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Hints & Tips No. 1: Orchestration

Updated: Apr 17

We are going to explore the similarities of timbre which will provide a guide to the vibraphone's use in textural blending and adding that 'glow' to music.


No matter what quality of another instrument that a vibraphone may appear to emulate, in the end, it is still a vibraphone, and that will be inescapable to the listener due to the nature and material that the instrument.
The vibraphone is very well known for its use in the jazz idiom and has a unique sensibility towards that genre of music, but the vibraphone can be used in prominent roles within small or even larger ensembles. Although the vibraphone was invented in the mid 1920s and used quickly by American Jazz musicians such as Lionel Hampton (seen in video performing 'Flying Home' in 1957), it wasn't until the 1930s that composers incorporated the vibraphone in an orchestral setting. The special feature of the vibraphone, the one that gives the instrument its name, is a set of small, electrically operated fans above the resonators (and below the bars) that cause a vibrato effect by rapidly closing and opening the resonators. This creates the 'glow' effect in the sound and can sound very un-worldly if used in textural blending.

In essence, the vibraphone has a much warmer, more radiant edge to the timbre than other mallet instruments in the percussion family due to the nature of hitting the instrument with various mallets. A vibraphone many registers may resemble a piano, yet still possess an aggressive, direct quality when muted. These slight differences that can help guide the orchestrator into assigning a passage to a particular doubling or textural blending within an ensemble setting.

Music by Gifts From Crows, Orchestration by Alexander Proudlock,
Performance by Northern Film Orchestra, June 2021

Extended Technique #1 - Bowing

Percussionists are well equipped, and a common extended technique found is the use of a cello or bass bow on the vibraphone to achieve sustained tones that will not decay, nor have a percussive attack.

This is done by bowing the bars perpendicular to their outer edges. Due to the different mode of vibration, this also changes the sound of the vibraphone by emphasizing the higher harmonics and giving it a “glassier” tone.

Extended Technique #2 - The 'Glow'


As a vibraphone is use dominantly for 2 or 4 mallet playing, the instrument is very good for playing chords. The 'glow' description is a sound not replicated by another instrument. To support the sustain of a piano of for a similar effect, the vibraphone is also good to add that sustain to music. Also, long passages of music like an isorhythm or any repeating rhythmical pattern, piano and vibraphone (motor on) doubling are very effect.

Extended Technique #3 - Dampening


There are many benefits of being proficient in these techniques, as it allows the player to transition between chords much more smoothly and play new notes without having them affect the quality of the chord when the pedal is down. A particular interesting technique is a dampened single note played with plucked harp and short bowed strings.

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