Sound is produced by striking the bars with mallets. One, two or three mallets can be held in each hand. The technique with three mallets is difficult and requires a considerable amount of time to prepare. The mallets are constructed in such a way that they immediately spring back after the attack and so avoid damping the vibration of the bars. If the mallet head remains lying on the bar it is known as a dead stroke, which is used as a special effect. The mallets are held with the palm facing downward. The low notes require a stronger attack to set the larger bars vibrating.
The chromatic orchestra marimba consists of two parallel rows of bars. Each bar has its own pitch; the shorter the bar, the higher the pitch. The bars are arranged in the same way as the keys on a piano; the low notes (= long bars) are on the left, the high notes (= short bars) on the right of the musician.
As on the xylophone and other mallet-played instruments the width of the marimba’s bars varies according to their pitch, which can cause problems. The span of the lowest octave is 61.5 cm, that of the highest 41 cm. The widest possible span for a marimbist with two mallets in one hand is a thirteenth (octave + a sixth), depending on the register.
Choice of mallets
The marimbist can choose from a variety of different mallets which are divided into three degrees of hardness: soft, medium and hard.
Softer mallets damp the higher partials making the timbre softer, rounder and more gentle (although the sound at the top end is muffled and the pitch cannot easily be determined); harder mallets favor the higher partials, making the timbre brighter, harder and shriller (at the bottom end the timbre is so hard that the pitch can hardly be determined).
The resonance is not damped.