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Blocks of the Periodic Table

Vocabulary and organizational details associated with the periodic table

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Blocks of the Periodic Table

Music can be similar but unique, like elements

Credit: User:Szalax/Wikimedia Commons
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GretchenTheme.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

What makes these music notes unique?

We all enjoy music of some sort.  Some people like classical music, others like jazz or country. Music styles change from one period of time to the next, and from one region to another.  Each type of music has its language that describes it.  Classical music has a certain structure, style, and content.  There are different expressions of classical music – the symphony, concerto, sonata.  We have ballet and opera as well as choral music.  Jazz has a different set of characteristics from classical and different styles of performance.  Each type of music can be described and compared to other types on the basis of certain common qualities like notes, chords, and melodic styles.

The elements in the periodic table could be considered to be similar to types of music.  Each set of elements has its unique set of properties, with different sets of elements having some common characteristics in terms of electron arrangements.  We can see patterns of electronic structure and reactivity in the periodic table that allow us to understand better the behavior of individual elements.

Periods and Blocks

There are seven horizontal rows of the periodic table, called periods. The length of each period is determined by the number of electrons that are capable of occupying the sublevels that fill during that period, as seen in the Table below.

Period Length and Sublevels in the Periodic Table


Number of elements in period

Sublevels in order of fill






2s 2p



3s 3p



4s 3d 4p



5s 4d 5p



6s 4f 5d 6p



7s 5f 6d 7p

Recall that the four different sublevels each consist of a different number of orbitals. The s sublevel has one orbital, the p sublevel has three orbitals, the d sublevel has five orbitals, and the f sublevel has seven orbitals. In the first period, only the 1s sublevel is being filled. Since all orbitals can hold two electrons, the entire first period consists of just two elements. In the second period, the 2s sublevel, with two electrons, and the 2p sublevel with six electrons, are being filled. Consequently, the second period contains eight elements. The third period is similar to the second, filling the 3s and 3p sublevels. Notice that the 3d sublevel does not actually fill until after the 4s sublevel. This results in the fourth period containing 18 elements due to the additional 10 electrons that are contributed by the d sublevel. The fifth period is similar to the fourth. After the 6s sublevel fills, the 4f sublevel with its 14 electrons fills. This is followed by the 5d and the 6p. The total number of elements in the sixth period is 32. The later elements in the seventh period are still being created. So while there are a possible of 32 elements in the period, the current number is slightly less.

The period to which a given element belongs can easily be determined from its electron configuration. For example, consider the element nickel (Ni). Its electron configuration is [Ar]3d84s2.  The highest occupied principal energy level is the fourth, indicated by the 4 in the 4s2 portion of the configuration. Therefore, nickel can be found in the fourth period of the periodic table.

Based on electron configurations, the periodic table can be divided into blocks denoting which sublevel is in the process of being filled. The s, p, d, and f blocks are illustrated below.

s, p, d, f blocks in the periodic table

Credit: Christopher Auyeung and Joy Sheng
Source: CK-12 Foundation
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The figure also illustrates how the d sublevel is always one principal level behind the period in which that sublevel occurs. In other words, the 3d sublevel fills during the fourth period. The f sublevel is always two levels behind. The 4f sublevel belongs to the sixth period.


  • The horizontal rows of the periodic table are called periods.
  • The length of a period depends on how many electrons are needed to occupy the sublevels that fill the period.
  • Blocks indicate which sublevel is being filled.



Use the link below to answer the following questions:


  1. How many elements are in the second period? The fourth? The sixth?
  2. Use a periodic table to identify the block that each of these elements would be found.
    1. rubidium
    2. holmium
    3. palladium
    4. tellurium



  1. What are the horizontal rows of the periodic table called?
  2. Which sublevel is being filled in period 1?
  3. Which sublevel is being filled in period 7?
  4. How does the electron configuration of an element give information about the period it is in?
  5. What block of elements has the d sublevels being filled?

Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: User:Szalax/Wikimedia Commons; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GretchenTheme.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: Christopher Auyeung and Joy Sheng; Source: CK-12 Foundation; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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