The marimba is important primarily as a solo instrument and in various ensembles (chamber music). However, since the second half of the 20th century it has also been entrusted with an increasing number of tasks in the orchestra. It can be used especially in a thin, open or transparent orchestral setting.
Marimba + other percussion instruments
Full-sounding combination in unison and octaves with the celesta and the glockenspiel. Interesting blends with other wood instruments. The hard wood instruments – e.g. the xylophone – are dominant.
Marimba + brass instruments
As a harmonic accompaniment to trumpet melodies. Common combination in Mexican folk music.
Marimba + woodwinds
In general, mellow-sounding and sonorous blends in unison and in octaves with the woodwinds, especially with the deep clarinets.
The combination with the saxophones has proven popular.
Marimba + strings
A very problematical possibility which still has a great deal of potential. A lot of research still needs to be done. Full-sounding combination in unison and octaves with the low strings. The strings are dominant, no new composite sound emerges, the blend is incomplete.
A comparison between four mallet instruments
The marimba is equally capable of performing melodic and harmonic tasks. The tasks performed by the mallet instruments – glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, lithophone – in the orchestra are determined by their sound characteristics and are consequently many and varied. Scoring for the various mallet instruments in one single orchestral work requires great subtlety of the composer. In recent decades the use of several different mallet instruments simultaneously has become more common.
Unlike the xylophone, the mellow, warm and gentle sound of the marimba is very well suited for tonal blends with other instruments. In the middle and low registers it performs chiefly harmonic tasks. Its ability to assert itself is limited. A full-sounding combination results from octave doubling with the xylophone, in which the xylophone remains dominant. A good timbral balance with other instruments can be achieved through a transparent orchestration within a chamber music setting.
The extremely bright and high sound adds brilliance to melody lines and doubles them an octave higher. Thanks to the increased brightness provided by the glockenspiel, the melody line becomes more prominent. In smaller ensembles, the glockenspiel also performs solo tasks.
Mellow sound, great resonance. Used to prolong notes or chords. In the lower register it tends to be drowned by other instruments, in the middle and upper registers it can assert itself better. Inaudible in tutti passages. Performs both harmonic and solo tasks, especially in smaller ensembles.
Thanks to the short and very high-pitched sound of the xylophone, note sequences become more sharply defined and can be distinguished even in an orchestra tutti. The sound of the xylophone is audible in every combination of instruments. The xylophone’s specialty in the orchestra is the precise definition of immediately recognizable contours and not the blending in with other sounds.