The rare J.C. Deagan Artist Special xylophone, made with wood that is no longer available, will be played in concert on Monday night at Crowder Hall on the UA campus. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
The rare J.C. Deagan Artist Special xylophone, made with wood that is no longer available, will be played in concert on Monday night at Crowder Hall on the UA campus. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Sound of UA's 100-Year-Old Xylophone Is Ageless

Its formal name is the J.C. Deagan Artist Special, and its warm, rich sound comes from Honduran rosewood that is no longer available.
April 13, 2016
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The Rosewood Marimba Band has one of the most exceptional xylophones ever made, the J.C. Deagan Artist Special. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the instrument.

Rosewood Marimba Band in concert
7:30 p.m. Monday, April 18 (admission $5)
Crowder Hall
UA professors Andrew Lotto (left) and Norm Weinberg (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
UA professors Andrew Lotto (left) and Norm Weinberg (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

University of Arizona music major Sean Rees gently pulls the soft black cover off the century-old xylophone. Meanwhile, other members of the Rosewood Marimba Band trickle into a rehearsal room at the UA Fred Fox School of Music.

Each member chooses a pair of mallets from an array laid out on a nearby table. Soon, the air fills with the sound of the xylophone and two marimbas.

The band is readying for an upcoming show featuring the xylophone, the J.C. Deagan Artist Special. It’s the UA instrument’s 100th birthday.

"The thing that makes this instrument special is the sound of it," says Norm Weinberg, UA professor of music and the director of percussion studies. "You can see pretty quickly that the bars are larger and wider."

The bars' generous dimensions are partly what give this premier xylophone its unique vibrational characteristics, Weinberg says. But so does the material from which it is made — Honduran rosewood.

When these instruments were crafted, the manufacturers cut the wood from the heart of the tree, where the wood is denser and more compressed, Weinberg says. This xylophone's bars are a bit more than 100 years old because the wood was set aside to dry and mature before it was cut for the instrument. In fact, Weinberg says, this wood doesn’t exist anymore.

Newer xylophones are made with softer wood and shorter bars, which means their notes aren’t as warm and rich. However, they’re often designed to be played as part of an orchestra or band.

But a few companies are trying to make instruments that date to the Deagan’s style and sound.

"There are companies that have copied the bar shape, bar design, tuning characteristics and tried to copy the materials the resonators are made of," Weinberg says. "It’s been somewhat successful, but the real heart of the matter is that you can’t get this wood anymore."

When most people think of musical instruments, they think of the notes and the pitch, says Andrew Lotto, UA associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences.  

"That’s partly because as humans we hear this thing called pitch, which isn’t in the instrument," Lotto says. "It’s a perception that we have, and in fact, for humans, musical pitch is only a small range of the frequencies that we can actually tell apart. But the thing that makes a fantastic instrument versus one that is lesser quality has to do with the timbre."

Although there’s "no good definition," for timbre, Lotto says, it’s usually defined as anything that’s not pitch or loudness.

"When you play an instrument, there’s a basic vibration that gives you the pitch, but there’s all these other vibrations in there," he says. "Interestingly, we hear only pitch coming from the lowest or fundamental vibration despite the fact it might not be the most intense vibration. The rest of it we hear as timbre."

The overtones or harmonics of an instrument are what separate a fantastic instrument from one that’s lesser in quality, according to Lotto. The same goes for the human voice.

"Most people can hit close to the right notes," Lotto says. "A great singer actually adds in some extra timbre that really makes us appreciate them as singers."

Exactly why we appreciate music or singing, from a neurological standpoint, remains a mystery. Researchers have shown the neural representation of sound — specifically, how it moves through the entire neural system up to the cortex and how the sound is represented, Lotto says.

But the path connecting the sound to meaning, feeling, emotion and enjoyment is not clear.

"We know the parts of the brain that are involved in emotion," Lotto says. "They’re certainly active when music is played, but what makes those parts active is really difficult to study."

This is partly because people’s tastes vary with respect to one another, over time and even over generations.

"Sometimes you want this brightness that will jump out," Lotto says. "Sometimes you want the warmth. And the fact is, these are qualities that not every person loves and enjoys. There are some warm qualities, especially with this wood, that probably harken back to our ancestry. But our tastes do change constantly."

For example, younger people might actually prefer the tinnier qualities of an MP3 because that's what they have grown up with.

"But it may be the case in the future that the xylophones we have nowadays may be the ones everyone wants to hear," Lotto says.