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.




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

How Hard Should You Push Your Child?

How hard should you push your child to excel in music? Or, for that matter, in anything? Can we push them too much, too hard? We all want our kids to be great, to do great things, but at what cost? How much should we push them?

There is no right answer! There are too many variables involved! But most of us need to be pushed at some point. Pushed to continue, prodded to practice, nudged to strive for perfection.

How hard should you push your child?

It depends. Depends on a number of things.

  • How old is your child?
  • What is your child like? What kind of temperament does he have?
  • How do she respond to “pushing?”
  • What is the relationship like between you and your child?
  • What are your child’s goals? (Not your goals for them!)
  • How serious are they about what they are doing? Is this a passion of theirs, or just another interest?
  • Do you “prod and nudge,” or are you “pushing and shoving?”
  • Are you looking at things from a realistic perspective?

All these factors play into how hard we should push them to excel.

Can You Nudge a Child Towards Greatness?

All of us are different.

Each of us has different goals, desires, learning styles, interests, passions, etc. What works for one child might totally backfire with a different child. Some children are much more self-motivated than others. Others take longer to develop that self-motivation. So we may need to gently push them in that direction. But at the same time, we don’t want to push them to the point of rebellion. The joys of being a parent. I often thought that each child should be born with their own unique instruction book. Life would be so much easier that way.

Always encourage your child to do their best.

Not just in music, but in everything in life. Urge them to be the best they can be, and always strive to improve.

Always support them and their efforts.

And then encourage them to exceed their current abilities, to progress, to move forward.

Help them to love what they do.

Practicing is not always fun. Practice can get boring. Maybe your child is working on a piece they don’t like at all. Or maybe they think their current music is too hard, or too easy. But none of those are reasons to give up or quit. Encourage them to keep on. Push them to continue, to get past the current “season” of dislike, the current plateau. At some point they will thank you.

But don’t push them so hard that they start to hate their music, their lessons, their instrument.

Don’t push them to the point that they resent playing. Recognize that they may have other interests as well. Give them time to be kids. Yes, you can require them to practice and go to lessons, that’s a given. Make music a part of their life, but don’t make music their entire life unless that is what they want.

Self-Motivation is the Ultimate Goal

The ultimate goal is for them to become self-motivated to practice and do well. Unfortunately, most of us are not born with that; we have to learn it, have it “drilled” into us.

LIFE LESSON ALERT: Self-motivation applies to all of life!

If any of us are going to be successful at anything, we must become self-motivated. Learn to go beyond the bare minimum required. Exceed expectations. Don’t be afraid to push your child in that direction. Some day they will thank you.

You might also enjoy this post – Realistic Expectations

Classical Music – The Greatest Hits of the Last 400 Years

How do you introduce your child to the world of classical music? How do you expose them to the greatest hits of the last 400 years? Or maybe you are planning a joint discovery of this music – you and your child together. I have some great ideas for you!

Start with some recordings

Recordings May Tell the Story of the Music

An easy way to start this introduction to the world of classical music is to play some of it at home. There are some great recordings produced specifically for children to introduce them to classical music. When my kids were young we found some of the recordings from Classical Kids. My girls loved the one based on the story of the Magic Flute. (Mozart’s Magic Fantasy: A Journey through the ‘Magic Flute’) Classical Kids offers a recording about Beethoven (Beethoven Lives Upstairs), another about Vivaldi (Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery), and several others. These are all stories about composers and their music, using lots of music.

Add Some Silly Words

We also enjoyed a series of recordings called Beethoven’s Wig featuring Richard Perlmutter. These were a lot of fun – the artists took famous themes from classical music and wrote silly words for the themes. We originally found them in our library. I have recently purchased some of these for my grandchildren. The title song, Beethoven’s Wig, uses the theme from his 5th Symphony. The words go on to talk about how big his wig is, how heavy it is when he takes a walk, etc. We just had the audio recordings, but now there are animated videos as well.

Introductions to the Instruments

Your child might also enjoy Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf (with narration). This is a good introduction to the different instruments of the orchestra. Selected instruments represent different characters in the story. Another piece, also featuring different instruments of the orchestra, is Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens. Instead of a story, this piece has a short poem (written by Ogden Nash) for each section of the music. Younger children might not get the humor in the poetry, but older kids will.

One other suggestion here – find recordings featuring the instrument your child is learning. Listening is a great key to learning. This can also be a great inspiration for a young student – imagine the possibilities!

Go to a Concert

Another way to add classical music to a child’s life experience is to go to a concert. Live performances are amazing! The experience of the music is so different from recordings. And you can introduce your child to concert etiquette as well. When to applaud, when not to applaud. What the conductor does. The extra duties of the first chair violinist.

Start Local

Go to some local concerts. Maybe your child knows someone in the local high school music program – a neighbor, a babysitter, someone from church. Go to one of their concerts.

Is there a college near you? Check out their concert schedules. Choose a concert your child might enjoy. A night of Renaissance or Baroque music might not appeal to them, but a concert of movie music might.

Maybe there is a community band, orchestra, or choir in your area. Attend a concert. Support their work. And at the same time, you are introducing your child to some new music and some new musicians.  

Look for Free Options!

Concerts by major symphonies can be expensive! So look for free options. (Or reduced prices.) Chicago offers free outdoor symphony concerts throughout the summer.I enjoy going to some of those! And go beyond thinking of just symphonies. Look for free recitals or small ensemble performances. Again, the Chicago Cultural Center offers free concerts every week throughout the year. (Sorry about the Chicago plugs – but that’s where I live, so that’s what I know. Just examples.)

Reduced Price Options

Some symphonies offer Saturday afternoon matinee performances designed specifically for families with children. The timing is good, the prices may be lower, and the music is often programmed with children in mind.

Programs for Families

Look for concerts with music programmed that will appeal to children. Peter and the Wolf, and Carnival of the Animals are great options. Also, A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Benjamin Britten). Maybe there is a concert of some of John Williams’ movie music. Or how about a movie showing with a live symphony providing the music for the movie?

Ballet, Anyone?

What about taking your child to the ballet? The dancers are graceful and lovely, the costumes are pretty, the story unfolds before you, and the music is usually fantastic. Not every child will find ballet fascinating, but yours might. Consider The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, or Swan Lake. There are also ballet presentations of Peter Pan and Cinderella. Do a little bit of prep work, and your child may fall in love with ballet. Study the story, listen to a little of the music in advance. That way your child will able to follow along as the ballet unfolds.

How about Opera?

I know, everyone is not a fan of opera. But maybe it’s because we haven’t given it a chance. Opera is really like a play – only the words are sung instead of spoken. And the opera stereotype is that everyone always dies at the end. But that’s not always the case. You just have to choose the right opera. Again, go over the story in advance. Even when the opera is performed in English it is not always easy to understand all the words. Knowing the storyline helps to understand what is happening during the performance. And, as always, use discretion for age-appropriateness. If you can’t get to a live opera performance, find one online and watch it. Your local PBS station might occasionally broadcast operas. Here is a list of good introductory operas:

                        The Magic Flute (Mozart)

                        The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)

                        Cinderella (La Cenerentola – Rossini, or Cendrillon – Massenet)

                        Hansel and Gretel (Humperdinck)

                        Amahl and the Night Visitors (Gian Carlo Menotti)

                        Where the Wild Things Are (Oliver Knussen)

                        The Adventures of Pinocchio (Jonathan Dove)

                        Moby Dick (Jake Heggie)

                        All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Peter Rothstein)


Most of us know about and enjoy musicals. Maybe you even participated in your high school musical productions Introduce them to your child! Of course, your child is probably familiar with many of the movie musicals already – Moana, Aladdin, Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, etc. But what about some of the old classics? Fiddler on the Roof, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Newsies, Oliver, Singin’ in the Rain, The Music Man. For older children you could include West Side Story, Les Miserable, Phantom of the Opera, Wicked. The list can get quite long! What musical is your local high school producing this year? Go check it out!

Let’s summarize – Introduce your child to a new world of music!

  • Check out some new recordings
  • Listen to a live concert
  • Watch the beauty of a ballet
  • Witness the drama of an opera
  • Enjoy the fun of a musical

Do you have a favorite opera, musical, or ballet? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

Introduce your Child to the World of Classical Music