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Title: demo: wood block; David Miller, percussion. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

The woodblock is a struck hollowed-block idiophone, basically a diminutive ‘slit drum,' used both as an auxiliary percussion instrument in Western concert music (called for occasionally in orchestral, band, and percussion ensemble works) and in Latin American dance bands. No special training is needed to play this instrument, and no solo repertoire exists for it.


The woodblock is basically an oblong-shaped block of heavy hardwood (such as teak) partially hollowed out through a slit on one of its longitudinal sides (see the block on the left side of the gallery image). In recent years woodblocks have also been made from molded high-density plastic (gallery image, right side). The interior cavity of the instrument serves as a resonating space. Woodblocks are made in varying sizes and tuned relatively, i.e., they are not of definite pitch but if one woodblock is heard in relation to another of different size, the larger one will sound lower in pitch relative to the smaller one.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Woodblocks can be handheld, rest on a padded flat surface, or mounted on a stand (see detail image, where a woodblock and two cowbells are mounted above a set of timbales, all played by a single musician). They are typically struck with one or two wood sticks or, as pictured, with hard-tipped mallets. A resonant and penetrating sound is produced.  


Blades (1970) traces the origins of the woodblock used in Western concert music traditions to Chinese ‘slit drums’ that he identifies as t’ak (or pang-tzu) and kuan-tun-pa (p. 116). Jones uses bangzi (perhaps the same as Blades’ pang-tzu but in a more recent orthography) as a generic term for Chinese woodblocks. None of our sources explain how the cultural leap of this instrument from its Chinese context to its Western ones was made, but perhaps, as was the case with drum set toms and temple blocks, early 20th century jazz and vaudeville drummers were the facilitators. Just how and when the addition of the woodblock to the timbales took place is no more clear, but, given that available sources from the 1970s and 80s make no mention of their use and picture timbales without an added-on woodblock, it seems possible that this took place in the late 20th century (cowbells were added to the timbales setup as early as the 1910s).

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.

Jones, Stephen. 1995. Folk Music of China: Living Instrumental Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.243 idiophone--slit drum

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: block - with hollowed out deep cavity

Sound objects per instrument: one

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: indefinite pitch

Sound modification: none


9.1 in. length (wooden woodblock) 6.3 in. length (plastic woodblock)

Primary Materials



Vaughncraft (wooden) Latin Percussion (plastic)


W-4 (wooden)

Entry Author

Roger Vetter