Contemporary Marimba: Trends in Composition

James Peter Millican
North Dakota State University


It is important for music educators and composers to know the common techniques used to compose for marimba in order to write music for the instrument. In this article I will analyze contemporary marimba literature to support the common compositional techniques used for the instrument. I will also discuss progressive ideas of contemporary composition for the instrument, marimba technique, and electronic enhancement.


Composers have been writing for the marimba for over sixty years. Percussionists are given a wide range of pieces to perform, but there remain staples in marimba literature that will never be forgotten and will continue to be played again and again. There is a wide range of ideas, themes, and colors that are presented in new pieces, but the most popular pieces contain similar compositional traits. Every composer wants to create something new and inventive, but the approach to form, tonality, and skill level all derive from basic compositional techniques.

When considering composition for marimba literature, there are a number of questions to be answered. What are the different compositional techniques common in today's contemporary marimba literature? What is the compositional focus when considering tempo, rhythm, meter, scales, progressions, tonality, and mood? Do composers favor anything in particular? To answer these questions, I will analyze the following pieces: November Evening by Christopher Norton and Two Mexican Dances for Marimba by Gordon Stout. These are staples in marimba music and represent a variety of compositional techniques that are common among contemporary literature for the instrument. The themes of these pieces will be observed, dissected, and analyzed. Similarities in composition of the two pieces will then be compared.

Following the analysis I will discuss the progression of marimba literature and the advanced techniques that are used for the instrument. I will explore the different composition ideas of modern composers, mallet grips used for the instrument, and technology enhancement. Composers and percussionists are continually pushing the limitless opportunities for the instrument, and it is becoming an instrument of high demand. It is exciting what the marimba has to offer the music world.

November Evening

November Evening was premiered on November 1, 1994 at Western Kentucky University by Christopher Norton himself. The piece was dedicated to his wife, Leslie. It is one single movement and is about eight minutes long (Innovative Percussion, 2012). Even though November Evening is a Grade 5+ piece, it has many different compositional techniques that are convenient for the percussionist. All of these techniques are introduced in a way that is accomplishable for the senior undergraduate student or the first year graduate student. Christopher Norton writes using "jazzy" harmonies and melodies that are pleasing to the ear. Since its premiere, November Evening has been used for recital repertoire and solo competitions.

November Evening begins with two main themes. Norton states, "Two rhythmically charged themes open the piece and provide the melodic and harmonic material for the subsequent variations" (Innovative Percussion, 2012). At the beginning of the piece the composer writes: quarter note equals 112, "With rhythmic vitality." The first theme begins in 2/4 time and is marked at a forte dynamic level. After the introductory passage, this theme begins on measure 5 with an eighth note pick-up on a dissonant chord of F#2/C#3 in the left hand and G3/D4 in the right hand, creating a perfect fifth. The left hand follows with a bass melody in F supported by a harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment in the left hand on the chord Ab3/Eb4, creating an interval of a perfect fifth. This clearly outlines the "jazzy" chord of F minor seven and it creates the first tonal center that is presented in the piece. Measure 7 follows the same idea but shifts chromatically up to F# minor seven. The exact same rhythm is mimicked in measure 7, and the chordal voicing is also the same.

The second theme begins on measure 35 and is marked at a mezzo piano dynamic level. The rhythm is a dotted eighth note - dotted eighth note - eighth note. The left hand plays G3/D4, creating a perfect fifth, and the left hand plays A4 and D5, creating a perfect fourth. This outlines another "jazzy" chord of G add9. The following measure contains two eighth note rhythms. The left hand plays F#3 and C#4, creating a perfect fifth, and the right hand plays D4 and A4, creating a perfect fifth. This outlines the chord of F# minor flat 9. The next two measures outline the same chords but contain rhythmic variation.

Two Mexican Dances for Marimba

Two Mexican Dances for Marimba by Gordon Stout was premiered in 1974. The first movement or dance was originally the ninth etude out of Etudes for Marimba, Book 2. Warren Benson suggested to Stout that he remove the dance from the etude book and add a second to it. Also, Benson's idea was to call them Two Mexican Dances. After writing the second dance, Stout dedicated the two pieces to Benson (Stout, 2012).

I chose this piece for two reasons: the composer's background and the pleasing sound of the piece. Gordon Stout studied with James Salmon, the professor who started the University of Michigan's historical percussion program. He also studied with John Beck, the professor of percussion studies in Rochester at the Eastman School of Music. In Two Mexican Dances, Stout writes using flowing melodies, tonal intervals and progressions which are very pleasing to the classical musician's ear. This piece is also featured in recitals and solo competitions. It is considered a standard in solo marimba repertoire.

At the beginning of the first dance the composer wrote: dotted quarter note equals 112-126, "sempre legato." There is no key signature marking and no time signature marking. The dance begins with a three measure, eighth note ostinato pattern in the left hand that suggests the tonal center of C Major. This pattern is made up of octaves, perfect fourths, minor sevenths, and major sixths. Measures 4 – 7 repeat the left hand ostinato pattern, but this time the right hand responds with sixteenth note syncopation rhythms. These rhythms are notated with major sixth intervals in the right hand. The A section of the piece contains many variations of this theme. The A section is repeated twice and is followed by a four measure phrase to conclude the section.

The B section contains a theme that is built using octaves, major tenths, quarter notes, and eighth notes. The theme begins to move away from the tonal center of C Major, adding five sharps, suggesting the key of B Major. This theme consists of eighteen measures and is followed by a recapitulation of the A theme that is seven measures long. There is a transition measure that is made up of octave F's in the left hand, a fourth on D4 and G4, and triplet sixteenth note rhythms.

The A prime section (A') imitates the ostinato pattern in the A theme but notates it by using two eighth notes and a sixteenth note. The tonal center, intervallic figures, and theme remain the same, but these rhythms suggest odd meters even though there is no time signature written for this section. The theme is repeated with variation upon variation and ends with a ritardando and a fermata.

At the beginning of the second dance the composer wrote: eighth note equals 132-144. It begins with no time signature marking and is made up of thirty-second note and triplet sixteenth note figures. It also contains intervals no larger than a perfect fifth. The tonal focus of the A section is A mixolydian. The repeated thirty second note melodic figure of A3-E4-B4-E5 occurs throughout the dance several times.

The dance recaps the A section motive once, then modulates to the dominate key of E Major, and then to the subdominant key of D Major to make up the B section. The B section is marked quarter note equals 108-112, "Rubando," and consists of mainly eighth note triplet figures with mallets one and four harmonizing and supporting the melody. The C section is marked Maestoso and contains mostly triplet sixteenth note figures. The left hand plays major/minor sixths and the right hand plays fourths. The piece then transitions to a variation of the familiar A section.

Composition Similarities

When looking at the two pieces that I chose as examples of contemporary marimba literature, I found similar compositional approaches to each piece. The first technique I observed was the use of popular forms in composition. The most frequently used form was ternary or ABA form. The one or two themes that are stated in each piece are the A section and they are followed by a B section that is contrasting in melodic material, texture, or tonality. The A section is then repeated after each B section. The pieces do contain other sections, whether it is a C section or a chorale section, but the point is that these solos do use ABA form. The book Tonal Harmony stated that "The idea of statement-contrast-return, symbolized as ABA, is an important one in musical form. The ABA, or ternary form, is capable of providing the structure for anything from a short theme to a lengthy movement of a sonata or symphony" (Kostka, Kostka, & Payne, 2008). The second most common technique I observed was the writing of comfortable and convenient intervals for the player. These intervals consisted of perfect 4ths and perfects 5ths. These are the most common intervals used for the instrument because of the layout of the percussionist's 4 mallet grip. When holding the mallets in a relaxed and comfortable position, they clearly spread the width of a perfect fourth or perfect fifth. Other intervals are used to help percussionists develop their playing ability level such as 2nds, 3rds, 6ths, 7ths, and octaves, but these intervals are more challenging.

The use of fourths and fifths can be seen in even the most technically challenging marimba literature, i.e., Reflections on the Nature of Water by Jacob Druckman. I-Jen Fang stated in his doctoral dissertation, "The second movement, entitled Fleet, starts with the element of an open fifth permutation as its main motivic material" (Fang, 2006). Perfect fourths and fifths are the most common intervals in marimba music and will continue to be because of the physics of playing the instrument.

The third most common technique I observed was the composition of accomplishable music. Composers often write incredibly difficult music for the marimba because they forget the limitations of the instrument. These problems often include writing five or six note chords for a four mallet compositions, writing large leaps, and writing scales to be used with one hand. Samuel Solomon stated, "Composers often write with a piano and are therefore thinking with ten fingers. A percussionist can hold up to four mallets comfortably and has quite a bit of freedom, but certainly not as much as a ten-fingered pianist" (2012). He also quoted, "The composer must keep in mind that mallet instruments are large and awkward. A five-octave marimba is over eight feet long!" Also, playing a scalure figure with one hand is appropriate for the pianist, but writing a scale for the percussionist to play with two mallets in one hand is not as easy. That's like trying to play a scale with two fingers!

Other contemporary marimba literature that supports these common compositional techniques consists of a wide range of technical ability but can be presented. Pieces such as Rain Dance by Alice Gomez, Michi by Keiko Abe, and Three Moves for Marimba by Paul Lansky support the wide range of common compositional techniques used in marimba literature. Each of these pieces contains different tempo markings and melodies, and they are even categorized within different playing ability levels. Although different in these aspects, the techniques listed above are used in each of these pieces.

Marimba and the Future

The techniques used to advance the composition for marimba consist of three things in general: unique instrumental combinations for ensembles, mallet grips, and electronic enhancement. Instrumental combinations like trumpet and marimba, clarinet and marimba, marimba and string quartet, and marimba and harpsichord are all examples of odd but approachable combinations to marimba composition.

Raymond Helble, a contemporary composer who writes consistently for percussion, has and continues to experiment with these different instrumental combinations. He has written many unique compositions including Movement for Marimba and Harpsichord, Duo Concertante for marimba and violin, DarkWood for Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello and Marimba, and Quintetto alla Beethoven for Marimba and string quartet. While being interviewed for an article in Percussive Notes Helble stated, "Another area I am very interested in is mixed chamber music with percussion. I feel this is an intriguing combination and one yet to be fully explored by serious composers" (Bump, 2007). The possibilities of percussion are still being explored, and composers are eagerly seeking new combinations involving the marimba.

The most common mallet grips in the past have been for two and four mallet marimba playing. A more recent addition to mallet grips is the six mallet grip. Marimbists are adding this new grip and technique to their playing because it offers possibilities for the instrument that are not available when using two or four mallets. It adds a new realm to marimba performance and is part of a step in a new direction for the instrument.

The six mallet grip has been around for a good thirty years, but is not commonly used. Kai Stensgaard is a six mallet grip player and frequently writes literature that calls for the technique. In an interview, he praised the technique saying that "six mallets only opens up for some new possibilities that you do not have with four mallets." In his arrangement of "Gloria" by Ariel Ramirez, he stated, "the left hand plays the bass and harmonies in a calypso-like way, and on top of that you can get great full sound for the melody. That would not be possible with four mallets. If it were done with four, the harmony would sound very thin" (Nandayapa, 2006). This technique is beginning to change the way marimbists and composers write for the instrument.

Computers have taken their place in modern day society. Technology is also taking its place in the music world. Electronic enhancement of the marimba is a new and innovative technique that is being used by marimbists and composers. Computer-generated sound projection is being used to enhance the sound of the marimba and create a new experience for the audience.

The use of computers, foot pedals, microphones, and speakers can bring life to the marimba sound. Nathaniel Bartlett is a marimba soloist who is currently using this new technique. Bartlett explained that through the use of this technology he creates a "sound field" surrounding the audience. Bartlett further explained, "The idea is that the sound comes from everywhere creating an audio sculpture and the audience is at the center of it all" (Dease, 2009).

This technology also displays music for the performer to read. "Virtual" page turns allow the performer to concentrate on the music with no worry of physically turning the pages. These advancements in music technology are important for music educators and composers. "Exposing the percussion community to computer-generated sound projection is an important step in educating the public in the capabilities of the modern computer, especially within the musical field" (Dease, 2009).

Who Cares?

Music educators and composers should be fully aware of the techniques used for marimba composition, arranging, and performance. They need to be educated in the instrumental area of the marimba. This will in turn give them the knowledge to write for the instrument and please the performing percussionist. Resources to use include instructional books and websites, marimba composers, and percussionists themselves.

A very good book on how to arrange and compose for marimba is Samuel Solomon's book, How to Write for Percussion (2002). Solomon offered great tips on how pitched percussion works for the composer and most importantly, the player. Marimba artist websites and composer websites offer excellent instruction. Professional marimbists such as Nancy Zeltsman, Claire Edwards, and local percussionists from your area are excellent sources. Samuel Solomon stated, "It is best to speak with a percussionist about a specific example" (2012). David Maslanka, Frank Ticheli, Raymond Helble, and other composers who have experience composing for the instrument would be excellent sources. The point is that the best instruction comes from the people that have experience with the instrument. Using these sources will help music educators and composers in being more comfortable with marimba composition and arranging.


I have analyzed the main themes of two major marimba compositions. These two compositions represent the most common techniques used in marimba literature today. These techniques are the use of ABA form, writing comfortable intervals for the percussionist, and writing accomplishable music for the percussionist. I have also provided information on the new techniques being used for marimba performance. These techniques are unique instrumental combinations involving the marimba, six mallet grip technique, and electronic enhancement of the instrument.

The marimba is becoming a standard ensemble instrument, a curious instrument for composers, and a solo instrument with increasing recognition. The instrument's popularity has driven it to be considered a standard instrument for percussionists, and it continues to grow in innovation in the creation of new sounds and ideas for ensemble literature. Music Educators and composers need to be aware of the composition techniques and performance elements of percussion and its newest member, the marimba.

Works Cited

Bump, Michael. (2007). A Conversation with Raymond Helble. Percussive Notes 45:5.

Dease, Emory. (2009). Nathaniel Bartlett: Solo Marimba + Computer-Generated Sound Projection. Percussive Notes 47:4 (2009).

Fang, I-JEN. (2006). The 1986 National Endowment for the Arts Commission: An Introspective Analysis of Two Marimba Works, Reflections on the Nature of Water by Jacob Druckman, and Velocities by Joseph Schwantner, Together with Three Recitals of Selected Works by Keiko Abe, Christopher Deane, Peter Klatzow, Wayne Siegel, Gitta Steiner, and Others (D.M.A., Univ. of North Texas, 2005)." Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities & Social Sciences 66:11. 

Innovative Percussion Inc. (2012, October). http://www.innovativepercussion.com/pages/products/product_detail.asp?id=302

Kostka, S. M., Kostka, S, & Payne, D. (2008). Tonal harmony. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Nandayapa, Javier. (2006). Kai Stensgaard Marimbist and Composer. Percussive Notes 44:5

Soloman, Samuel. (2002). How to write for percussion: A Comprehensive guide to percussion composition. New York, NY: Library of Congress.

Stout, Gordon. (2012, November). Home page. http://www.gordonstout.net/music-29.html



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