Woodblocks (The Complete Guide)

Woodblock instruments, percussion devices crafted from solid wood, have a diverse history spanning cultures and eras. Used in various musical genres and contexts, they offer a rich tapestry of sounds and cultural significance worth exploring. From the ceremonial rituals of ancient China to the folk music of medieval Europe and the symphonic compositions of the Baroque period, woodblock instruments have woven their percussive magic through the annals of time.

The history and origins of woodblocks

The history of woodblock instruments is a testament to their universal appeal, tracing back to ancient civilizations. These instruments, among the earliest percussion tools used by humans, hold a significant place in the cultural heritage of various societies. Evidence of wooden blocks being used as rhythmic instruments dates back thousands of years, with examples found in archaeological sites across the globe.

Woodblocks from China

In ancient China, woodblocks, known as "mu yu," were not just musical instruments but integral parts of ceremonial music and religious rituals. Carved from hardwood, they were played during important occasions such as sacrificial ceremonies, imperial processions, and temple rituals. The percussive sound produced by striking the wooden blocks was believed to have spiritual significance, symbolising the communication between humans and the divine.

Woodblocks from Africa

Similarly, in ancient Egypt, wooden clappers called "sistrums" were used in religious ceremonies dedicated to deities such as Hathor, the goddess of music and dance. These instruments were adorned with intricate designs and often featured metal jingles or rattles, adding to their ceremonial allure.

European Woodblocks

As civilizations progressed, woodblock instruments evolved and found their place in secular contexts. In medieval Europe, wooden clappers known as "claves" were used in folk music and dances, providing rhythmic accompaniment for festivities and celebrations. Over time, woodblocks underwent significant changes in design and construction, with craftsmen refining their techniques to create instruments of varying sizes and tonal qualities, marking a new era in their evolution.

During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, woodblocks found their way into orchestral music, where they were utilized by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to add color and texture to compositions. In the classical music tradition, woodblocks became standard percussion instruments in orchestras, contributing to the symphonic sound.

Modernised woodblocks

In the modern era, woodblock instruments continue to be used in a wide range of musical genres, from traditional folk music to contemporary pop and electronic music. Their distinctive sound and versatility make them valuable tools for composers, percussionists, and music producers.

What it was used for

With their rich history, Woodblock instruments have played a pivotal role in various cultures and time periods. In ancient civilizations such as China and Egypt, they were not just musical tools but held profound ceremonial and religious significance. They were a part of rituals, processions, and temple ceremonies; their percussive sound was believed to invoke deities or spirits and aid in cultural practices.

Woodblocks transitioned from their sacred roles to secular settings as societies progressed, becoming integral to musical performances and entertainment. In traditional folk music, they provided rhythmic accompaniment for dances and songs, infusing celebrations and gatherings with a lively and energetic element. In classical music, composers innovatively incorporated woodblocks into orchestral compositions, enhancing dynamics and creating unique sonic textures, showcasing their adaptability and versatility.

Woodblock instruments remain relevant in modern times, finding applications in education and music production. They serve as valuable tools for teaching rhythm, coordination, and musical expression in educational settings. In music production, woodblock sounds are often sampled and electronically manipulated, contributing to creating contemporary beats and electronic music tracks, thus showcasing their enduring adaptability.


Initially crafted from natural materials such as wood, these percussion instruments evolved into essential components of musical ensembles worldwide. They are typically made from hardwoods like maple or rosewood and produce distinct percussive tones when struck with a mallet or drumstick. Woodblocks come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from single blocks to intricate sets with multiple blocks.

Woodblocks in the musical scene

They are versatile instruments, finding their place in diverse musical genres, including classical, jazz, folk, and contemporary music. Today, woodblocks continue to play a vital role in traditional and modern music, adding rhythmic depth and texture to compositions across the globe.

Where to buy a woodblock?

large tulip tone block

Investing in woodblock instruments offers musicians versatility in creating rhythmic patterns and adding unique percussive textures to compositions. Their compact size and lightweight nature make them portable and convenient for performances in diverse settings. Check out our collection of Woodblock instruments here.

Woodblocks (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is a Woodblock?

It is a small percussion instrument made from a single piece of wood. Typically crafted from hardwood like teak, it creates distinctive sounds by striking it with a mallet.

What is the origin of the first Woodblock?

The Chinese woodblock, also known as "wooden fish," was first used by Buddhist priests for chanting. Shaped like a fish, it's hollow and made of wood. Fish were chosen because they're always awake, symbolizing hard work and dedication.

What are their usual dimensions?

Wood blocks are crafted by hand and come in sizes around 9 inches long, 4 inches wide, and 1.5 inches tall.

How do I maintain my Woodblock instrument?

Simply wipe with a clean and damp cloth.

What is the price range for a Woodblock instrument?

Depending on where you purchase and what type you want to buy, they usually range from about £20- £50 - The price is purely dependant on the pricing set by the manufacturer, other costs associated with producing the product whether handmade or factory made, the materials also affect the price with rare exotic woods being more expensive. Simple designs make the process cheaper whilst complex unusual designs typically cost more to develop and maintain. 

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