Playing the ocarina in tune - ocarina intonation

The ocarina's pitch is quite unstable. It can be bent up or down by several semitones through changes in breath pressure. You must compensate for this by developing a skill called relative pitch. The easiest way to hear your intonation is to play with accompaniment. Any accompaniment will work, but you won't always be able to practice with other musicians. 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.

When working on your intonation, don't push speed. It's easy for your finger skills to be beyond your ability to play in tune, especially if you've ignored or been unaware of your intonation. It is important to practise this slowly and focus on accuracy; speed will come with time. As you play, your mind will start to memorise the sounds of the notes that you hear, and you want these to be correct. The human mind can instinctively know an error yet be unable to correct it. An easy example is drawing: you can draw a person, and the mind immediately knows if there is something wrong, but you may not know why. Relative pitch is learning this 'why'.

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; their absolute pitch is temperature sensitive. Pure ocarinas are tuned at 20°C for instance.

Every note on an ocarina requires a different blowing pressure to play in tune, and this pressure varies with the ambient temperature. As the ocarina's pitch is sensitive to pressure, you can compensate for this by raising or lowering your breath. However, the high notes are far less sensitive to pressure changes than the low notes. A consequence of this is the shape of the breath curve required to play in concert pitch changes with temperature.

In the graph below, the orange curve represents the breath curve of a hypothetical ocarina at its original tuning temperature. The steeper red curve represents playing in a colder environment, and the green curve playing in a warmer environment. Particularly notice how a small change on the low end require a larger change on the high notes. If your environment is considerably colder than the ocarina was tuned to play in, the high notes will squeak before you can push them into concert pitch.

The net result of this is that it is not enough to learn only the pressure curve required to play in concert pitch in your current environment. Essentially, the ocarina will have multiple breath curves, and which one you have to use varies with temperature. As a beginner, this can be a lot to deal with. While you should learn the different breath curves in the fullness of time, there are two things you can do to eliminate this variation:

  1. Heat or cool the room to a constant temperature, preferably your ocarina's tuning temperature.
  2. Allow the sounded pitch to deviate from concert pitch.

Irrespective of which of these you choose to do, always warm your ocarina by blowing it for at least a minute before playing. The voicing mixes the warm air you are blowing with the air from your environment and the internal temperature will reach an equilibrium over time.

When you are playing by yourself, it does not matter if your pitch deviates from concert pitch. As long as every note is off by the same amount, you will be in tune with yourself. If you opt to do this the drone must be tuned to match. This is most easily done using a chromatic tuner, a tool which listens to the note you are playing and displays its note letter. See the note below on chromatic tuners.

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 drone's 'pitch' slider to match. The absolute value in cents is shown below the slider.

Ocarinas' breath curves vary a great deal between makers. Some are designed to play with little pressure, while others need a great deal. What you perceive as best sound may not align with what the maker intended. An ocarina tuned to be loud will inherently use more air and will sound more airy to the player; this airiness will be much less obvious at a distance, thus will not be audible to an audience. Judging this takes some experience and a certain amount of guesswork. It is best to find the tuning temperature from the maker directly.

Note: An introduction to chromatic tuners

The interface of a chromatic tuner looks like this:

When the needle is centred 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 halfway 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 play an F then gradually raise the pitch, once the tuner passes F plus 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. This matters for the ocarina as the instruments pitch is so unstable.

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. Needle damping is a feature that averages pitch over time to smooth fluctuations. While it's 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.

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. Whenever your pitch is flat or sharp, 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. The following tool simulates what you will hear, try dragging the slider right or left and observe how the sound chages.

Try playing long tones against the drone and pay attention to these changes. You may have noticed that it is easier to hold the high notes in tune than the low ones. Because of this, you should choose one of the ocarina's higher notes at first. Set the note of 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 tongue. Hold it for as long as you can without straining, then stop it using the tongue. As you do so, listen for any warble created by the drone and raise or lower your breath to get rid of it. People new to ocarinas tend to use either far too much or far to little pressure. You cannot be timid with this instrument; drop your breath to play quieter and you'll go out of tune.

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. Practise in short sessions. Also, sleep is essential for learning. If you come back to it the next day, you'll find it'll magically become easier.

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. Western culture is visual and places little emphasis on listening, so developing this skill can take some time. You don't want to be dependent on a tuner. For example, a tuner will not tell you if you are playing in tune with a group, as they may not be exactly in concert pitch.

Side Note

Using the correct breath technique will make this exercise considerably easier. Centre 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.

Practise 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, its 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 matters 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 centred around G, whereas E Minor is centred around E. This is a good explanation of the difference. Because the key of a tune is its focal point, music usually resolves to it. Consequently, the key of the tune is often 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 instrument's 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 practise 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. Pitch errors will be apparent, and you'll be able to adapt dynamically even without a drone. Once you have began to develop a sense of pitch you can also use audiation. This involves hearing the sound of a note you want to play in your mind's ear slightly before playing it, which makes tuning errors obvious.

You can work on any difficult intervals with long notes. Play the first note as a long tone, getting used to the pressure needed to start it in tune. Do the same for the second note, starting and finishing both using the tongue. Once you are used to this, play the two notes one after another, but leave a long gap between them and focus on starting both notes in tune. Gradually reduce this gap until you are playing one note immediately after the other. With practice, you will be able to notice and correct errors so quickly that an audience won't notice.

Due to the breath curve, when you descend to a note from above on the ocarina, it will tend to be sharp. The opposite is true of ascending intervals. At first, you will tend to lag and the second note will begin sharp or flat. This is especially problematic at speed. The breath does not change quickly enough, resulting in a sharp or flat note. Also, as the low notes are much more sensitive, it is easy to blow them sharp, while the high notes tend to be flat as they need so much more pressure.

You may wonder how accurate your intonation needs to be. This depends on quite a few factors including the speed of the music, the experience of the audience, and whether you are playing with others. In slower music with chordal accompaniment, plus/minus 5 to 10 cents is usually ok. If you are playing very quickly, pitch errors of individual notes are less obvious and intonation is perceived more on average.

If you are playing in unison, especially with other ocarinas, the margin for error is far smaller as any deviance will create audible beating. A small amount of low frequency beating is tolerable and can actually add interest to the sound. Large errors causing rapid warbles generally sound obnoxious. Playing ocarinas in unison is possible but demands considerable player skill.

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

In the real world, you will more often be playing with chordal accompaniment such as a guitar, piano or possibly a synthesized chord progression. This can be both easier and harder. On one hand, chords contain 3 or more notes and are usually harmonically close to the notes of the melody. This can make intonation easier to hear than a simple drone. On the other hand, the timbre of your accompaniment affects how easy it is to hear your intonation. It is easiest to hear when both sound similar. As the ocarina has a pure tone, it is easiest to hear intonation against pure toned accompaniment.

When you start to play with other instruments such as guitar or piano, your intonation will not be so obvious. In particular, the prominent warble will be subtle or absent. For instance, in the first example below, it's possible to hear the warble. In the second, the pitch change is the same but 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 instruments, you have to learn to hear these more subtle changes. A keyboard or midi sequencer is a great practice tool as its 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 everyone's pitch is varying arbitrarily, there will be no stable point of reference.

Going forward

As you become more comfortable with your ocarina's breath curve and relative pitch, you may begin to practise the breath curve how it would be in a warmer or colder environment. This can be done by either changing the temperature of your room or, more easily, by deliberately playing sharp or flat of concert pitch. You can adjust the pitch of the drone to help with this.

It is perfectly fine to work on your intonation by playing tunes. However, there are limitations to doing so. You will mostly practise common intervals which can trip you up when sight reading if a piece of music contains an interval you are less experienced with. It is possible to learn every interval on the instrument 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. It is also possible to begin a note slightly sharp or flat and then bend it into pitch, which can also create emphasis. The important thing is this must be deliberate and under control. It's no good having your pitch randomly 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.

You do not need to have absolute (AKA 'perfect') pitch to play the ocarina in tune, but it would be useful. Relative pitch allows you to play in tune with yourself, but you may be flat or sharp relative to concert pitch. This can be a problem if you are playing a performance with accompaniment but starting the performance without it. When the accompaniment comes in, you may hear that you are flat or sharp and need to compensate in a hurry, which can sound bad.


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