At first glance, all of these musical cousins could be twins, but there are big differences between the xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone that make them all uniquely awesome. As pitched percussion instruments, they produce a sound when you strike them, and musicians use different mallets to produce different sounds. So, let’s look at some of the distinct differences when comparing xylophone vs marimba vs vibraphone.
We’re going to learn all about what makes the xylophone and the marimba different. Plus, we’ll spend some time giving some love to the vibraphone. Soon, you’ll be a total expert on the differences between the xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone.
What is a xylophone?
If we’re going to tackle the question of what makes the xylophone different from the marimba and the vibraphone, we need to figure out what a xylophone is first.
A xylophone is a pitched percussion instrument made of tuned wooden bars that are strung in order on a frame. A xylophone is played by striking the bars with a mallet. Striking the bars produces vibrations, heard as a pitch or a tone. The xylophone is usually played with two mallets.
These facts are true of most members of the pitched percussion group of instruments, like marimba and vibraphone, but there are some really important differences that make them unique and ideal for different kinds of music and styles of playing.
If you’d like to know more about the history of the xylophone in-depth, we recommend checking out the Britannica article. One of the things that makes percussion so awesome is that many prehistoric instruments were also members of the same family!
The Difference between xylophone and marimba
There are a few important differences between xylophone and marimba. We’re going to summarize them very quickly before unpacking them.
The differences between xylophone and marimba are in the materials used to make them, how they’re shaped, their range, the styles and materials of the mallets used to play them, and finally their tone. Xylophone and marimba sound distinctly different when played owing to these differences.
After learning a little about them, it’s very easy to tell when a xylophone is being played vs a marimba. Vibraphone sounds the most unique of the three for the same reasons! Let’s dig in.
1. Materials used in xylophone and marimba
The first difference on our list is the materials used to make each instrument. Xylophone and marimba are typically made of woods that are commonly referred to as tonewoods. We’ll talk about two types here.
Rosewood is the most popular wood used in creating a marimba or xylophone. It’s a hardwood with a beautiful sound and color. Generally richer in the lower tones, rosewood also has an excellent attack on high tones. The professionals typically play rosewood instruments.
Padouk is another great hardwood choice for crafting a marimba or xylophone. It’s very similar in quality but offers a slightly different sound than rosewood. Most people won’t be able to tell the difference, but padouk offers a slightly brighter sound and is less rich in lower octaves.
Think you can tell the difference between rosewood and padouk? Test your ear against Adam Tan’s blind test video!
Many budget instruments are made of synthetic wood, which will produce a serviceable sound. Synthetic keys are most often found in schools and are sold to students. Most professionals buy the real thing, though.
Materials used in vibraphone
Although xylophone and marimba are made of similar wood types, vibraphones have metal keys made from aluminum. The reason for that is because metal will ring longer than wood, and the resonators, which we’ll talk about next, have little fans inside of them that rotate, producing an iconic vibrato sound.
2. Xylophone and marimba shape
The next thing we’re going to discuss is the anatomy of the instruments. Xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone all have very different shapes that produce their iconic sounds.
The length of the resonators is largely responsible for the difference in sound quality. Xylophones have short resonators, so the instrument does not ring as long as a marimba, whose resonators are long and large. Resonators on marimbas that go down into the lowest octaves available look like something you’d find in a factory!
Vibraphone resonators have rotating plates inside that open and close the resonator, producing the vibrato effect.
Check out this great video on how to use the fans on a vibraphone. The player gives an awesome demonstration of how they work!
The bars, too, play a part in sound quality. The wooden bars of a xylophone are cut differently than marimba bars, which produces a different tone when struck. Not only that, but bars are usually graduated on a marimba, which means as the tone gets lower, the bar gets larger. Upper octave bars are small.
Bars on a xylophone tend to stay the same size. This helps when it comes to how you play the xylophone. We have a whole section on that coming up, but for now, we’ll say that xylophone music tends to be played a lot quicker and often in “runs” up and down the keys, so you need all of your bars to be the same size for accuracy’s sake.
3. Range of the instruments
Marimba and xylophone both have different ranges, as well! How does the range of the xylophone differ from the range of the marimba?
Xylophones tend to have a higher range, reaching up into the higher octaves to produce those iconic, plunking sounds. This is great for solo work and for cutting through a mix or a band. Marimbas have lower ranges, their graduated bars producing rich tones. Marimbas play silky smooth chords in low octaves.
4. How to pick mallets to play marimba vs. xylophone
We already have an excellent, comprehensive guide on how to pick the best mallets for your needs, but here’s a quick reference for you.
Xylophone mallets are made of rubber, and they can be hard or soft rubber. Hard rubber will produce a striking, piercing note, while soft rubber will sound more muted.
I loved to play with a set of plastic mallets that had a band of rubber stretched around, which gave me the best of both worlds! A hard strike produced the loudest, most cutting note, while a softer touch gave me the ability to hide out in pianissimo. They were perfect for auditions and solo work.
Marimba mallets are made of a core of rubber with soft yarn wrapped around it. Often, marimba mallets are color-coded by their yarn, so you know whether the rubber core is hard, medium, or soft.
Vibraphone mallets are made the same, but most often, they will have a coned top and look like a teardrop. They also typically use a heavier yarn, called cord, which allows the strike to be harder against the metal instrument.
You might use these mallets interchangeably sometimes, but it’s important to know why you’re reaching for a certain set of mallets to protect your instrument and improve your sound. Read our guide to become an expert!
What type of music can you play on a xylophone vs. marimba?
We’ve already established marimbas reach into lower octaves, while xylophones are made in higher octaves. This has everything to do with the kinds of music you can play. Xylophones have a bright, cutting sound and are awesome for solo work.
Marimbas are their own accompaniment. The reason marimba players use four mallets is so they can play the melody in their right hand and accompany themselves in their left.
Here’s an awesome example of what we’re talking about. Naoko Takada is a big name in marimba, and her rendition of Memories perfectly captures the style of playing we’ve described.
Xylophone is perfect for solo work in large groups because of its loud, staccato sound. A xylophone player can cut through the noise of the group to showcase a melody, and it often does.
An iconic style of music for xylophone is the ragtime genre. Xylophone is perfectly suited to the bouncy melodies and lightning quick pace. George Hamilton Green writes the most iconic ragtime solos and primers for xylophone, and you can check out an example of the sound here.
Noteworthy mallet percussion soloists
Let’s talk a little bit about some of the noteworthy mallet percussion soloists before we wrap up. If you’re interested in listening to some amazing percussion pieces, YouTube these musicians.
A Brazil native, Ney Rosauro is one of the biggest names in mallet percussion, especially vibraphone. He has his own line of mallets with Vic Firth that I use personally – you can’t beat their sound on vibraphone or marimba! Here’s a link to some of his work. You can also find him on Spotify, and you definitely should so you can listen to his EP that came out last year.
We mentioned her earlier, but Takada is a fantastic player known for fantastic marimba styling. She is sponsored by Yamaha and gives lecture tours in the United States. I was privileged enough to attend one of her master classes myself. If you have two ears and a heart, don’t miss her cover of Yesterday by Paul McCartney and so much more available on her website.
Clair Omar Musser
No longer touring due to being dead since 1998, we wouldn’t be good stewards of the craft if I didn’t mention Musser. His name is on many of the best instruments in the world because he arguably made mallet percussion what it is today. He put together entire marimba orchestras, created custom instruments, and so much more.
Xylophone vs Marimba vs Vibraphone – Final thoughts
Mallet percussion is an often misunderstood family of instruments because they all look a little bit alike to the untrained eye. They couldn’t sound more different, though, and when it comes to playing, the xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone all have moments where they shine.
Let us know in a comment what you think. Which of these is your favorite to play? I have owned both a marimba and xylophone, but it was always a treat to get to rock out on a good set of vibes. Pedaling just makes you feel awesome, doesn’t it?