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A percussion instrument consisting of a mounted row of wooden bars that are graduated in length to sound a chromatic scale, played with two small mallets.
Word History: Alphabet books for children frequently feature the word xylophone because it is one of the few words beginning with x that a child (or most adults, for that matter) would know. The majority of English words beginning with x, including many obscure scientific terms, go back to one of five Greek words: xanthos, "yellow," xenos, "stranger," xēros, "dry," xiphos, "sword," or xulon, "wood." The initial x, representing the Greek letter xi, is now pronounced (z) in English even though it was pronounced (ks) by the Greeks. (It seems that at first, the initial x in English words of Greek origin was pronounced as (gz), like the x in exist, and at some point, (gz) was simplified to the (z) heard today.) In the case of xylophone, xylo- is derived from Greek xulon and -phone represents Greek phōnē, "voice, sound," the same element found in words such as telephone, microphone, and megaphone. Different forms of the xylophone have long been important instruments in many musical traditions, such as those of Africa and Southeast Asia, but in Europe, xylophones remained a minor instrument used mostly in the folk music of Eastern Europe. In the Renaissance depictions of the Dance of Death, however, skeletons are often shown merrily playing on xylophonelike instruments. These instruments were called by various names in Europe over the centuries, but the English term xylophone (along with its relatives in other European languages like French xylophone and German Xylophon) appears to be a creation of the 1800s. In the 1830s, the Russian Jewish xylophone virtuoso Michal Josef Gusikov (1806-1837) toured Europe and created a sensation in Paris and Vienna by playing on something that was introduced to the audience as a wood-and-straw instrument. Thereafter, xylophonelike instruments steadily gained in popularity in Western Europe. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known attestation of our modern name for the instrument is found in the following description from the April 7, 1866, edition of Athenaeum, a British literary magazine: "A prodigy ... who does wonderful things with little drumsticks on a machine of wooden keys, called the 'xylophone.'" Soon after, in 1874, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously included a part for the xylophone in his Danse Macabre, a musical depiction of the Dance of Death.
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.