The kalimba is a great instrument to get started with but one of the main questions people often ask is whether it can play any song.
It’s a very good question and if you have asked this yourself, you will no doubt know that the standard kalimba only has 17 keys or notes to choose from, with some kalimbas having as little as 5! A guitar on the other hand has over 40 different notes to choose from while a piano has 88.
With such a difference in available notes, it’s easy to see why one might think that certain songs may not be playable with a kalimba, however, in a lot of cases, this is simply not true!
The standard kalimba will not be able to play every song, unfortunately, as the range of some songs simply covers too many notes. However, the majority of songs should be possible if the kalimba is tuned according to the requirements of the song and the music is adapted for the kalimba. Alternatively, a chromatic kalimba can offer further flexibility and open up a lot more options.
There are a few things you must consider before understanding if a song is playable on the kalimba. Let’s look at these in detail below.
Most modern-day kalimbas have 17 keys and are tuned to C Major. Without getting too much into music theory, this means that the kalimba can only play natural notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B) in a diatonic scale. This would be the same as only playing the white keys on a piano, for example.
Now if the song you wanted to learn only uses these natural notes, then you should be able to play it on your kalimba with no problems. A perfect example of this is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which only uses the notes C, D, E, F, G, and A. All of these notes are accessible for the kalimba making this an easy song to play without having to make any adjustments.
Keeping with the theme of nursery rhymes, Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes is an example of a song that contains a pesky sharp note.
A sharp note is a note that falls in between two natural notes. On a piano, the sharp notes are the black keys.
To play Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes correctly, we have to play an F# on the word “knees”. The rest of the song can be played no problem on the kalimba but it won’t sound quite right until we do something about this note.
You have two options available to you to overcome this problem:
- Tune the kalimba to make the F note ‘sharp’.
- Transpose the song to a different key.
Let’s look at both of these options in more detail below.
Can You Play Sharps and Flats on a Kalimba?
It is possible to play sharps and flats on a kalimba by tuning the kalimba accordingly. That is by raising or lowering a given note by a half step, as required.
This is a great technique to master to get the full benefit of your kalimba and open up a lot more song choices to play!
The nursery rhyme, Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes is an example of a song that contains a sharp note. All the notes used in this song are C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, and D. A standard kalimba can play all the notes here except for the F#, therefore the kalimba will need to be tuned to make room for this note.
Here’s the kalimba tab for the opening line of the song.
G A G F# G E G G G Heads, shoul-ders, knees and toes, knees and toes.
To play this F# note, the F note will need to be tuned up one semitone to F#, as shown below.
This can be a little confusing for songs where multiple tines need to be tuned to different notes but once you do it a few times, you will start to get the hang of it. Keeping a chart of what each tine is tuned to, or putting stickers on each tine with the note written can be very helpful here.
Once your kalimba is tuned to match the notes of the song, you will now be able to play it!
Play The Song in a Different Key
The act of transposing a song is a way to make it better fit the standard kalimba scale.
Transposing in its simplest terms is taking a note, scale, or song and raising or lowering its pitch to a new key. You might have a song that is in the key of G Major, for example. By lowering its pitch down by 7 semitones, the song’s key would now be C Major.
This can be especially useful for instruments like the kalimba where it is limited in notes and range and tuning is not an option.
Using the nursery rhyme, Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes as an example again. Rather than having to tune multiple tines to new notes, we can transpose the song up by 5 semitones, changing the key to C Major and getting rid of the F#, which is now a B note.
Here’s how the kalimba tab would now look.
C° D° C° B C° A C° C° C° Heads, shoul-ders, knees and toes, knees and toes.
(want to learn the whole song? Here’s the full kalimba tab for Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes).
This can be a lot simpler and less time consuming than re-tuning your kalimba. This is great if you are just playing by yourself or practicing, however, if you like to play along to songs this could be problematic as you won’t be playing in the same key.
Both tuning and transposing have their pros and cons and you will need to weigh these up before deciding which is the best option.
How do I Convert Songs to Kalimba?
Converting songs to kalimba can be a really easy task or very intensive, depending on the song.
To convert songs to the kalimba, we first need to figure out the notes that are used in the song. There are many ways to do this, some people simply listen to the song and work it out by ear. This is a great skill to practice and learn but for beginners, it will take some time to master.
Alternatively, we can use sheet music to get the notes.
Let’s use Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as an example. The sheet music for this song looks as follows:
If you’ve never seen sheet music before, you might be wondering what exactly you’re looking at here so let’s break it down.
Sheet music is read left to right and the notes to be played are the black and white circles with vertical lines. The vertical lines tell us how long each note is to be held for but we don’t need to worry about that too much just now.
As you can see, each circle sits either on a horizontal line or between two horizontal lines. This tells us which note to play. The notes are shown below for each circle’s position.
So, once we know the notes that are being played, it’s a simple process of switching it over to a kalimba tab! Just refer to the chart above if you get stuck.
Referring back to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, we have the following notes:
And just like that, we have our Twinkle Twinkle Little Star kalimba tab! It really is as simple as that!
Of course, you may come across much harder songs than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but the process is the same. Just take your time and work through it note by note and you’ll have no trouble!
If you want to search for sheet music for your favorite songs, musescore.com is an excellent resource.
It’s true that not every song will be possible to play with a kalimba, but in this article, we’ve learned that the vast majority can be played with some tweaking.
Tuning the kalimba to account for sharps and flats is a very viable option for many songs, but more complicated songs may be better suited to a chromatic kalimba which also has sharps and flats built-in.
An alternative method is to simply transpose the song to a new key. In some situations this can remove the sharp note, replacing it with a natural note, meaning there is no need to re-tune the kalimba.
Finally, we learned a simple method of reading sheet music to figure out the notes of a song and then transfer this over to a simple kalimba tab!