Xylophone, courtesy Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Pitch range

Xylophone pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

A xylophone has two rows of wooden bars, laid out like a piano keyboard. They are in order of length, like the piano’s strings: the shorter ones sound higher notes and the longer ones sound lower notes.

Xylophone beaters, courtesy of iStock

Xylophone beaters

Under each bar is a short, metal pipe (or ‘resonator’) running downwards. This helps the sound when the bar is struck: it resonates.

In Greek, ‘xylo’ means ‘wood’ and ‘phone’ means ‘sound’ – hence ‘wood sound’.

To play it

Xylophone player in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Xylophone player in playing position

You stand over it and strike the wooden bars with beaters, usually made of wood, plastic, rubber or latex.

Camille Saint-Saëns used the xylophone in his Danse macabre to sound like the rattling of bones!

Rattling of bones from the xylophone!

Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre (extract)

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Keith Clark. Naxos 8.553277

The sound

The beaters on the wooden bars make a dry, choppy sound. It’s heard a lot in music from around the world. In Africa, xylophones used to be made out of simple logs.

When you strike a bar, the note doesn’t last long (if you keep your stick on the bar, it makes no difference). So to make the sound last a bit longer, players might ‘roll’ (alternate the sticks one after the other at a rapid speed on one or more bars).

Different beaters can make the sound softer and mellower, or louder and harsher.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What did the xylophone resemble in music by Saint-Saëns?

a. Sweets
b. Bones
c. Birds

 What is usually used to play a xylophone?

a. Beaters
b. Bow
c. Brushes

 What does ‘xylo’ mean in Greek?

a. Bar
b. Metal
c. Wood

 A xylophone is…

a. Unpitched
b. Semi-pitched
c. Pitched

 To play a xylophone, the player…

a. Sits down
b. Stands up
c. Kneels

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Xylophone Extracts

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Danse macabre in G minor, Op. 40 (extract)

Listen to those bones rattle! The xylophone represents skeletons dancing.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Keith Clark

Taken from Naxos 8.553277

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
The Carnival of the Animals: XII. Fossils (extract)

The dry, pingy sound of the xylophone is meant to suggest fossils.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335