A modern 5 octave marimba made by Korogi, Japan.
Marimba by Korogi (Japan)

Marimba is a pitched percussion instrument consisting of wooden bars and pipes that are suspended below and played mainly with yarn or rubber head mallets. It is used as a solo instrument as well as in a Marimba Ensemble and Orchestra.

Construction

A modern marimba is made of bars representing each notes with resonator pipes hanging below them. The sound is primarily made by hitting the bars with yarn or rubber mallets though it sometimes is done by hitting with hand or drawing violin bow on the edge as well.

The bar to pipe ratio is one-to-one. The pipe contributes to the unique sound of Marimba.

Material for the bar is mainly Rosewood but for a more economical model, such wood like Paddock and sometimes synthetic materials are also used.

Pipes are mainly made of metal but in some cases, synthetic materials are also used. In traditional marimba, guards and bamboo are often used.

The note range varies depending on the instrument but the concert grade models generally spans 4.5 to 5.5 octaves. Currently, 5 octaves ones seems to be the main stream for concert halls.

Sound of Marimba

Sound of marimba largely depends on the playing style and the mallet used.

Yuri Hirokawa playing Lilia’s Lullaby

Playing Technique

Number of Mallets

Number of mallets used generally spans from two to six. In some extreme cases, there are examples of eight mallet playing.

As in the above example, four mallets playing is the main stream. For fast passages, two mallets are also still popular.

Two Mallets Example

A lot of marimba literature 50 years ago was written for two mallets. They typically employed the fast moving passages or very fast rolls.

Moyuru Oda and Juno Sakimura playing Seiji Yokoyama’s Divertimento for Two Marimbas

Four Mallets Example

Four mallets playing is by far the main stream. Majority of the modern literature are written for four mallets.

Sumire Ito playing an excerpt from Three Movements for a Solo Dancer by Eckhard Kopetski

Five Mallets Example

Somehow, five mallets seems to be not so popular but it combines the maneuverability of four mallets and the rich sound of three mallets in one hand.

Junko Sakimura playing Takumi by Suguru Matsutani (arr. Junko Sakimura)
Music is available from here.

Six Mallets Example

Six mallets seems to be popular in traditional Mexican marimba playing but it was not popular in the classical music scene. One of the early example for the six mallets playing probably is Akira Yuyama’s Divertimento for Marimba and Alto Saxophone (1976), which was premiered by Keiko Abe. Keiko Abe also composed six mallets pieces such as below.

Itsuki Fantasy for Six Mallets by Keiko Abe, played by herself.

Eight Mallets Example

Eight Mallets playing is quite recent. Composers like Ludwig Albert created pieces like Marimba Mood for 8-mallets.

Fiona Foo playing Marimba Mood by Ludwig Albert

Mallet techniques

There are several main-stream grips.

  • Traditional
  • Burton
  • Musser-Stevens

(to be continued)

Origin of Marimba

Origin of Marimba is not known, but according to Yamaha, it seems it started off as wooden bars laid over a hole on the ground which was struck with sticks. In the myth of Zulus (of South Africa), there is a tale about a goddess called “Marimba” who made an instrument by hanging gourds below wooden bars. It sometimes is referred to as the source of the name of the instrument. 1

Marimba, which was born in South Africa, was brought to South America in the early 16th century by the Africans who were taken there as slaves2. There, a Guatemalan called Sebastian Hurtado made a Marimba with wooden resonator pipes instead of gourds. This formed the basis of the modern marimba.

Marimba, which was improved in South America was brought to the United States eventually, and they started to make marimba around 1910. Deagan of Chicago changed the wooden pipe to the metal pipe. Numerous other improvements were made since then including the rearrangement of the keytop to resemble the piano. Modern Marimba is now treated not only as an orchestra instrument but also as a solo instrument thanks to the louder sound achieved by the pipe.

The modern instrument usually has rosewood keyboard with brass pipe resonators. Range differs from an instrument to another, but 4+1/2 to 5 octaves ones are most popular. Major makers of modern marimba include Adams, Korogi, Musser, Saito, Malletech, Marimba One, Yamaha, etc.

Scientific Aspects of Marimba

There is a very good paper describing the scientific aspects of the construction and the playing of Marimba by Dr. Tom Tunks. You might want to follow the link below.

Tom Tunks: The Marimba, Scientific Aspects of its Construction and Performance

Bibliography

The Marimba, Scientific Aspects of its Construction and Performance

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  1. Yamaha: Musical Instrument Guide – Marimba <https://www.yamaha.com/en/musical_instrument_guide/marimba/structure/>
  2. There are opinions that marimba was independently invented at various places like Thailand, Indonesia, and Amazon.