Just wondering what are the objective limitations, if any, of a mallet percussion instrument (glockenspiel, marimba, xylophone, etc) compared to a keyboard instrument (piano, synth). I'm just talking about the way the keys are struck. Let's assume they have the same range.

Are there limitations in harmony? I've seen marimba players hold multiple mallets in their left hand to accomodate this. But even if using multiple malets can you get to the same harmonic complexity of a keyed instrument? Are there any advantages to using a mallet versus fingers?

2 Answers 2


Interesting question. For what its worth this is my take on this.

So we are assuming that we have a hammered instrument that uses multiple mallets versus a keyboard instrument.

There are limitations for the hammered instrument because of the action involved. Holding two mallets in each hand is ok because you can angle the strike to use either of both of the mallets. There are people who can manage three mallets per hand and I stand in awe of them. And yes there are people who play with four mallets in each hand but it becomes harder to manage and I have always thought that the performers using three mallets per hand manage more complex music that those who use four mallets per hand. I seriously doubt that anyone can manage five mallets per hand and play anything meaningful.

So there is a major difference. On a keyboard instrument you can play from 1 to 10 different notes at a time (or sometimes 12 notes by striking more than one with a single finger) and you simply cannot achieve that with hammers by yourself. Add one or two extra players and you might have a chance but then space would be limited and they would almost certainly get in each others way.

Having said all that I did once go to a concert where there were two very talented marimba players playing two instruments and I have to say the music was, in some places, very complex. However there was no nuance to the playing: there was no tonal variation and not a lot of dynamic variation which is something you would want to be doing in a contrapuntal piece for example.

So my feeling is that the hammered instrument is hampered by the drawbacks of being too difficult to play (solo) and not having enough tonal and dynamic variation to make really complex music easy to listen too. Still love the marimba though.

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    Don't forget the vibraphone; it has a piano-like sustain pedal (and a naturally long sustain time) that allows you to build up a complex chord over time with just two or four mallets. Jan 22, 2019 at 2:44
  • @YourUncleBob best username ever lol
    – user34288
    Jan 23, 2019 at 4:03
  • Was the music intended to be at a constant volume? Good percussionists should be able to play their instruments at any volume.
    – cjm
    Oct 14, 2019 at 17:12

As already mentioned, three beaters per hand isn't that unusual, so six note chords can be played, and certain notes can be made to stand out by hitting them harder. Sustain on a xylophone is never going to be great, but on vibes and others is controllable.

There's also the fact that different beaters produce different sounds. Fingers on piano keys don't tend to do that!

Multiple notes? On piano, unless the chords are really close voiced, arpeggiation is the name of the game. No real difference there to other tuned percussion instruments.

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