Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 4 Research, Part 1: Woodblocks

Like temple blocks, in form, a woodblock (Fig. 1) is a diminutive slit drum, and as Kalani mentions, being essentially a found instrument (meaning in nature), it is perhaps one of the oldest instruments and a staple instrument in many cultures around the world.


Fig. 1. Woodblock

The basic sound of woodblock hasn’t changed over the years: they have a short decay of sound, which produces a dry, brittle and penetrating tone, but much sharper than that of a temple block. Blades traces the origin of the woodblock used in Western orchestras to the Chinese high-pitched slit drum – Bangzi (Fig. 2) and the descriptions and illustration by Yung () also confirms this. However, none of the sources explain how the cultural leap of this instrument, from its Chinese context to its Western one, was made. (Grinnelli College Musical Instrument Collection: 2016)


Fig. 2. Rectangular woodblock

As seen in Yung’s illustration (Fig. 2) and description, Bangzi, also the Western woodblock (Fig. 1), is a large woodblock, rectangular in shape with a deep narrow slit underneath the top surface and a similar slit in the underside. In Chinese ensembles, there are another two – medium and small woodblocks. Medium is called duk and small is called dik. These names are onomatopoeic, romanized according to the Cantonese pronunciation, since they have no written characters to represent them. Both of them are roughly trapezoidal in shape. (Fig. 3) Note that, in the West, there is also a small version of woodblock, called piccolo woodblock, but based on the rectangular bangzi. (Solomon, 2002:173)



Fig. 3. Trapezoidal woodblock

All three versions are used in the Cantonese opera, producing pitch levels unique to their sizes. They are played by the same musician, with instruments specifically arranged. (Fig. 4) It was exciting to find out that the woodblock player is actually the most important instrumentalist in the ensemble. By beating the woodblocks, percussionist controls the tempo of the accompaniment to the singing passages and dramatic moments, accenting the important words and phrases. By means of signals given with the hands and bamboo sticks, other percussionists know what percussion pattern to play and how to play it. Woodblock player directs all, hence is the only musician that must know every detail of the whole opera. Beijing opera, on the other hand, uses drums and clappers.


Fig. 4. Arrangement of the woodblocks in Cantonese opera

In Western orchestra, due to its lack of sustaining power, woodblock is primarily used as an instrument for delineating attacks, to accentuate phrases or bring out other instruments by matching their patterns. It can produce very loud sounds, and the pitch and tone can be varied by striking wood block at different points, by changing mallets and by distortion of its shape using hand pressure. Woodblocks have a somewhat clear pitch, which is why there are even chromatic sets produced. Despite that, many describe woodblock sounds to be more like an indefinite-pitched xylophone, therefore it’s no surprise that some companies also produce woodblock-xylophones. As I mentioned in my previous research, it’s not an uncommon practice in Western music, to combine woodblocks with temple blocks.

My second choice of instrument led me to another region of Far East – Japan. See my next post for this.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Woodblock

Fig. 2. Rectangular woodblock

Fig. 3. Trapezoidal woodblock

Fig. 4. Arrangement of the woodblocks in Cantonese opera


Kalani (2004) Together in Rhythm: A Facilitator’s Guide to Drum Circle Music. Los Angeles: Alfred Music Publishing

Solomon, Samuel Z. (2016) How to Write for Percussion: Comprehensive Guide to Percussion Composition. Oxford University Press

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