Melodic Percussion Instruments

Melodic percussion instruments are large instruments suitable for orchestra use.

Melodic percussion instruments add color to the orchestra, provide support for melodic lines and create vibrant aural effects within the music. Composers have used percussion instruments for centuries to enhance chords and create a variety of timbres within the orchestra. Whether you are a casual listener, professional musician or seasoned composer, knowing the types of melodic percussion instruments will enhance your musical experience.


The xylophone was the first mallet percussion instrument introduced to the orchestra.

The xylophone is a mallet percussion instrument with hard wooden slats organized in the same way as a piano. The black keys on the piano correspond to the top row on the xylophone, and the white keys correspond to the white row of piano keys. While registers vary, the xylophone has a minimum range of three octaves starting on middle C. More expensive xylophones have an extended low F below middle C, and some are capable of going to a C the octave below middle C. A xylophone’s sound decays quickly and requires a rolling technique to sound continuous.


Marimbas have a softer feel suitable for casual music.

The marimba is the younger relative of the xylophone. It works and functions in the same way. The marimba is made of rosewood, which creates a soft, mellow sound. Larger than the xylophone, it can descend to a low A on the first staff of the bass clef. The upper range is the same as the xylophone three octaves above middle C. In the higher register, a marimba sounds similar to a xylophone, but the lower register provides a deep rich bass sound used frequently in jazz and blues music.


The glockenspiel has keys set up in the same manner as those of the xylophone and the marimba. The oldest mallet percussion instrument, it has two rows of steel bars. You can find several types of mallets for the glockenspiel, including soft, hard and even brass mallets. Each mallet creates a different timbre and unique texture within the orchestra. Glockenspiels have the ability to pierce through an entire orchestra.


The vibraphone is another instrument with a design similar to that of the keyboard. This instrument has the capability to create tremolos because of a series of fans operated electronically below the bars. The most common professional vibraphones have a range from F below middle C to F one octave above the staff. A rare type of vibraphone has a range three octaves above middle C, but most orchestras do not have this instrument.


Chimes are a set of chromatically tuned tubular bells that hang from a rack. Percussionists use two sets of mallets to strike them. The range is limited to an octave and a half starting at middle C. The highest pitch is an F on the top line in the treble clef, although some sets have two additional tubes that extend the range chromatically to a G.


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