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What Is The Ocarina?

Want to learn more about the ocarina? Read on, and we’ll take a look at this fascinating instrument, which is popular worldwide, thanks to its ease of use, portability, low cost and great sound.

Ocarina Guide: Contents:

1. Introduction
2. Ocarina History
3. Ocarina Types
4. How Does The Ocarina Work?
5. Learning To Play The Ocarina
6. Ocarina Music
7. Buying An Ocarina
8. Ocarina Care
9. Ocarina Resources

1. Introduction To The Ocarina

The ocarina is a type of vessel flute, and is available in different forms. It has a very clear, pure tone, which is kind of flute-like in quality, but the ocarina is quite distinct from conventional tubular flutes both in appearance and the way it produces sound. The instrument has a long history, and has become more well-known in recent years, thanks to Nintendo’s popular game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Let’s take a look at the ocarina in more detail.

2. Ocarina History

The ocarina is an extremely old instrument, and is believed to date back more than 12,000 years. Ocarina-style instruments have been developed in various cultures around the world, such as in India, where similar instruments made from terracotta (and often taking the form of birds and animals) were made around 6,000 years ago.

Chinese xun flute

Chinese Xun Flute | Photo: Badagnani

China is another country with a long musical history, which includes the development of an egg-shaped instrument called the xun, which is similar to many modern ocarinas in appearance. The ocarina also appeared in Native American cultures, and in the 16th century, the Aztecs brought the ocarina to Europe (the instrument also remains very popular in Central and South America today).

The ocarina subsequently gained popularity in European countries, although it was generally regarded as a toy. It also gained its current name, from the Italian word ‘ocarina’, which translates as ‘little goose’. Another instrument in the ocarina family that was in use around this time was the gemshorn, a German instrument made from animal horn that dates back to the 15th century.

The modern ocarina was developed in the 19th century, by Giuseppe Donati, in Budrio, Italy. His version played a larger range of more accurately pitched notes than the earlier types, and he transformed the ocarina from a novelty to a ‘real’ musical instrument. In subsequent years, these classical ocarinas were developed in a variety of sizes, and ocarina ensemble playing became popular.

Giuseppe Donati making an ocarina

Giuseppe Donati

Ocarinas were a hit among the general population, and soldiers played them to boost morale in both World Wars. Although originally made from clay, metal and plastic ocarinas were later developed, with the latter (Bakelite) originating in the US. In the 1960s, the renewed interest in folk music led to a simultaneous growth in the ocarina’s popularity.

Ocarina makers have continued to develop new ocarina designs; unlike many other instruments, the ocarina takes a wide variety of forms. For example, although the traditional Italian-style ocarinas are ‘sweet potato’-shaped (and this is the most well-known design), the English ocarina, which was invented in the 1960s, is more of an egg shape, with four holes. Other ocarinas look like animals, echoing the very early ocarinas of thousands of years ago.

Today, the ocarina is widely played, even by those who don’t consider themselves musicians, and is also used in different styles of recorded music, including pop music. And as mentioned earlier, the Zelda games have raised the ocarina’s profile among people all over the world.

You can read about the ocarina’s history in more detail here.

3. Ocarina Types

Ocarinas may be classified by size (and thus pitch), shape and/or the materials from which they’re made.

a) Size, Holes & Pitch

Ocarinas come in a range of sizes, from tiny sopranino instruments to large basses. The higher pitched ocarinas are naturally smaller in size, and are often less expensive as a result.

Ocarinas are often pitched in a particular key; thus you’ll find ‘G ocarinas’, ‘D ocarinas’ etc. This means that the ocarina has been tuned to that particular key, and will play the notes of that key accurately (chromatic ocarinas will play all the sharps and flats within the instrument’s range too). The lowest note will generally be one note lower than the root of the scale. Many single ocarinas only have a range of an octave, although this is often extended slightly to a 12th by the addition of extra thumb holes on the back of the instrument. Double ocarinas offer about two octaves, and triple ocarinas even more. Note that not all ocarinas are tuned to concert pitch; if you’re interested in playing with other people, this is something to check before you buy.

Ocarinas also have a varying number of holes, usually from 4 to 12. Donati’s original ocarinas had 10 holes, whereas the first English pendant ocarinas followed a four hole system. Different finger patterns may needed for different hole configurations. Generally speaking, the fewer the holes, the more tricky the instrument will be to play, particularly if you want to play fast music.

b) Shape

Ocarinas are commonly found in transverse (sweet potato) or pendant and inline styles.

Transverse Ocarinas

Transverse ocarinas are the most easily recognisable type. It was this style that was made by Donati, and for this reason they’re sometimes known as Italian ocarinas. They also featured in the Ocarina of Time game, and when people talk about ‘Zelda ocarinas’, this is the type they mean. In fact, transverse ocarinas are so well known that when most people think of ocarinas, they tend to picture one of this style. They’re also known as sweet potato ocarinas, since they have that tapered oval kind of shape you often see in sweet potatoes.

Zelda ocarina from STL ocarina

12 Hole Zelda Ocarina, available from Amazon

Transverse ocarinas are relatively easy to play, as they have two rows of holes in the body that are fingered in the same pattern as other wind instruments – i.e., you normally raise and lower the fingers in sequence to ascend and descend in pitch. These ocarinas often have either 10 or 12 holes. Air is blown into the instrument from a mouthpiece which sticks out from the body at an angle, and the ocarina itself is held in a horizontal position to one side of the head with both hands while playing. One downside of transverse ocarinas is that holding the arms out to the side of the head can become uncomfortable after playing for a long period.

Pendant & Inline Ocarinas

Unlike the transverse ocarina, which is played to the side like a flute, pendant and inline ocarinas are held centrally and pointing downwards slightly, like a recorder or clarinet. Unlike with these instruments though, the hands are normally held opposite each other when playing an inline or pendant ocarina, rather than one below the other.

The ‘pendant’ ocarina often has a somewhat globular design that’s reminiscent of the ancient Chinese xun flute. As the name suggests, they’re often attached to a cord, and may be worn as a pendant around the neck. Some pendant ocarinas come in cute shapes or have pretty painted designs, and are decorative as well as functional. There are two common types of pendant ocarina: English and Peruvian.

English pendant ocarinas
ocarina by John LangleyEnglish pendant ocarinas generally have four or six holes, and use a different fingering system than the transverse type (one that’s less intuitive, although easy enough to master with a bit of practice). Like their sweet potato cousins, they come in various sizes, from tiny sopranos to large bass ocarinas that you’re not likely to want to wear around your neck for long! Pictured left is my own ceramic pendant alto ocarina, designed by John Langley and bought from the Ocarina Workshop. I can recommend checking out these sites if you’re looking for a high quality English ocarina.

Peruvian pendant ocarinas
Peruvian pendant ocarinas differ from the English variety in that they have more holes – usually 8 or 9. They often have very attractive hand-painted designs in bright colours, but many Peruvian ocarinas tend to look better than they sound, and may have a limited range and poor tuning. So if you want an ocarina that you can actually play and sound good on, this is something to check before buying.

‘Hybrid’ inline ocarinas
You can also get inline ocarinas with a more elongated shape that are different to English ocarinas both in appearance and playing technique. They look more like whistles, but with the holes are arranged in two vertical rows, one on each side of the instrument. These ocarinas are usually compact in size, and are easier to play than English pendant ocarinas, since the fingering follows a linear pattern. In this way they combine the central playing position of pendant ocarinas with the linear fingering pattern of transverse ocarinas, making them a comfortable and relatively easy type of ocarina to play.

Other ocarina variations

Although the above varieties are the most common types of ocarina, they’re not the only ones. Other variations include:

Double and triple ocarinas – these are more complex instruments, with two and three chambers respectively. The advantage of these is that they let you play a larger range of notes than normal single ocarinas, and their ranges extend over two octaves, in comparison to the roughly one octave range of most ocarinas. Some are designed as harmonic instruments, and will allow you to play chords. These multi-chambered ocarinas are available in transverse and pendant styles. You can even get a quadruple ocarina with four chambers, although these aren’t common.

double ocarina by STL Ocarina

Double Ocarina by STL Ocarina, available from Amazon

Keyed ocarinas – on rare occasions ocarinas may have keys; these are used to make playing more comfortable and to expand the instrument’s range. However, this isn’t the norm for ocarinas. A few ocarinas also feature a plunger, which alters the pitch by increasing or decreasing the size of the interior cavity.

Novelty ocarinas – you can also get instruments shaped like animals, fruits, teacups and just about anything else. You can even make ocarinas out of carrots and other vegetables! These novelty instruments aren’t usually intended for serious musical use however.

c) Materials

Ocarinas are usually made from ceramic, plastic, metal or wood, although other materials can be used. The type of material used will affect the tonal quality of the ocarina, as well as its price.

Ceramic (clay) ocarinas are the most common kind, and this is the material they were traditionally made from before modern times. Clay is also popular among people who like to make their own ocarinas, as it’s easy to work with. It is breakable however, so ceramic ocarinas must be treated with care.

plastic sweet potato ocarina

Plastic Ocarina, available from Amazon

Plastic ocarinas are inexpensive and can sound surprisingly good. They are also durable and relatively light weight. When buying a plastic ocarina, remember that the quality can vary dramatically depending on the manufacturer and type of plastic used, so look for a brand with a good reputation.

Wood ocarinas are less common, perhaps because they’re more difficult to construct. However, they can sound and look very pleasing.

Ocarinas can also be made of various metals, including aluminium, brass, silver and others. Metal can be more temperature-sensitive than other materials, leaving these ocarinas prone to tuning issues in cold weather. On the other hand, they’re usually sturdy, and can sound great.

4. How Does The Ocarina Work?

The ocarina’s sound is the result of the air contained in the instrument’s hollow body being set into motion by air blown through the mouthpiece. As you blow into the instrument through the fipple mouthpiece, the internal air pressure increases, causing some to escape through the holes (any open finger holes and the ocarina’s sound hole), which in turn leads to a small vacuum being created inside. This then draws some of the air back into the instrument. This ‘in-out’ cycle repeats, producing a sound, where the pitch of the sound depends on the frequency with which the air is entering and leaving the holes. This frequency can be adjusted by covering and uncovering the holes. Uncovering more holes produces a higher pitched sound, because more open holes means the air enters and leaves the instrument more quickly. Air will also move in and out of smaller-bodied ocarinas more quickly, therefore they have a higher overall pitch.

The ocarina is an example of a Helmholtz resonator, in which sound is created by air entering and leaving holes in a cavity, causing changes in the air pressure. It differs from more conventional wind instruments such as the flute, in that the sound is not produced by a vibrating air column of a specific length; instead it’s the whole volume of air in the instrument chamber that vibrates. It also doesn’t matter where the finger holes are placed; it’s the volume of the resonant cavity relative to the area of the open holes that determines the pitch – so hole size is a more important factor than placement with ocarinas.

Ocarinas produce relatively few overtones, which is why they have such a ‘pure’ sound. However, this is also the reason why ocarinas have a limited range compared to instruments that utilise an air column – the lack of harmonics close to the fundamental means that the player can’t produce higher register notes by overblowing.

The exact notes that an ocarina can play will depend on its size, and whether it is diatonic or chromatic. Diatonic ocarinas can only play notes within a particular key (although semitones might be produced by covering half of the hole – this can be awkward though, and doesn’t always sound good), whereas a chromatic instrument can play all the sharps and flats in between the scale notes as well, making it more versatile.

5. Learning To Play The Ocarina

The ocarina is less difficult to learn than many instruments, although as with anything, it takes considerable practice to reach a very high standard. However, the ocarina is easy enough that a beginner can learn to play simple tunes very quickly, which can be great for keeping your interest and motivation up. For this reason the ocarina is an ideal starter instrument for those without musical experience, while also being easy to pick up by those who already play other instruments.

While you might find the very occasional ocarina teacher, and some schools teach children to play (in much the same way as kids often learn the recorder at school), most ocarina players are self-taught. Once you’ve mastered the basic notes, it should be easy to pick up tunes by ear (and if it’s not easy, you should practice – playing by ear is a great skill to have, and gets simpler the more you do it). You can also get ocarina music from many music shops, as well as online.

Different notes are produced by covering and uncovering different holes on the instrument – this is called ‘fingering’.

One thing to be aware of is that different types of ocarina have different fingering patterns, as mentioned earlier. So if you’re used to playing on a 12 hole transverse ocarina, for example, you’ll have to learn new fingerings if you move over to a 6 hole English ocarina. Generally, ocarinas with fewer holes have more complex patterns and are harder to learn (this is something to keep in mind if you want to play fast or intricate music).

Many ocarinas will come with a leaflet showing the fingering required for that particular instrument. You can also get books that show you how to play, such as this one (for English ocarinas) which I used myself when learning.

And of course there are websites which provide fingering charts and other instructions, as well as videos on sites like YouTube.

6. Ocarina Music

Ocarina music often consists of folk tunes, adaptations of well-known themes from classical and popular music, and sometimes music written especially for the instrument itself. You can also get music for ocarina ensembles. Due to the ocarina’s limited range, transposition is sometimes necessary when playing with other instruments.

Ocarina music is often notated using traditional notation – if you don’t already read music, it’s a great idea to learn, as this will open up your options a lot, and it really isn’t difficult!

You can also get ocarina tabs. These either have diagrams showing the holes you need to cover, or they use a numbering system, where different numbers are used to represent different notes. Some ocarina music will combine tabs with traditional notation; this can be a good way to learn to read music, as learning notation at the same time as learning an instrument can help to make the process easier, since the information is then less abstract and more hands-on.

Ocarina music is available from some music stores, but the best range can be found online. A quick Google search will reveal various sites offering both paid for and free ocarina music (such as this one which has 4-hole ocarina tablature for many well-known traditional tunes). And don’t forget stores such as Amazon, which offer a selection of ocarina music in book form.

7. Buying An Ocarina

So, you want to learn to play, and it’s time to get an ocarina of your own. You can read more about what to look for when you buy an ocarina here [link-coming soon] but briefly, you’ll need to think about:

  • Shape – transverse, pendant or inline ocarina?
  • Instrument size
  • Materials

There’s no right or wrong here – the type you get will depend on your personal preferences. But generally speaking, transverse or ‘hybrid’ inline ocarinas are easiest to learn for most people, and an alto or tenor instrument that isn’t extremely high or low in pitch tends to be the most versatile. As for materials, I particularly like the sound of ceramic (clay) ocarinas, but you might want to have a listen to different types before making your choice (if you can’t try them out in person, there are plenty of sound clips online – check YouTube, manufacturer sites etc.).

Price is another thing to consider; ocarinas are relatively inexpensive compared to most musical instruments, and you can get one for around £10, although larger instruments, those with more complex designs, and those made from more ‘difficult’ materials such as metal and wood can cost quite a lot more.

Don’t worry about getting the ‘perfect’ ocarina right away though; if you’re like many people, you’ll get the ocarina bug and then gradually amass quite a collection as time goes on!

8. Ocarina Care

Whichever type of ocarina you get, it’s important to keep it clean if it’s to sound its best. The ocarina is very low maintenance compared to lots of other instruments, but can still benefit from having the airway cleaned periodically (a thin sliver of paper can be used to dislodge any gunk). The finger holes can be cleaned with a cotton bud, and the surface wiped clean of greasy finger marks. It also helps not to eat or to drink immediately before playing. Ceramic ocarinas should be protected against bumps and being dropped.

9. More Ocarina Resources

There’s lots of ocarina info on the web, as well as community forums and places to buy ocarinas, music and accessories. Here are a few good sites to begin with:

Ocarina Sellers

Songbird Ocarinas(transverse and pendant ocarinas)
STL Ocarina(transverse, pendant, other ocarina shapes)
http://www.ocarina.co.uk/ (English pendant ocarinas)
http://www.mountainsocarina.com/ (inline ocarinas – also, here is an in-depth interview with founder Karl Ahrens)
http://hindocarina.com/ (transverse & inline ocarinas)

See a list of more places to buy an ocarina.

Ocarina Forums


Ocarinas on eBay

Sites such as Amazon and eBay can also be a great source of bargain ocarinas – just remember to look for those that are actually designed to be played as musical instruments, rather than decorative novelties!

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