Differences Between Pitched-Percussion Instruments: Xylophone, Glockenspiel, Marimba, Vibraphone, Xylorimba, Marimbaphone?


There are so many pitched percussion instruments, and it’s always kind of bothered me that I didn’t know the differences between them. After doing some research I’m amazed at the variety of struck pitched percussion instruments.

Summary of differences between pitched percussion instruments:

  • Xylophone: Concert xylophones are usually 3.5 or 4 octaves–but portable editions can have a smaller range, characterized by short decay and stays in a higher register than the marimba, music for xylophone is displaced by one octave lower, and the bars are constructed from wood or synthetic materials
  • Glockenspiel: Concert glockenspiels (also known as concert bells or orchestra bells) are typically 2.5 octaves but also frequently come in 3.3 octave sizes, characterized by long decay, music for glockenspiels are displaced by two octaves lower, and the bars are constructed from metal
  • Marimba: Concert Marimbas most commonly come in 4.3 or 5 octaves, characterized by a longer decay due to the marimba’s resonator tubes and lower note capability with thicker and wider wooden bars and a general warmer sound, marimba music is not octave displaced, and the bars are constructed from wood or synthetic materials
  • Vibraphone: The vibraphone are typically 3 to 4 octaves in range, the vibraphone has long delay due to its metal bars and large resonating pipes. It is tuned closer to the pitch of a marimba which adds to its mellow sound. The vibraphone is unique in that it has a damper to cut off the sustain and it has butterfly valves on the resonator pipes that spin with the help of a motor to create vibrato
  • Celesta: This idiophone is the most similar in sound to the glockenspiel except it looks and plays similarly to a piano where keys are pressed that hammer the playing surface
  • Tubular Bells (also called Chimes): This idiophone is a set of pipes suspended vertically that resonate when struck with a hammer. They typically have a 1.5 octave range.
  • Xylorimba: A xylorimba is simply a xylophone with an extended range up to 5 octaves. Sonically it is a xylophone even with the extended range. This instrument is somewhat antiquated and isn’t widely available.
  • Marimbaphone: An obsolete mallet percussion instrument more similar in sound to the vibraphone, it has a longer decay (especially the metal bar version)–ranged from 2.125 to 4.5 octaves, the bars were made from metal or wood, and were bowed on the ends to allow for easier playing with a bow (such as is used for a cello)
  • Lithophone: An archaic hammer-percussion instrument wherein the player strikes rocks of a certain size to create a pitched percussion instrument
  • Balafon: This is another mallet-struck pitched-percussion instrument wherein the wooden bars of the instrument use gourds as resonators underneath the notes.

Those are really brief descriptions of some of the defining characteristics of these instruments but there is a lot more to all of these instruments. I’ll dive into the finer details between the instruments so you can get a better idea of what exactly is different.

Differences Between the Marimba and the Xylophone

These are the two of the most common and similar instruments that may have brought you here.

And, if you’re like me, you’ve seen a xylophone and a marimba and you might think they are just two names for the same instrument. It turns out there are some several important differences.

But, I had to dig to find out what they exactly were as some of them weren’t obvious to me.

First off, let’s take a listen. The marimba sounds much different than the xylophone and you’ll be able to notice that very quickly:

A demonstration of the Marimba
A demonstration of the Xylophone

The marimba spans a lower range than the xylophone. For example, a 4-octave marimba plays in the range of C3 to C7, while a 4 octave xylophone plays in the range of C4 to C8.

The marimba has a more mellow sound than the xylophone. This is mostly due to the pitch differences between the two instruments, but also in the sound design. (see the tuning paragraph below)

The xylophone is designed for faster two-mallet play. Because the xylophone is higher and has a shorter sustain than the marimba, it fits better for faster moving pieces. This is one reason why most xylophonists only use two-mallets. Although there’s no technical reason you can’t use more than two mallets, the xylophonist needs the speed of two mallets for fast moving parts. Conversely, it’s much more common to see 4+ mallet play with a marimba.

The marimba and xylophone are tuned to different harmonics. The xylophone and marimba sound different, and a big part of this is that they are tuned differently, besides pitch. The marimba and xylophone are tuned to different harmonics, which creates a much different sound. No instrument we listen to is just a pure tone, but rather there are overtones, but xylophones and marimbas are tuned to certain overtones. This magazine article talks about this in more detail (Percussive Arts Society).

The marimba has generally larger resonator pipes: Although some xylophones don’t have resonator pipes, many do. But the difference is that marimbas have much large resonator pipes–with some models even curving up again in a J shape to get a louder sound. Also, however, some marimbas have smaller resonator pipes for portability.

The marimba and xylophone are usually played with different mallet types. The marimba is usually played with a softer mallet to aid in the more mellow tone while the xylophone is used with a harder mallet. If a soft mallet was used on a xylophone the sustain is so short the notes would sound very dead. It’s not uncommon for marimba players to use different hardness of mallet types in different hands because of the giant range of the instrument.

Differences Between the Xylophone And the Glockenspiel

Fortunately for all of us, the differences between the xylophone and the glockenspiel is much easier to see and grasp immediately.

Here’s the sound of a glockenspiel so you can immediately get a reference:

The glockenspiel uses metal bars which resonate much longer than the wooden bars of the xylophone. The metal bars sound louder than wooden bars and can be played with much harder mallets (even plastic mallets… yikes!) so they will project much easier

The glockenspiel is usually smaller. The glockenspiel typically spans 2.5 up to 3.3 octaves. The 2.5 octave glockenspiels are even able to fit on a tabletop. The larger glockenspiels are built into a custom cart like xylophones.

The glockenspiel is in a higher range. Although the music written for glockenspiel looks identical to the music written for the xylophone, the instrument is actually one octave higher, and is two octaves higher than the marimba which music is in concert pitch.

The glockenspiel can come in a lyre configuration. The lyre configuration is typically used for marching bands and is one of the few pitched mallet instruments that actually can be played while marching (not parked in front of a marching band).

The glockenspiel has a much brighter sound than the xylophone. This is in part do to the fact that the glockenspiel is metal rather than wood or a synthetic material, but it’s also that the glockenspiel is played with harder mallets and is higher pitched.

The xylophone has more complex overtones than the glockenspiel. Due to the uniformity of the glockenspiel the sound comes off as clean while the xylophone is more complex

Differences Between the Glockenspiel And the Vibraphone

The glockenspiel and vibraphone have one similarity in that the bars are both made out of metal on both instruments, but there is quite a bit different between the two instruments.

First off, take a listen, and you’ll see some immediate differences I’ll dive into:

The vibraphone has crazy long sustain. The vibraphone has much larger resonation pipes than the glockenspiel (many glockenspiels don’t have any kind of resonation pipe to begin with), and thus the sustain for these instruments is loud and powerful for a very long time. The vibraphone has more sustain than most pitched percussion instruments.

The vibraphone commonly features a damping pedal. Although you will see this on glockenspiels, this is a defining feature of the vibraphone. You won’t see this on a xylophone (because the resonation is so short), or a marimba.

The vibraphone has a unique vibrato effect. The video above doesn’t make use of this feature, but vibraphones get part of their name because inside the resonator pipes there are spinning discs called butterfly valves that open and close the pipes creating a vibrato effect. This is unique to the vibraphone and isn’t found on glockenspiels, xylophones, or marimbas.

The vibraphone is at concert pitch. Unlike the glockenspiel, if you read vibraphone music, an A4 is an A4, while on the glockenspiel the A4 is actually an A6 in concert pitch. The range of the vibraphone is C3-C6. Therefore vibraphone is most similar to the marimba in pitch.

The vibraphone is played with softer mallets than the glockenspiel. This contributes to the much more mellow sound of the vibraphone.

The vibraphone often requires electricity to operate. An electric motor is often used to open and close the butterfly valves to create the signature vibrato effect of the vibraphone. This differentiates the vibraphone from glockenspiels, xylophones, and marimbas.

The bars of the vibraphone and of the glockenspiel are typically uniform in height. They only differ in width and length to create the different tones. This is different from marimbas which sometimes have different thicknesses of wood on the lower notes especially.

The Differences Between the Celesta and the Glockenspiel

You’ve all heard the celesta whether you knew it or not. It’s a famous instrument that’s still obscure even though it is the signature sound in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’s Theme music as well as the Nutcracker.

Here’s a great video demonstrating the celesta:

The celesta is very much a disguised glockenspiel that can be played with a piano-like keyboard. The celesta gives the player access to all 10 fingers to play complex rolling chords that are virtually impossible on a regular glockenspiel.

The celesta has a more muted sound than your average glockenspiel mallets. This isn’t completely true since you can use soft mallets on a glockenspiel to get a more similar sound. In any case, a celesta’s hammer is in general more muted than what you typically hear from a glockenspiel.

The celesta has more range than a glockenspiel. While most glockenspiels have 2.5 to 3.3 octaves, a full-size celesta has 56 notes, or around 4.6 octaves.

In reality, the celesta is very similar in timbre to the glockenspiel if more dreamlike and subtle.

The Tubular Bells

The tubular bells are very different than the others so I’ll put it in its own category.

The tubular bells are made to sound like church bells and so are not often used as a solo instrument but are still sometimes featured in certain styles. Here’s an example of them being played in a mallet advertisement:

The tubular bells do have a damping pedal which is very necessary due to the long resonation of the instrument.

Ranges of Pitched Percussive Instruments Compared

For convenience, I’m putting all of the ranges of the instruments I’ve talked about here.

InstrumentStandard Range
GlockenspielF5-C8
MarimbaC2-C7
VibraphoneC3-C6
XylophoneC4-C8
CelestaC4-C8
Tubular Bells (Chimes)C4-F5

More Obscure Pitched Percussion Instruments

There are some pitched percussion instruments that I thought were so interesting that I couldn’t pass up.

Marimbaphone

The marimba phone seems somewhat of a precursor to the vibraphone. It has large resonating pipes and some marimbaphones had metal bars.

Get this… the marimbaphone had curved bars (it looks like someone took a bite out of them) but this was for the purpose of using a bow (like for a cello or a violin) to play the instrument! You can find a couple videos on YouTube demonstrating it on other mallet instruments.

What a cool concept that definitely could use some exploration! These weren’t made for very long but you can find some of the original advertisements here from deaganresource.com (if you’re a musical instrument history buff)

Lithophone

Is your mind ready to be blown? I really could not believe that such pure tones could come from…. well, I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to watch the video.

There is actually a lot of evidence that rocks were used as instruments a long time ago. It’s all about chiseling the perfect rock to get that beautiful tone.

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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