The xylophone (from the Greek words ξύλον—xylon, "wood" + φωνή—phone, "voice", meaning "wooden sound") is a musical instrument in the percussion family which probably originated independently in Africa and Asia. It consists of wooden bars of various lengths that are struck by plastic, wooden, or rubber mallets. Each bar is tuned to a specific pitch of the musical scale. The term "xylophone" can refer to Western-style concert xylophones or to one of the many wooden mallet percussion instruments found around the world. Xylophones are tuned to different scale systems depending on their origin, including pentatonic, heptatonic, diatonic, or chromatic. The arrangement of the bars is generally from low (longer bars) to high (shorter bars).
While the instrument has been around for thousands of years, the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the term "xylophone" is the April 7, 1866 edition of the Athenaeum: "A prodigy ... who does wonderful things with little drumsticks on a machine of wooden keys, called the 'xylophone'.". However, the word appears earlier in the 1865 The Ladies' Companion. Both citations refer to the performance of a child prodigy, Sunbury.
The xylophone was invented independently in both Africa and Asia. The earliest evidence of a xylophone is from the 9th Century in southeast Asia according to the Vienna Symphonic Library, and there is a model of a similar hanging wood instrument, dated to ca. 2000 BC in China. An older hypothesis that has seen acceptance among some specialists is that the instrument was invented in Indonesia and spread subsequently to Africa. Many however,see this theory as "rash" and even "preposterous", based on the limited amount of evidence to suggest this to be true. The original instrument consisted of wooden bars seated on a series of hollow gourds, with the gourds generating the resonating notes that are produced on modern instruments by metal tubes. Tuning the bars was always a difficult procedure. Old methods consisted of arranging the bars on tied bundles of straw, and, as still practiced today, placing the bars adjacent to each other in a ladder-like layout. Ancient mallets were made of willow wood with spoon-like bowls on the beaten ends.
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