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.
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.
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.
Four Mallets Example
Four mallets playing is by far the main stream. Majority of the modern literature are written for four mallets.
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.
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.
Eight Mallets Example
Eight Mallets playing is quite recent. Composers like Ludwig Albert created pieces like Marimba Mood for 8-mallets.
There are several main-stream grips.
(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.
- Yamaha: Musical Instrument Guide – Marimba <https://www.yamaha.com/en/musical_instrument_guide/marimba/structure/>
- There are opinions that marimba was independently invented at various places like Thailand, Indonesia, and Amazon.