Playing the ocarina in tune - ocarina intonation

The ocarinas pitch is quite unstable, it can be bent up or down by several semitones through changes in breath pressure. The easiest way to hear your intonation is to play with accompaniment. A simple option is to play against a drone. For your convenience I've provided one below. The remainder of the page explains how to use it.

Tuning the drone

So that people can play together musical instruments are tuned to a standard called concert pitch. Ocarinas are no exception but there is a catch; there absolute pitch is temperature sensitive. Pure ocarinas are tuned at 20C for instance.

As the ocarinas pitch is sensitive to pressure changes you can compensate for ambient tempriture by raising or lowering your breath. However the high notes are far less sensitive to this than the low notes. If you play in a very cold environment the high notes will squeak before you can push them into concert pitch.

When you are playing by yourself it does not matter if your pitch deviates from concert. As long as every note is off by the same amount you will be in tune with yourself. The drone must be tuned to match.

The easiest way to measure the absolute pitch of an ocarina is to use a chromatic tuner. A tool which listens to the note you are playing and displays it's note letter. The interface of a chromatic tuner looks like this:

When the needle is centered in the display the pitch of the note matches concert pitch. If the needle is to the right, the pitch is said to be sharp. If it is to the left the pitch is considered 'flat'.

The space between two semitones is divided into 100 units called 'cents'. The notes F and F sharp are 100 cents apart. If a note is 50 cents sharp, it is half way between two semitones.

Tuners do not number cents linearly from the low note to high note. Cents are numbered relative to a note plus and minus 50. If you where to play an F then gradually raised the pitch once the tuner passes F + 50 cents, it 'rolls over' to F sharp minus 49 cents.

Two kinds of chromatic tuner exist, dedicated hardware tuners and software tuners. I find software tuners preferable as they have a considerably faster update rate.

I like APTuner as it has a clear numeric cents display which is easy to read. The PC version has no needle damping and it can be disabled in the mobile versions. This is a 'feature' that averages pitch over time to smooth fluctuations. While needle damping is useful for tuning string instruments it's undesirable for wind instruments as it hides fluctuations in breath pressure. In short it will not show you what is actually happening.

It is best to check one of the highest notes as they are the least sensitive to blowing pressure. If you are playing an ocarina in C play the high E or F. If you blow too softly, the note will sound weak and airy. If you blow too hard it will also become airy sounding and will squeal if pushed too far.

Vary your breath up and down to find a point where the note has the cleanest sound. Take notice of how many cents it is flat or sharp on the tuner. Adjust the drones 'pitch' slider to match. The absolute value in cents is shown below the slider.

Using the drone and what to listen for

The simplest way to use a drone is to play in unison with it. For instance playing the note C over a C drone.

The following tool simulates what you will hear. Whenever your pitch is flat or sharp (slider dragged right or left) you will hear a rhythmic warble. The speed will increase as you go further from the desired pitch and will show down as you get closer to being in tune. When your pitch and the drone match perfectly the warble goes away and the drone almost vanishes.

Try playing long tones against the drone and pay attention to these changes. At first choose one of the ocarinas higher notes and set the drone to match. On an ocarina in C you could work on the high D or E. Set the octave to 5 or 6 for an alto C ocarina.

Play a single note for a whole breath. Start the note cleanly using the tung. Hold for as long as you can without straining then stop it using the tung. As you do so listen for any warble created by the drone and raise or lower your breath to get rid of it. To begin with you may find it useful to have a tuner visible as well. Use it to give yourself a hint if need be but focus on listening.

Repeat this 10 to 20 times. As you are able to hold the high notes stable you can work on lower ones. They become increasingly unstable but don't get frustrated or try to rush through it. If you feel yourself getting frustrated stop and come back to it. Practice in short sessions. Also sleep is essential for learning. If you come back to it the next day you'll find it's magically become easier.

Side Note

Using the correct breath technique will make this exercise considerably easier. Center your breathing on the lower chest so that your belly is going in and out instead of your shoulders raising and lowering. While you do so lightly engage the muscles of the chest to draw the belly towards the spine. This creates support in the chest cavity and allows you to exhale in a slow and controlled way.

Practice exhaling slowly through your ocarina aiming to hold the pitch stable. Another exercise is to hold your mouth and airway completely open. Take a deep inhalation then let it out through the mouth as slowly as you can. This requires more control as there is no back pressure for you to work against.

This technique is called 'diaphragmatic breathing' or 'belly breathing' and a search for either of those terms will give a lot of results if you want more detail.

Playing tunes to a drone

Instead of setting the drone to match the pitch of the note you are playing it's pitch can be left constant. Every interval has a unique sound and the drone gives you a point of reference.

You may use the tool below to get an idea what this sounds like. It sounds a constant drone of 'C' in the background. You can change the note played over it by selecting from the note list. Notice that some notes are easier to hear than others. The note G is quite easy to hear when it is in tune.

The note of the drone should be set to the key note of the tune you are playing. It does matter if you are playing in a major or minor key. While G major and E minor both contain the same notes, a tune will be written to highlight a different note as a focal point. G major is centered around G. E minor will center around E. This is a good explanation of the difference.

Because the key of a tune is it's focal point music usually resolves to it. Consequently the key of the tune is usually the last note in a melody.

The octave of the drone can be set to match the tonic note, or an octave lower than it. For example if you are playing a tune in C on an alto C ocarina, and the tune resolves to the instruments low C, you should set the drone to octave 4 or 5.

You can start to apply this to some of the music you know. Pick a simple tune and play through it slowly tonguing every note. Pay attention to how the different intervals sound against the drone when they are and are not in tune. You may find it helpful to have a tuner visible at first.

As you work on this you will notice a few intervals that frequently land flat or sharp. Take note of these and practice them in isolation. Play the interval repeatedly and consciously alter your breath to correct it. Over time you will learn how much you need to change your breath for each interval and it will become automatic. You will also begin to learn how the intervals should sound, a skill called relative pitch. You'll be able to hear off notes and adapt dynamically even without a drone.

Equal temperament vs just intonation

The most common tuning system used in music is Equal Temperament. This system is convenient as it allows scales to be built from all of the 12 chromatic pitches. However it isn't perfect as most intervals are a few cents out of tune.

Using the above tool this can be heard clearly in the fifth (G). If you set the slider 2 cents sharp the slow warble will go away. This perfect system is called Just Intonation. The difference between just intonation an equal temperament is small, most are within plus/minus 10 cents. These slight errors are not obvious to the human ear in real life.

As you are playing against a drone you may gravitate towards just intonation. Don't be surprised if a note sounds fine to your ear when a tuner says it's a few cents flat or sharp. Ocarinas are usually tuned for equal temperament but it's easy to make the small change needed with breath pressure.

Real world accompaniment

The timbre of your accompaniment affects how easy it is to hear your intonation. It is easiest to hear when both have a similar tone. As the ocarina has a pure tune it is easiest to hear intonation against pure toned accompaniment.

When you start to play with other instruments in the real world your intonation will not be so obvious. In particular the prominent warble will be subtle or absent. For example in the following example it's possible to hear the warble:

In this example the pitch change still exist by there is almost no warble at all:

It is still possible to hear the shift of intonation though it's more subtle. To play with other people you have to learn to hear these more subtle changes. They better reflect what you will hear when playing with other musicians in reality.

Keyboard, piano and guitar make effective accompaniment. Keyboard is a great practice tool as the timbre can be changed to make your intonation easier or more difficult to hear. I don't recommend playing with other ocarinas unless at least one of the players is experienced. If everyones pitch is varying arbitrarily there will be no stable point of reference.

Going forward

Over time you will develop a sense of relative pitch. This will enable you to hear mistakes without a reference.

It is perfectly fine to work on your intonation by playing tunes. However it is possible to train yourself to know every interval using technical exercises. The simplest being a scale. You can find a complete list of interval exercises on this page: Diatonic intervals for ocarina

X: 1
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: C
G A B c | d e f e | d c B A | G F E D | C D E F | G4 |

Once you develop a solid understanding of intonation you can experiment with varying it. Playing slightly flat gives a note some emphasis and gives it a darker feel. Playing a note slightly sharp makes it sound brighter. The important thing is this must be deliberate and under control. It's no good having your pitch sliding all over the place.

It is not possible to create expression with volume dynamics on the ocarina. Attempting to do so just causes your intonation to wander arbitrarily. It is easy to end up playing a bunch of notes that don't even fit in a single key.


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