From Academic Kids

The marimba is a musical instrument in the percussion family. Keys or bars (usually made of wood) are struck with yarn mallets to produce musical tones. The keys are arranged as those of a piano, with the accidentals raised vertically and overlapping the natural keys to aid the performer both visually and physically.

The marimba is pitched an octave lower than its cousin, the xylophone. Both xylophone and marimba bars are usually made of rosewood, but presently, synthetic substitutions are becoming more and more popular. Another material also being used to make marimbas is glass (see: glass marimba). The bars of the marimba are wider and thinner than those of the xylophone; this change in shape causes the bars to respond a different set of overtones found in the overtone series, giving the instrument a richer tone. Whereas the xylophone's key widths are constant along its entire length, modern marimba keys are usually short (both lengthwise and widthwise) at the higher-pitched end and gradually "graduate" into the bottom octaves. This ensures that larger marimbas, such as 5-octaves, have enough material to generate low notes and overtones.

Modern marimba music calls for between two and six mallets to be used simultaneously. This allows for much wider range of musical styles, especially for solo performances. When more than two mallets are needed at once, two mallets can be held in the same hand using several methods, Most notable are the Burton grip (made popular by Gary Burton), the Traditional grip (or "Cross grip"), the Musser grip, and the Stevens grip (made popular by Leigh Howard Stevens). Each grip has its benefits and drawbacks, but the Stevens grip and the Burton grip enjoy more or less equal popularity in the US, where most people use either uniquely one grip or the other. Alternate convention (as in some drum corps) is to employ the Burton grip on the vibraphone and the Stevens grip on the marimba, xylophone, crotales, and glockenspiel (or "Bells"). In Japan, a more popular grip is the Traditional grip, used by Japanese marimba virtuoso Keiko Abe.

The key to the marimba's rich sound is its resonators. These are metal tubes below each bar, the length varying according to the pitch of the note. Vibrations from the bars resonate as they pass through the tubes, which act not unlike the main body of a cello or guitar by amplifying the sound. In exceptionally large instruments (typically above 4 1/2 octaves) the length of tubing required for the bass notes exceeds the height of the instrument and the resonators are bent at the bottom.

Modern marimba uses include solo performances, percussion ensembles, marimba concertos, jazz ensembles, marching band (front ensembles), and wind ensemble or orchestra compositions. Contemporary composers have utilized the unique sound of the marimba more and more in recent years, and it is common to find them in most new music for wind ensemble, although less so for orchestra.

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Folk marimba with gourds, Highland Guatemala

The term marimba is also used to refer to various traditional folk instruments, the precursors of which may have developed independently in West Africa and in Pre-Columbian MesoAmerica. In the most traditional versions, various sizes of natural gourds are attached below the keys to act as resonators; in more sophisticated versions carved wooden resonators are substituted, allowing for more precise tuning of pitch. In Central America, a hole is often carved into the bottom of each resonator and then covered with sheep skin to add a characteristic "buzzing" or "rattling" sound. Traditional marimba bands are popular in Guatemala and parts of the highlands of southern Mexico, as well as among Afro-Ecuadorians; gyil duets are the traditional music of Dagara funerals in Ghana.

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