What’s the difference between a Xylophone, a Marimba and a Vibraphone (aka. Vibes)?!



Xylophone – Let’s first talk about the word! Xylophone is from Greek, where xylon = wood and phone = sound. Which is what is being produced – a sound by playing on wooden keys. The xylophone might be the most popular of these three instruments, and usually the one I refer to first, when people ask me about the instrument I play! However it’s not used as often as the marimba or the vibraphone.

The theory is that it originates from Southeast Asia from around the 14th century. From there is spread to Africa and Europe. 

Marimba – originates from Africa, mostly played sitting down, with a single row of wooden keys and with gourds as resonators. The instruments have many different names, depending on where you find it in Africa. In the photo below, you see me play the timbila – Mozambique’s version of the marimba.

Winnie playing timbila

The US and South America learned about the marimba from the slaves coming from Africa. In Guatemala around the 1900th century was where the chromatic marimba was developed, and this version of a marimba was brought to the US around early 1900’s.

The modern marimba has wooden keys (often Rosewood) and metal resonators. Throughout the 20th century the marimba became a popular instrument being used in various settings. It would be used as part of the symphony orchestra, as a solo instrument and later on in jazz music and popular music settings.

Winnie playing marimba

Vibraphone - The youngest instrument of them all is the Vibraphone. Or Vibes as we usually call it! It was developed in US around the 1920’s. The biggest difference is the keys are made of metal, and you have a pedal that function very much the same way the pedal on a piano does. In the resonators there are small discs, that with the help of a motor can rotate, giving the note the vibrating sound. However it is very common today to not use the motor when playing. I for instance only use the motor in classical music, when a composer is asking for it to be on, and whether is should be with a slow or fast rotation.

Winnie playing vibes

All right, this was the short version of the difference in the instruments. But you should now be able to notice what the difference is between a xylophone, a marimba and a vibraphone!


Ellen frank December 18, 2014 @09:57 pm
Which would be the most fun to play and most versatile for playing in a group? I love jazz but feel I have no talent in jazz or any musicality. But I would love to play -and learn". Can I?
Cheryl Gates December 01, 2014 @07:44 pm
As the mother of a percussion performance major, I was too embarrassed to ask...thank you for sharing this in an approachable way!
Robert Buchinski November 19, 2014 @01:21 am
Thank you Winnie for your clear and concise comparison!
simon November 24, 2013 @01:14 pm
what are some wooden key keyboard instruments im doing a music project need hel pplz!
Antoinette Montague November 14, 2013 @09:21 am
Jay Hoggard is the best in the world at playing great music on the Vives.

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