One of the more intriguing percussion instruments is the marimba. Larger and warmer-sounding than its cousin, the xylophone, marimbas bring a mellow sound to the percussion section. Originating in the Bantu region of Africa and modified and brought to its modern form in Latin America during the 19th century, the marimba is a beautiful and versatile instrument.
As they are often played with four mallets to produce full chords, the instrument requires technical proficiency to play well.
The distinctive sound of the marimba comes mainly from its construction, so let’s take a look at the parts of a marimba that, when combined, create something more than the sum of its parts.
Anatomy of a Marimba
The marimba has three basic parts:
- The frame
- Resonator tubes
- Tone bars
These three elements are the first things you will notice when looking at a marimba, and they are the core of how the instrument works.
The marimba has many parts, but one of the more important ones is the frame, which supports the tone bars and the resonators.
Depending on the age and quality of the marimba in question, the frame can consist of wood or metal.
Most concert marimbas, as well as those used with marching bands, use metal for their frames.
In addition to supporting the resonators and tone bars, the frame has to be tall enough to let the longest of the resonators hang down unimpeded.
If your frame is too short and the longer resonators scrape or rest on the ground, that will compromise the instrument’s sound, and its portability will vanish.
One of the most recognizable features of the marimba is the resonators.
They are tubes— usually metallic— that hang down from the frame.
Each resonator tube corresponds to one tone bar so that each bar of the marimba has its own “amplifier.”
The length of each tube also corresponds to its matching tone bar.
The lower the pitch of the bar, the longer and wider the resonator bar, which gives the instrument its look— the graduated curve of the line of resonator bar lengths running across the front of the marimba.
Some larger resonators are square, but most of them are round.
While you can’t have a functional marimba without a frame, you can’t have any kind of marimba without the tone bars.
These are wooden bars made from rosewood, and each one produces a different pitch according to its length, thickness, and density.
To raise a pitch, marimba makers shorten the bar.
Lowering the pitch of a tone bar involves carving material out of the center of the bar (on the bottom side).
This is why, very often, you see bars with a concave base.
As you move from the lower pitches (the longer bars on the left side of the marimba) to the higher ones, the keys get shorter.
Coupled with the corresponding lengths of the resonator bars, this gives the marimba its signature look: a long, wide left side gradually decreasing to a short, narrow right side.
The tone bars themselves are arranged like the keys of a piano, although they do not usually have different colors.
The diatonic notes (the white keys) lie closer to the marimba player, while the accidentals (the piano’s black keys) are placed slightly higher and behind the diatonic ones.
The above parts are intrinsic to the marimba, but you don’t have a viable instrument without these other, less glamorous parts.
- Cord and Spring. The tone bars each have a pair of holes drilled through them in which a cord runs, linking them all together. Sitting on the frame of the marimba, each tone bar rests in its spot, and the cord connecting them all terminates in a spring hooking the two ends of the cord together. This provides tension to the cord, which in turn helps hold the tone bars in place.
- Rail. Since some marimbas have a range of five octaves, they can be quite long, meaning the frame needs additional support to hold the tone bars. The rails are wooden crossbars and are not— repeat not— designed to function as any kind of handle when moving the marimba.
- Gas Spring. Some marimbas offer a gas spring in the frame to allow for height adjustments.
The marimba makes its lovely sound with wooden tone bars.
The resonator tubes help that sound project, and the marimba’s frame holds it all in place.
If you play the marimba, you very likely will eventually have to disassemble it for transport.
Knowing the parts of the marimba make it easier for you to do so, and understanding its construction can ensure that you better understand this mallet instrument as you practice and perform on it.