I am a choral director who has been transplanted to concert band. I know the differences between the percussion keyboards in theory, but in practice I still need to do an internet search to remember which one is which every. single. time.

This question has helped me over and over and over, but not to the point of allowing me to actually remember which one is which without going back to the question.

Is there a memory aid or a mnemonic that can help me to just keep them straight? It's frankly embarrassing to be at the head of the room and to blank out on the name of an instrument in my ensemble.

  • 3
    Have you spent time playing each? Feeling them underneath you might help drive it home. Making your own device is more effective than someone giving you one. Last: you’re the teacher - why don’t you just label them and say it’s “for the students”? I labeled everything when I taught public school (not for my memory) and I bet labels would help. Parents forget their kids’ names all the time - especially when they’re yelling! Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 11:34
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    I don't know about a mnemonic for them all, but 'xylon' is Greek for 'wood' so that ought to be a hint Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 4:16

3 Answers 3


This answer is pretty lame, and I don't like mnemonics, but...

Drop the "phone" then...

  • xylo
  • glock... (too long)
  • marim...
  • vibra

The first two have an "O" in their name, but not the other two. Those two DON'T have resonators. xyl-O-phone gl-O-ckenspiel

The second two have "A" in their names and "R" too, but not the other two. Those are the two with resonators. m-A-rimb-A vibr-A-phone

Now we need to distinguish that one is wood and the other metal...

xyl-O-ph-O-ne and m-A-rimb-A

... the ones with repeated vowels are made of wOOd.

Or, what I think...

  • xylophone, it's the one to play for dancing skeletons, bones aren't metal
  • glockenspiel, the marching band plays it, it has to be piercing so it's metal
  • marimba, used in Latin American music and other traditional cultures, wood is traditional
  • vibraphone, Lionel Hampton, jazz, jazz is modern, metal (steel) is modern, and the motorized vibrato obviously modern
  • Sorry to nitpick but aren't bones made of Calcium? And Calcium is a metal so in a sense bones actually are metal aren't they?
    – JimM
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 22:58
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    @JimM See: doitpoms.ac.uk/tlplib/bones/structure.php Quoting: "Bone itself consists mainly of collagen fibres and an inorganic bone mineral in the form of small crystals." Some of the elements in wood are also metals, but since neither wood nor bone are entirely composed of metallic elements, we don't normally consider either to a metal. Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 0:24
  • @ToddWilcox Thanks for that. Having wound up my brain I'm not sure I can see where in that link it says that bone is not made of metal but I expect I was being too simplistic. It also says that there is ZInc there so now I can claim two metals! Just wanted to raise a smile really.
    – JimM
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 8:05
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    If we were to call everything a metal that contains metal, that would include a lot, including blood, milk, and brains. Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 9:29
  • ...and (a calcium) salt, which bones are predominantly comprised of.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 11:29

Maybe this is just me, but I find it easier to remember stuff like this if I can connect the original meanings of the words with what they're naming.

In this case: it helps to know that xyl- is a root meaning "wood" (as in "xylem", part of the vascular system of a plant). I know- nerdy, but it's a connection.

The "vibra" of "vibraphone" refers to the vibrato caused by the mechanism opening and closing the resonating tubes- that's pretty easy to see.

The "spiel" of "Glockenspiel" means "play (device)", and as the Glockenspiel is smaller than the others, it's more like a plaything, even if this is a slight mistranslation, is it not?

As far as the distinction marimba/xylophone goes, all I can suggest, since the instruments are practically identical, is to think about the tone you get from the relatively longer bars of the marimba as being "mellower".

Probably increased familiarity and use will take care of memorizing the names by itself anyway. Best of luck.

  • IMO this is the best answer, because it explains the root meanings. I wish I had thought of it! I would like to add that "glocke" means "bell" in German. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 16:29
  • Marimba is apparently an African word that just means xylophone. etymonline.com/search?q=marimba Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 16:30
  • @MichaelCurtis - yes, I thought afterwards I should add the Glocke/bell connection too, but you did, so it's out there too. And thanks for the etymology of "marimba"- I guess I'd always just assumed it was a Spanish word. Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 14:16

I'd suggest making yourself some flashcards.

Or have a think about how your memory works - for instance as musical director you already remember people's names, you remember lots of Italian musical terms, you remember song words and so on. So you already have a system for remembering stuff - it's just a question of fitting the tuned percussion instruments into your existing system.

You could also make up a listening game with your band - get your percussion section to play the various instruments and get your band to face in the opposite direction and hold up the picture of what instrument is playing.

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