Xylophone vs Marimba vs Vibraphone vs Glockenspiel (With Videos)

Today we explain the differences between the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, and glockenspiel in plain English!

All of these instruments are rather similar, as they are all from the family of idiophones – meaning that they produce sound just by vibrating their body and nothing else. 

Because they are vibrating to create the sound, they are put into the percussion group of instruments. They are usually not played solo (apart from by the kids in the class) but are used in an orchestra situation to bring some additional sounds. In this article, we’re going to explain the exact characteristics that mark each of these separate instruments as well as the differences between them.

Note: The instruments in the videos might not be the same as the ones pictured. They are just included to help you understand and compare the differences between the instruments.

1. Xylophone

The xylophone is probably the best-known instrument of all four.

It is also mistakenly used a lot as a common name for all of these at once. Yet, xylophone, apart from being one of the rare X words in ABC books for kids, is a unique instrument with distinct characteristics.



Xylophones are percussion instruments that have wooden bars that are struck with mallets to make a sound. They create a very soothing sound that doesn’t resonate as much as the other instruments in this article, as xylophone doesn’t have resonating tubes beneath the bars.

The bars can be arranged in different scales, depending on where they are produced – in Asia and Africa they are usually made in different scaling systems than in the Western world. Mallets usually have globes on both ends with one being harder than the other, allowing you to create different sounds.

Xylophones, same as glockenspiels, are used a lot in elementary schools around the world. They can be relatively cheap, don’t need much maintenance and are very easy to play, making them perfect instruments for teaching children the basics of music and music playing.

But, they are also used by professional musicians and xylophones like this can be used and are used to create music and play in orchestras.

2. Glockenspiel

The Glockenspiel is an instrument that often gets mistaken for a xylophone!

And there are two main reasons for that. First off, they are very similar instruments.

The only real difference between a glockenspiel and xylophone is that xylophone bars are made out of wood, while glockenspiel bars are made out of metal. This also makes them sound rather differently, as metal bars tend to vibrate and resonate a lot better than wooden ones, but at first glance, they are the same instrument to the untrained eye.



The second, much larger reason for people mixing them up is rather inexplicable. Manufacturers have been for years making glockenspiels (or metallophones in scientific terms) and marketed and sold them under the name xylophone, especially for kids. This made quite a confusion in the general public, as people for decades learned that an instrument is called a xylophone, whether it had metal or wooden bars.

We hope that this article will bring at least some of the identity to glockenspiel, as to this day when you try to go and buy a glockenspiel such as this, which is a very good one, you’ll see that it’s called glockenspiel xylophone. And that’s just not fair!

3. Marimba

Now moving onto a great-sounding instrument, the marimba.

When you hear the name marimba you think of the Caribbean and that distinct wooden, soothing sound. Marimbas are similar to xylophones in that they are constructed out of wooden bars that are hit with mallets. Mallets are usually plastic these days, sometimes wooden or metal.

Metal mallets are rarely used, as they can damage the wooden bars if you hit them too hard or in the wrong way.



Marimbas are much larger instruments then both xylophones and glockenspiels and are not really meant to be played from the lap. Because they are so large they can accommodate a much larger scale of notes, giving them a bigger range of use in music.

Also, they come with resonating pipes beneath each bar, which helps them be much louder and resonate much longer then they would normally. On some of these pipes, you can find caps, which are used for fine-tuning of the tone coming out of the instrument.

You can also find smaller marimbas that don’t have pipes. This is a great example of a practice marimba, which is great if you live in an apartment or just don’t have enough space to fit in 350 pounds of a full-sized marimba.

4. Vibraphone

And finally, we finish off this list with vibraphones.

In the same way, as marimbas are just oversized xylophones, so are vibraphones just massive glockenspiels, to put it simply. They are idiophones that have metal bars that are being struck with mallets to get a sound from them. Same as marimbas they come with pipes underneath bars, which allow for a resonating and better volume of the sound produced by this instrument.



The reason they are called vibraphones is that in those pipes underneath the bars there are revolving butterfly valves. These valves, when turned on, create a distinct vibrato to the notes played on the instrument, which actually gave it the name. Also, these instruments come with sustain pedals the same as pianos do.

Without these pedals, it would be impossible to play them, as each note can easily hold more than a minute when played if not sustained. So, this pedal puts a large felt bar up to the bars, and when pressed allows for the much better resonating and longer sounds than usual.

Since they are this large of an instrument, they are usually used in a band or an orchestra, as they cover a large scale on tones, whichever the way they are tuned. They are played usually with four mallets, two in each hand. Mallets, as with all of the instruments stated above can be made out of different materials.

If you use harder ones, such as metal or denser plastic, you’ll get a sharper, louder sound with less resonating, but if you use softer ones (wooden, softer plastic, rubber) you’ll get a quieter, but more gentle and dreamy sound. Most players combine different mallets to get a perfect combination of both.

A Summary of the Differences

Xylophone: medium size, wooden bars, two mallets

Glockenspiel: small size, metal bars, two mallets

Marimba: large instrument, wooden bars, sometimes pipes, usually four mallets

Vibraphone: large instrument, metal bars, pipes with automatic valves on top that create the vibrating sound, sustain pedal.

Conclusion

We hope that this article has helped you learn more about idiophones and different versions of similar instruments that are out there.

It’s not really that big of a deal if you do mix them up since they are very similar, but still, it’s nice to show off with your knowledge about all the different percussion people can get to see. And you can always go and try to learn how to play one, as they are really easy and fun to play and have beautiful, dreamy sounds they can create. 

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