America with African slaves. The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras.

The Central American marimba maker, Sebastian Hurtado started arranging the bars of the instrument like the keys of a piano, including an additional row of keys for sharps and flats.

Over time people replaced the hanging resonator gourds with wooden tubes. By the early 1900s instrument makers started using metal tubes for the resonators. And by 1920 an American company began making marimbas.

But Who Knew about Marimbas?

But even by the 1920s not many people knew about the marimba. And not many composers were writing music for the instrument. If you loved the marimba, and wanted more people to know about it, what would you do?

A man named Clair Omar Musser had an idea. Musser both played and taught the marimba, but he wanted more people to know about the instrument. So he assembled groups of marimba players together and put on concerts around the country. Sometimes he used more than 100 marimba players together in a concert. He even had his group perform at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Here is a link to some more information about Musser.

And Who Wrote Music for Marimbas?

Because of these performances many more people became interested in the marimba. And composers started to write music for the instrument. One of the earliest compositions for the marimba was the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, written by Darius Milhaud in 1947. You can listen to it here. If you watch this video, pay attention to how the tone bars are arranged on the instrument. Also, watch for when the player changes his mallets, and listen to how the sound changes with the different mallets.

By the 1950s orchestras were beginning to use marimbas as part of the percussion section. Other composers who started to write music for and including marimba include Leos Janacek, Carl Orff, Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich, Clair Omar Musser, and Olivier Messiaen. Notice how I did not mention composers like Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven? The marimba was not a part of the orchestra then. All the people who wrote for this instrument lived (or still live) in the last 100 years or less.

If you find this information about the marimba fascinating, you might want to check out this video – It gives a brief introduction to the glockenspiel, the xylophone, the vibraphone, and the marimba. The presenter in the video talks about the difference between the four instruments, and also explains how they work.

Are you interested in other instruments? Check out some of out other posts about instruments.

Violin

Flute

Trumpet

Do you know the difference between a marimba and a xylophone? Do you know what a marimba is?

Where Does your Trumpet Come From?

Are you a trumpet player? Good for you! I’m not, but I have tried to play the trumpet. It is a great instrument! My brother played trumpet when we were growing up, and one of my sons plays trumpet. So I have learned some things about the trumpet from them. Do you know anything about the instrument’s history? You should.

Did You Know?

If you stretched out all the tubing of a trumpet it would be almost 5 feet long.

A pair of ancient trumpets was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (King Tut) of Ancient Egypt.

Toyota built a trumpet-playing robot. Check it out!

The largest playable trumpet ever built is about 105 feet long! If you are traveling to Indonesia, you should look it up. But don’t think about trying to play it! It can only be played with an air compressor.

Cornets and trumpets are similar instruments. They are played the same way and use the same fingerings, but they are not exactly alike. Cornets are somewhat smaller than trumpets and have conical bores. The sound of a cornet is a bit more mellow than the sound of a trumpet. Trumpets are larger, have cylindrical bores, and have a brighter sound.

Where Did Trumpets Come From?

Trumpets have been around in one form or another for a long time – maybe about 3000 years. But those early instruments looked nothing like a trumpet of today. Historians believe the earliest trumpets were hollow pieces of wood, maybe hollowed out by insects. In time people began making some trumpets out of bronze or silver.

Move to Metal

By the 1500s trumpets were being made from metal. But there were problems with these trumpets. They were not able to play all the notes musicians and composers wanted to use. Basically, these instruments were just straight tubes with no holes or valves, no way to change notes, except by changing the embouchure and air speed. How could they make the trumpet so it would be able to play more notes?

People started thinking about solutions to the problem. The first idea they tried was to have the musicians use two or more trumpets of different lengths. When they needed to play notes that one horn couldn’t play, they would switch to a different horn. This allowed them to play more notes, but it was a rather awkward method. It also wasn’t so easy to carry around two or three long horns at a time. Time to try a new idea.

Slides on a Trumpet? Hands in the Bell?

So, they tried adding slides to the trumpet. Well, that allowed the instrument to play more notes, but it made the horn awkward to play. Scratch that idea.

Someone suggested that if a trumpet player put his hand in the bell, he could adjust his hand to produce different notes. But wait! Those trumpets were still really long! It was hard to reach the bell!

In 1777 they decided to bend the instrument to make it easier to reach the bell. This may have helped a little bit, but it caused more problems than it solved. Back to the drawing board.

In 1839 someone decided to include some valves and extra tubing on the trumpet. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What does a Valve Do?

A valve makes a way to redirect the air through different bits of tubing to produce different sets of notes. When you blow through a trumpet you can get several notes without pushing down any valves. You can get C, G, C, E, G, all without using any valves. When you use the first valve you can get B♭, F, B♭, D, F, etc. When you push down the second valve you can get a different set of notes. The valve you push down directs the air through a different piece of tubing to produce the different notes. By using different combinations of the three valves, a trumpet player can produce all the notes he needs to play his music.

What are Trumpets Made Of?

Most trumpets today are made of brass. Brass is an alloy (a combination of metals) made of copper and zinc. Sometimes the brass is either silver or gold-plated. That is how you see silver trumpets in band or orchestra. The horn itself is not made of silver, just covered in a silver coating. Many valves are now made of Monel. Monel is a very specialized alloy – it is very hard, and very resistant to corrosion and acid. The Monel alloy was patented in 1906.

The Sound of the Trumpet

How would you describe the sound of a trumpet? Your sister probably just says it is loud! Or maybe annoying. But in the music world, the trumpet sound is called high and brilliant. The sound can carry over a long distance. It is easily heard – which explains why it was often used in battles as signals for the soldiers.

Piccolo Trumpet

Have you ever heard a piccolo trumpet? Piccolo trumpets are cool! They look like a trumpet, but are smaller, and play higher than a regular trumpet. The tubing of a piccolo trumpet is half as long as the tubing of a regular trumpet. And the piccolo trumpet sounds an octave higher than a regular trumpet. The Beatles even used a piccolo trumpet in one of their songs.

Here is an example of what a piccolo trumpet sounds like. Listen Here

I hope you learned something new about your instrument. Share this with your trumpet friends!

Check out some of our other instrument history posts:

Trumpet History - What Do You Know?

Where did your Flute Come From?

Are you a flute player? (I am!) Do you know anything about the flute’s history? Where it came from? The flute certainly didn’t start out looking like it does today! Let’s explore a little bit about where your instrument came from – the history of the flute.

Names to know:

There are a few names that stand out in the history of the flute. Here are four of these important names:

  •         Hotteterre
  •         Quantz
  •         Tomlitz
  •         Boehm

Ever heard of any of them? If you keep studying you will probably play some music written by Johann Quantz (1697–1773) . He was a flute player, a flute maker, and a flute composer. Quantz also wrote some important ideas about playing the instrument and using different fingerings for making the flutes of his time sound better. He even gave flute lessons to Frederick the Great of Prussia!

You also need to know the name of Theobald Boehm. Your flute is patterned after his design ideas. You can be very thankful for Boehm’s brilliant ideas about making this instrument easier to finger, easier to keep in tune, and easier to play.

Facts to know:

What should you call a person who plays the flute? Flute player, flutist, flautist, flutenist – they all work. Although I have never heard anyone use the term flutenist before.

The flute is the oldest kind of wind instrument. Historians say a form of flute easily dates back 40,000 years. But I’m not sure we would enjoy playing the flutes from that era!

It takes more air to play a flute than any other instrument. There is some debate about whether a tuba might require more air for some notes. How can such a small instrument require more air than a tuba? Easy – all the air for playing a tuba goes right into the instrument. When you blow air to play a flute the air is split – only some of it goes into the instrument to produce sound. The rest just blows over the embouchure plate.

Flutes are woodwind instruments. Even though it is made of metal. And even though it is the only woodwind instrument that does not use a reed.

There are twelve instruments in the flute family. The most common ones are the flute and the piccolo. The lowest and most massive member of the family is the hyperbass flute. It sounds four octaves lower than a regular flute. Its lowest note is a C that is one octave lower than the lowest C on a piano! And the hyperbass flute is over 8 meters long – that’s over 25 feet long!

Now for some history:

An Old Instrument

The flute is the oldest wind instrument that historians have found evidence for. Originally the word flute referred to instruments that were either blown from the end (like a recorder) or blown across (like today’s flutes). The first evidence for blown-across flutes, or side-blown flutes, comes from the 1st to 4th centuries B. C. Blown-across is a bit awkward to say, so these flutes became known as transverse flutes.

By the Middle Ages these early flutes were often made of wood, were made with just one piece, and had 6 finger holes. Traveling minstrels carried and used them throughout Europe. By the 1500s groups of players with different-sized flutes often played together in ensembles called consorts.

Problems. Solutions?

But there were problems with these flutes. Most of the flutes were made to play in the key of D major. The main problem these flutes had? Intonation! They did not play in tune very well. Not in tune with themselves, and not in tune with others. And there wasn’t really any way to fix the problem.

By the 1600s people were trying to find ways to solve the problems. One of the first changes was to separate the instrument into three different pieces – like your instrument today. They made a head joint, a body piece, and a foot joint. That may not have solved any sound or intonation problems, but it made it easier to pack and carry the instrument!

The flute made its first appearance in an opera orchestra in the 1600s. That was a big deal because it showed that composers were willing to write parts for the flute. The flute was competing with the recorder for acceptance and importance. The main problems for the flute were intonation (still!) and consistent sound. Do you ever hear those things talked about by your teacher? I think the problems were much worse back then.

Progress?

Another solution people tried was to make interchangeable body parts. So, if your flute was built in the key of D, and the music was in the key of F, you would exchange the body part of your instrument for a shorter one, in order to get a higher sound. Interesting idea. But people didn’t think this through well enough. No one adjusted the key holes on the longer or shorter parts for more accurate sounds. Intonation was still a problem.

People and Potential Solutions

Along came some key people trying to make improvements. The Jean Hotteterre family, Pierre Gabriel Buffardin, Johann Quantz, Johann Tromlitz, and Theobald Boehm. Many of these were accomplished flutists themselves, and understood the problems with their instruments. They were looking to solve the problems.

Jean Hotteterre and his family were the ones responsible for redesigning the flute from 1 piece to three. They also made the tone holes of the instrument smaller and added a key for E♭(D♯).

Pierre Gabriel Buffardin introduced the concept of interchangeable body parts.

Johann Quantz adjusted the shape and size of the tone holes and introduced a tuning slide. He wrote a long explanation about playing and teaching the flute, “An Essay on Instruction in the Art of Playing the Transverse Flute.” Doesn’t that sound impressive? He also wrote about 400 pieces of music for the flute. That did a lot to boost the instrument’s popularity.

One Step Forward, Another Step Back

By this time the flute was pretty well established as a part of the orchestra but was losing on the solo scene. There were still intonation problems. And the sound of the instrument was not powerful enough for the larger concert halls in use. More work needed for the flute.

Sometimes it seemed that the more people tried to improve the flute, the more problems it had. By the 1800s it was standard for a flute to have 8 keys, thanks to Johann Tromlitz. But more keys didn’t solve all the problems. And more keys made the fingering more complicated. Who wants to deal with that?

The Beginning of the End (of the Problems)

Finally, by the 1830s we get to the beginning of the end of the flute problems. Theobald Boehm, a flute player and a flute maker, started to study all the problems of the instrument and all the things people had done to try and solve the problems. He started to collect and implement the ideas of others. He added ring keys to the instrument – idea of Frederick Nolan. And he studied the idea of larger tone holes for a more powerful sound and added that to his flutes. (Idea compliments of Tromlitz.)

Boehm decided to arrange the tone holes for the best sound, not for the easiest fingering. This did a lot to help with intonation problems. He also added new key works, linking keys together with moveable rods. And he developed new fingering, which was less complicated than the old fingerings. Many people were impressed with his new ideas. But he kept studying, looking for ways to make the flute even better.

Hello, Modern Flute!

In 1847 he presented a new instrument to the world. The New and Improved Boehm Flute. This instrument had cylindrical tubing, an evolutionary new design for the head joint, improved key mechanisms.  He used pin springs (idea of Louis-Auguste Buffet), felt pads for the key cups to prevent air from escaping, changed the shape of the embouchure hole, and added a slightly raised lip plate to make the instrument easier to play. All these ideas are still part of your instrument today. In fact, very little has been changed on the flute since Boehm introduced his new design.

How was this instrument received? How well did people like it? Most people were quite enthusiastic about this new flute. But, of course, not all. Boehm’s new flute required players to learn new fingerings. There were some people who just didn’t want to do that. (Stubborn?) After 20 years or so, Boehm’s new design was the standard in the flute world.

From D to C

At some point in the redesign process, flutes were built to play in the key of C. That means that when you play a C, it matches the C on a piano. Flutes have a range of three octaves – from middle C up to the C above the 5th leger line above the treble staff. If you get really, really good, you can get a couple notes higher than that. And some flutes are made so you can get a note below middle C. But most music does not require those notes.

Now you know a little bit more about your flute. Be thankful for all the design modifications! You have a wonderful instrument. Where are you in your flute-playing life? Book 1? Advanced? I would love to hear your flute stories! Tell me one of your stories, and I will tell you one of mine. Leave your story in the comments!

If you are interested in more about the history of the flute you can read more information here:

Interested in the history of the violin? Check out this post!

Where did your flute come from?