Musical Go boards

Fun & Games Music
Musical Go boards


Some years ago, a conversation with my old friend Billy Baque turned to the subject of adapting board games for sightless play. When it came round to Go, Billy mentioned having read of an antique Korean board, hollow inside and strung with wires along the lines of the grid, the wires being tuned such that each intersection produced a unique musical interval when a stone was placed upon it. Whether this was simply an aesthetic embellishment or a means to make the game more accessible to sightless players, he did not know.

I was fascinated, and made every effort to run down Billy’s original reference, which I eventually determined was R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations, Revised Edition. From p.100:

Traditional Japanese boards are made of a solid block of wood about eighteen inches long and sixteen broad, and some five inches thick, fitted with four detachable feet about three inches high. The board and feet are stained yellow. A square depression is cut into the underside of the board to lighten it, and also to increase its resonance; the pieces making a pleasant click when placed upon it. The Koreans have gone a stage further and some of their boards have wires stretched beneath to produce a musical note when the stones are played.

A musical note” tends to suggest that the board as a whole played a single tone, interval, or chord, rather than a unique tone or interval for each playing position. Still, it seemed worthwhile to try to run down Bell’s original reference, which, thanks to his meticulous bibliography, I eventually found was Stewart Culin’s 1895 Korean Games with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan, which is out of copyright and available in its entirety on Google Books. From p. 91:

The Korean board, pa tok hpan, differs from that of Japan, in being made in the form of a small hollow table, while the Japanese board consists of a solid block of wood. The Korean board is resonant and by an arrangement of wires stretched within emits a musical note when a piece is played. A specimen in the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania (Fig. 96) is eleven inches high and about sixteen inches square.

Again, “a musical note,” but the language in both cases is ambiguous.

Culin’s Figure 96 is reproduced at the top of this post. I’ve contacted The Penn Museum to see if collection number 16,431 still exists and/or if they have any record of it. I was hoping, at least, to show you all a photograph. Can’t seem to get anyone to respond, however. If anyone has any information about this artifact or about musical go boards in general, I would love to have it. Please drop us all a comment or e-mail me directly.

10 thoughts on “Musical Go boards

  1. Agronski says:

    I would be fantastically impressed if a blind person could keep the state of an entire go board in their head – not to mention “reading out” the next possible plays. A goban is a 19×19 grid, and games usually last at least 200 moves – that’s a lot of grid to memorize.

    Also, doesn’t look like there’s no provision to “play back” the notes to detect which intersections are occupied, so it’s the goban equivalent of one-time-programmable ROM.

    I’d be interested to know if there are any blind Go players – I can see, and I still can’t play well.

  2. dada says:

    John Cage and Marcel Duchamp played chess.

    The board was wired as an audio mixer that turned on/off the outputs of musicians playing live.

    Maybe something like that would work… more wires for go, though.

  3. E says:

    I’d like to see a game of Go played on something like a Tenori-On or Monome.
    As the pieces are placed the composition would change, it would be interesting to see if the players would play a more musically pleasing game rather than a strategically sound game. Or would the nice sounding game be a game with perfect strategy?

  4. ramriot says:

    Try the British Museum,

    They have a very similar hollow Go board on display in the Korean wing. It caught to my attention on a previous visit because the arrangement of stones forming the game was one that cannot occur in any game unless both players are idiots.


  5. Linus says:

    Blind go can be an entertaining exercise for advanced players. One player, generally the stronger of the two, is facing away from the board. While it would be very difficult to remember 200 arbitrary moves, most of them will be logical responses to recent moves, and the high-level development of the game isn’t too hard to keep track of. One slip-up, though, and the game is lost.

  6. nick normal says:


    I got this response from Penn:

    “Board 16431A is listed as not accounted for in the museum inventory since 1936.

    It is possible that it was returned to the R. S. Culin (the Collector/Museum Director) when he left the Museum in 1904.

    Culin retained ownership of many of the Games/Toys that he collected while at the museum.

    Unfortunately, documentation for the recall of the Culin material is lacking.”

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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