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Lamellaphone (also called "Lamellophone") describes any of a family of musical instruments. The name comes from the Latin root "lamella" for "plate", and the Greek root "phone" for "sound". The name derives from the way the sound is produced: the instrument has a series of thin plates, or "tongues", each of which is fixed at one end and has the other end free. When the musician depresses the free end of a plate with a finger, and then allows the finger to slip off, the released plate vibrates. A tongue may be plucked either from the top or from the bottom.
In the original Hornbostel-Sachs classification of musical instruments, lamellaphones are classified as a category of plucked idiophones. While this is appropriate for the various forms of Jew's Harp and the European mechanical music box, it has been argued that the African "thumb-pianos" are not idiophones but constitute a class of their own. The reason for this is that their tongues can be shifted and the instruments can be tuned that way. So the pitch of a tongue does not depend on its intrinsic length but on the adjustable length of the free swinging part.
A large number of lamellaphones originate in Africa, where they are known under different names including sanza, kisanji, likembe, mbira, mbila, kalimba, and kongoma. They play an important role in African Music. They were reported as early as the 16th century, but there is no doubt they have a much longer history. The Caribbean marimbula is also of this family.
The tongues may be arranged in the manner of a piano and may be made small enough to play with individual fingers, hence the colloquial name "thumb piano" (although some instruments (like the Mbira) have an additional rows of tongues, in which case not just the thumbs are used for plucking.
Some conjecture that African lamellaphones were derived from xylophones and marimbas. However, similar instruments have been found elsewhere; for example, the indigenous peoples of Siberia play primitive wooden and metallic lamellaphones with a single tongue.
Lamellaphones may be made with or without resonators.
Kubik, Gerhard: "Lamellophone", in: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Ed. by Stanley Sadie). macmillan Publishers, London 1981