You have definitely seen a xylophone or two in your childhood. They are in school music rooms and students are taught the different notes by hitting it with two sticks. Its legacy continues well into the 21st century as it sets the backdrop to many famous cinematic musics. It also creates a dainty-like melody. But, just how did it come to be?
First mentioned in Europe in 1511, the xylophone, known as hölzernes Gelächter (“wooden percussion”) or Strohfiedel (“straw fiddle,” because the bars were supported on straw), was long a Central European folk instrument. It was only around 1830 when it became immensely popular through the concerts of the touring Polish virtuoso Michal Jozef Guzikov.
It was also around the 18th century that xylophones began appearing in China. However, they were primarily used by Chinese colonies in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam. Many forms of xylophones are also found in Africa. These African xylophones show some resemblance to those of Southeast Asia in terms of tuning and construction. These xylophones’ amadinda are made of logs while gourd resonators were often provided for each key.
Other common names for such instruments in West Africa are ‘balo’ or ‘balafon’. On the other hand, xylophones without resonators were also equally common. These included the so-called free-key xylophones where the keys were simply placed over two logs or a pit.
Examples of more complicated fixed-key versions are those in which the keys and resonators are fixed in an arc structure that the player holds to the front. Additionally, while most keys on universal xylophones increase in pitch from left to right, there are African models in which the keys increase in pitch outward from the centre to accommodate the natural movements of the arms. Yet other instruments may place octaves next to each other and the lowest pitches to the right.
And that is just a brief look into the wonderfully rich history of the xylophone.