What Are The Differences Between Glockenspiels & Wood Blocks?

The world of idiophone instruments is quite vast, and you'll be able to find instruments that are so dissimilar to each other that it's even doubted that they're part of the same family. In this instance, we'll look at two instruments that exemplify this: The glockenspiel and the wood blocks.

What are the differences between glockenspiel and wood blocks? Essentially, these would be the main differences.

  • Glockenspiels and wood blocks follow very dissimilar design concepts.
  • The glockenspiel is mainly a pitched percussion instrument, whereas the wood block is percussive at its core.
  • The wood blocks and glockenspiel have different use cases.

In this article, we'll elaborate on the contrasting elements between glockenspiel and wood blocks that were just described. Nevertheless, to do that, we would first need to determine how both instruments came to be.

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The Backgrounds Of Glockenspiels And Wood Blocks

Idiophone instruments are, quite possibly, the very first musical instruments ever conceived (after the human voice). “Idiophone” is a technical term that describes instruments that generate the bulk of their sound from their own build material without initially relying on other accessories or components.

Throughout history, an astounding number of instruments of this kind have been produced. The glockenspiel and the wood blocks are two examples of instruments that come from very different cultural backgrounds while still being pigeonholed within the same instrument class.

We'll proceed to evaluate each instrument's historical record separately:

The Background Of Wood Blocks

Wood blocks are said to have, as their remote ancestor, the Chinese “wooden fish”, which is still extant and heavily utilized in Tibetan rituals.

These “wooden fishes”, as the name suggests, are hollow wooden instruments shaped in the form of a fish. Many legends surround the wooden fish's origin, most of which are steeped in Buddhist lore.

Another theory posits that the modern wooden blocks were modelled after ancient African slit drums, which may explain the incision they sport on one of their sides.

That said, the wood block's exact origin is still not unequivocally determined.

The Background Of Glockenspiels

The earliest version of the glockenspiel emerged in Western Europe sometime after bells arrived on the continent. In a way, the development of the bell was key in creating the modern glockenspiel, to the point that it was originally a set of tuned bells arranged in an orderly fashion.

Over time, many modifications were made to the original glockenspiel. In the 16th century, keyboard-like layouts were installed onto the bells to facilitate playing. A century later, the underlying bells were replaced by metal bars similar to the ones witnessed on modern glockenspiel.

What Are The Differences Between Glockenspiels And Wood Blocks?

Now, we'll be unpacking the distinctions between glockenspiels and wood blocks that were outlined at the start of this article:

Difference 1: Design

First, I stated that:

Glockenspiels and wood blocks follow very dissimilar design concepts.”

The differences are readily visible upon the first examination. The glockenspiel is a pitched percussion instrument consisting of a set of metal bars distributed across two bar rows.

On the flip side, wood blocks are standalone slit drums that may or may not be arranged in groups of various sizes to produce assorted tones. However, the prospect of this arrangement reaching the same pitch range as the glockenspiel is highly impractical due to the individual wood blocks being larger than the metal bars on the mallet instrument.

The wood block's hollow body creates an inner chamber that enhances its resonance capacity. Additionally, the slit on the side behaves as a “sound hole”.

Other wood block design variants include the handheld T-bar blocks, which consist of two wooden cylinders of varying sizes (and, hence, different pitches) situated alongside each other and attached to a T-shaped handle.

On another note, we may find further distinctions in the instruments' materials, which will invariably alter their sound profile.

In the case of glockenspiels, the main resonant components are undoubtedly the metal bars at the top, which are struck with the mallet. These bars can be made of various types of metal, such as steel or aluminum. Some glockenspiels also come with a wooden box that acts as a resonating device.

The wood blocks, contrarily, are naturally made of various types of wood. Nonetheless, some wood blocks can be built with alternative synthetic materials such as plastic. These plastic variants are usually marketed as “jam blocks” or even “plastic cowbells” (though this is a misnomer).

Difference 2: Sound

Later on, I affirmed the following:

The glockenspiel is, mainly, a pitched percussion instrument, whereas the wood block is percussive at its core.”

It bears repeating that both the glockenspiel and the wood blocks are idiophone instruments (of the concussion variety), so the resonant material they're made of is heavily influential in the attributes of the soundwaves they generate.

Wood and metal both have very distinct properties and ways of transmitting vibration energy across their molecules. A wooden medium is known for dampening rather than boosting resonance. Meanwhile, being far more flexible and resilient, metal is prone to produce more aggressive vibrations upon applying a similar amount of force.

Taking these factors into consideration, it's easy to understand why the glockenspiel could deliver notes at a much higher frequency but, moreover, how it's also capable of engendering more audible pitches over the wood blocks, which conversely deliver drier staccatos with less emphasis on pitch and more on percussive effects.

Regardless, wood blocks can still render notes to some degree, and you may see arrangements similar to those of the glockenspiel or marimba.

Difference 3: Use Case

To conclude, I pointed out that:

The wood blocks and glockenspiel have different use cases.”

Owing to what was stated in the previous point, the glockenspiel has been given the role of a melodic (and even harmonic) instrument, much like the piano.

The wood blocks, contrarily, are rarely assigned to roles other than complementing or driving the rhythm section of an ensemble.

Read How Glockenspiels Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Wood Blocks Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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