Earth Xylophone

Instrument-building projects for small groups

  • Duration: 2 days to a week
  • Participants: Adults, youth, children; to be agreed upon in advance
  • Space requirements: Outside or in a work space of about 30 square meters, to be agreed upon in advance
  • Supplies: provided

The first earth xylophone was made in 1991 for the second Artists’ Symposium in Reiskirchen-Ettinghausen, Germany. It was inspired by the oak beams that are found scattered all around the garden as well as intensive exploration of African music. In Africa, huge xylophones are sometimes used to protect the harvests in the fields. The music keeps the animals away while also keeping boredom at bay for those watching over the fields.

In the Amadinda Orchestra of Uganda and the Marimba Orchestra of Guatemala, it is customary for multiple musicians to play one instrument together. They dovetail their musical movement and use their eyes and ears to coordinate themselves.

To play  the African xylophone in this way the team players need to distribute the sound rods between themselves. Thus, their movement patterns will lead to intertwining rhythms, meaning that it does not  matter what skill level the participants have, as they all have a meaningful role to play in this type of game. In addition, its rules can be explained to children easily.

The earth xylophone is 1.8 x 2.5 meters long and offers 12 – 16 rods for 6 – 12 players. The portable version of the instrument can be placed on the ground or on a table (at standing height). It has no resonators, it can be dismantled quickly, it is transportable and it can be stored easily. This makes it the optimal choice for mobile projects and small-scale events.

Its low material costs, robustness and the fact that it can be played by ten people make it the instrument of choice during kids’ project weeks and continuing education seminars. The soundboard for the stationary earth xylophone is a wood-encased pit (approximately 2.5 x 4.5 meters), atop of which there are 12 rods suspended on three meter-long beams. The players sit on the edge of the pit and can stretch out their legs under the xylophone to actually feel the vibrations of the instrument all the way up to their stomachs. Around 20 children can fit around this instrument and play on it together. In both setups, the situation is reminiscent of a table, both in terms of enabling communication and of how it looks. 

The close arrangement of the sounding rods allows for the xylophone to also be used as a picnic table. The way the participants sit together so closely simplifies musical communication as well as invention of musical games and improvisation rules. The fact that they share one musical instrument encourages a free exchange of rhythms, melodies, and movement patterns while also preventing them from competing for more “important” or louder instruments. 

During the instrument-building project week an interactive museum can make use of ten different types of xylophones and metallophones to introduce the participants to the evolution of this type of instrument and to encourage an interest in experimentation along with an introduction to the physics of sound. The children build simple, inexpensive model xylophones themselves out of roof shingles and take them home. Then, the experience they gain in the museum and while building their own instruments is intensified once they begin examining the construction of an even larger earth xylophone.