The xylophone is an instrument of great antiquity, having been used in a slightly different form by both Greeks and Hebrews. It is now sometimes used in connection with other instruments in our larger orchestras, in which case, however, the bars are usually made of metal. Its construction is very simple, and any boy having a good ear for music can readily make one.
The instrument is composed of strips of wood of various sizes, and thick enough to allow the passage of a stout piece of twine or fish-line, as seen in the illustration.
The largest strips give the lowest notes. The first note of the scale may be a strip of any convenient size, and the succeeding strips are tuned by carefully cutting away from the under side until the desired tone is produced.
They are strung upon cords, in the manner shown in Fig. 2, a knot being made on each side to keep the strip in place ; and finally, across the upper part of a box, in order to give sufficient resonance of sound.
In putting these strips together, it is necessary to have the holes through which they are strung at a slight angle, or in the direction of the slant which the strings take when fastened to the frame.
The arrangement seen in Fig. 3 is perhaps best adapted to the usual form of a box, and affords a greater range of notes. It would be well to letter the upper part of the bars with the name of the note they are intended to produce, and the wood should be thoroughly seasoned from which these bars are made.
It is well to have the lowest note not the first of the scale but a fifth below, and the highest three or four notes above the octave. This will give sufficient compass for any air you may care to play.
A good ear for music is of the greatest importance to insure success in constructing an instrument of this description, and it would simply be a waste of time and patience for any boy not so blessed, to venture upon the undertaking.
Little wooden mallets are sometimes used to play upon this xylophone, but the little drumsticks belonging to the common toy drum are better for the purpose.
Among the tribes of southern Africa an instrument of this class holds the chief place in their festivals, and is played upon with considerable skill by many of their native musicians.
This piano, called by them “marimba,” consists of two bars of wood placed side by side ; in the most southern portions quite straight, but farther north, bent round so as to resemble half the tire of a carriage-wheel ; across these are placed about fifteen wooden keys, each of which is two or three inches broad, and fifteen or eighteen inches long, and their thickness, as in the case of the xylophone, is regulated according to the deepness of the note required.
Each of the keys has a calabash beneath it ; from the upper part of each a portion is cut off to enable them to embrace the bars, and form hollow sounding-boards to the keys, which also are of different sizes, according to the note required ; and little drumsticks, like those spoken of above, elicit the music. Rapidity of execution seems much admired among them, and the music is pleasant to the ear.
In Angola, the Portuguese use the marimba in their dances.
Excerpt from: How? or, Spare hours made profitable for boys and girls by Holbrook, Kennedy