The xylophone is an instrument with a unique and obvious sound produced by the performer striking horizontal wooden blocks or keys laid in lengths. The keys are cut to a defined length to produce a defined pitch, and organised in a piano keyboard system, including semitonal increments. Somewhat curiously, the xylophone shares a feature in common with that of the piccolo, that is a penetrative ability to cut through any section, or orchestration, no matter how loud, in it’s upper registers. The composer should consider this when writing for the xylophone, and dynamics may require marking below that of other instruments to achieve a sensible balance between the xylophone and the rest of the orchestra.
The xylophone is normally played with up to 4 mallets, generally 2 in each hand, depending on the notated requirements, and these mallets can be of varying hardnesses, or construction, enabling the performer and composer the choice of a wide variety of tones and dynamics. The performer is capable of playing with mixed mallets, that is soft mallets in one hand, and hard in the other, but the composer must make sure the indications for mallet type are clearly marked to avoid confusion, or incorrect interpretation by the performer, and conductor.
An important note for the composer is the almost immediate delay time of the xylophone. Unlike most other instruments, the sound of a xylophone key being struck fades almost immediately, even with some instruments constructed with resonation tubes of steel vertically positioned under each key. A xylophone roll to sustain some sort of sound should be used very carefully indeed, as the sound of each stroke of the roll can be heard distinctly, and could often be heard as comic, or ludicrous.
In the lower register of the xylophone, the sound is darker and less brittle than the upper register, which when struck, can be akin to the sound of breaking a stick, or snapping a piece of hardwood.