diatonic kalimba kalimba range

The kalimba and the piano are very different instruments! Two big differences between them are that the kalimba has only a small subset of the notes of the piano, and the notes on the kalimba are arranged in a fundamentally different way to the arrangement on the piano.

While the general musical introduction you received from piano lessons will be useful on your kalimba journey, the specific muscle memory (and the way you think about reading and playing music) you developed while playing the piano is pretty much irrelevant to playing the kalimba.


Not all kalimbas are diatonic kalimbas, but most of the kalimbas you can find today are diatonic kalimbas. diatonic. "Diatonic" is a fancy word meaning that the kalimba has only the notes in a major scale - you know, "Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do." It can have an octave, two octaves or more, but it has to have all those notes, and there won't be any others. There are five places where other notes (flats and sharps) fall between these notes - between "Do" and "Re", for example. These are the "black notes" of the piano, and they're missing on a diatonic kalimba.


Speaking of which: a simple way of thinking about diatonic kalimbas is that they have only the white notes of the piano - do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do - but not the black notes like fa#/sib (the little "b" indicates a flat) or do#/dib. A kalimba that contains all the notes, white and black, is called a chromatic kalimba.

The key of G has a high tone, F#. This means that the Alto in G has this F#, but the type of scale played by the Alto kalimba is the same as that played by the white notes of the piano - C, D, E, F, So La, Ti, C. The Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba is a diatonic instrument. So, although it has a treble scale, it plays the diatonic scale of G. The takeaway: You can have a diatonic kalimba in any key, and you think of the kalimba as if it were just the white notes on the piano.


Another obvious difference between the piano and the kalimba is the scale, or the distance between the lowest and highest notes. Not only does the kalimba miss several notes between the notes it plays, but kalimba notes don't go very low or very high.

A typical 17-note Kalimba in C goes from C4 to E6, while the 88-note piano goes from A0 to C8 (the numbers represent the octave on the piano). A0 is the lowest note. C4 is middle C, and there are 8 octaves).

 The limited range of the kalimba becomes a problem because some melodies won't fit well on the kalimba, and if you're trying to arrange common piano music (e.g. melody and lower-note accompaniment), you'll need to make some arrangements on the kalimba - for example, the notes in the left hand of the piano will need to be transposed an octave or two, or otherwise modified, to fit on the kalimba.


But the essential difference between the kalimba and the piano is the way the notes are arranged. The piano has a linear arrangement of notes. Low notes are on the left and high notes are on the right. There's no ambiguity. You can actually calculate exactly where each note should be. It makes perfect sense.

As you learn to play the piano, your brain comes to internalize this structure - a direct correlation of pitch and location on the piano keyboard. What's more, there's a very clear and simple relationship between the notes on the linear staff and the linear arrangement of notes on the piano.

But the kalimba has a bi-linear note arrangement. The low notes are in the center, while the high notes will be on the far left AND the far right. Looking at the diagram at the top of this article, you can see that half of the white notes end up on the right side of the kalimba, with notes higher to the right; and half of the white notes end up on the left side of the kalimba, with notes higher to the left compared to what you learned on the piano.

Here are some of the consequences of this arrangement. In the diagrams below, please refer to the note names at the bottom of the tablature.

BiDirectional Kalimba

The right-hand side of the kalimba is parallel to the piano keyboard - the further to the right you go, the higher you go. The left side of the kalimba is the reverse of the piano keyboard - as you go further left, you move to the higher notes. The result is a bidirectional arrangement of notes that fundamentally transforms the way you think about creating music, and the kinds of movements you'll need to make to realize a particular musical idea.

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