temple blocks

Also:       Chinese temple blocks      Korean temple blocks      blocci di legno      

Title: temple blocks demo; David Miller, percussionist. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

The temple blocks is a set of struck open-vessel idiophones inspired by East Asian ‘slit drums’ (called ‘muyu’ in Mandarin) but that have subsequently become an auxiliary band, orchestra and percussion ensemble instrument. In the cosmopolitan musical world these sets of relatively-tuned percussion vessels are sometimes referred to as ‘Chinese temple blocks’ or ‘Korean temple blocks.’ Any trained percussionist is expected to be able to perform this instrument, which has no solo repertoire associated with it. Temple blocks are often, but not always, used associatively in orchestral and band scores to reference East Asian music or the sound of a galloping horse.


This particular model of temple blocks consists of five hollow rectangular-cube shaped vessels constructed from laminated wood. One end of each vessel is left open, and it is the rim of this opening as well as the block’s top-facing side that is struck with a pair of handheld beaters. The five sounding units are graduated in size, the largest producing the lowest sound, the smallest the highest. The internal space of each vessel serves as a resonating chamber. The vessels are mounted on a horizontal beam that is in turn attached to the top of a metal stand. They are in essence externally-struck wooden bells rather than ‘slit drums,’ which their Asian antecedents (Chinese muyu) are. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A standing player faces the open ends of the row of vessels. Using a pair of beaters (usually either snare drum sticks or, as pictured here, sticks with hard ball ends), one held in each hand, the performer strikes the blocks on their top surface or rims to produce a bright, penetrating sound.


As mentioned above, temple blocks are derived from East Asian Buddhist ritual ‘slit drums’ called, in China, muyu. A single muyu is made from an approximately spherical block of wood that is hollowed out though a slit cut into one side. The exterior surface of the block is carved and painted to look like a stylized fish. Such blocks fell into the hands of early jazz drummers who incorporated them in their drum sets (interestingly, the toms of the modern drum set also originated in appropriated Chinese instruments).  Orchestral composers might have first heard this instrument in its jazz setting before they started to sparingly ask for it in their own compositions. By the middle of the 20th century a set of four or five muyu in graduated size and pitch was to be found in the percussion battery of most orchestras and bands. Sometime in the latter half of the 20th century Western manufacturers of percussion instruments began experimenting with new designs for temple blocks, which resulted in the manufacture of such versions as the set pictured and described on this page. 

Bibliographic Citations

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “Woodblock.” NGDMI v.3: 861.

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.242.221 idiophone--set of suspended bells struck from the outside

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: hollow boxlike vessel - with opening/s

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - various types

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: relative pitch

Sound modification: none


23.5 in. wide

Primary Materials

wood - laminated



Entry Author

Roger Vetter