Keys and pitch ranges

Side Note

This assumes you understand octave registers and how they are named, if not please read Octaves and scale formation.

If you are a completely new to music I recommend getting an ocarina that fits your hands and starting to play. These ideas become easy to understand once you put them into practice.

Pitch ranges (soprano, alto and bass)

Unlike the instruments of a classical orchestra, ocarinas have a limited sounding range. Single chambered ocarinas can play roughly 11 diatonic notes (i.e. C to F) or an octave and a fourth. Because of this you cannot play everything on a single instrument. Multiple ocarinas are needed depending on the note range and effect you wish to create.

For example bass ocarinas are generally dark and sombre in tone. They can be used for playing slow melodies or in-fills. Sopranos on the other hand are bright, lively and piercing, perfect for playing a lead.

Bass C ocarinas play from C4 to F5:

Alto C ocarinas play from C5 to F6:

And soprano C ocarinas play from C6 to F7:

Keys

The 'key' of an ocarina refers to the major scale sounded when no cross-fingered accidentals are used. An ocarina tuned to C plays the notes of C major. Note that the low C on the staff technically refers to C4 or middle C. On the ocarina, it is common to consider this to be low C. Consequently, alto C ocarinas play an octave higher than written and sopranos two octaves higher.

While the ocarina is fully chromatic they cannot play a full scale in every key. For example it is impossible to play G major octave to octave on a single AC. The high F# and G are out of range. This problem can be solved by retuning the instrument, granting you access to a different range of notes. If you used the same fingerings shown above on an ocarina tuned to G, it would sound a G major scale:

An alto G ocarina has a range from G to C, overlapping with both the Bass and Alto C ocarinas. A soprano G sounds an octave higher than this. Matching your instrument's tuning to what you are playing maximizes your note range.

Because all major scales are based on the same pattern you can play a tune with the same fingerings on an ocarina in a different key and it will sound the same, but higher or lower in pitch. So you can also change the key of the instrument as an easy way of shifting the mood of a tune.

The following example shows how a simple tune would sound played on ocarinas in different keys with the same fingerings. First it's played in C, then D and lastly G.

Subholes

When an ocarina has one or more sub-holes they function to extend the playing range downwards. For example an alto C ocarina with a sub-hole allows the B below the tonic to be played.

While subholes can appear of great value to inexperienced musicians, they have limited use in practice. The range attainable by a single chambered ocarina is limited by its physics and introducing too many holes causes problems. These low notes generally have little volume and a muddy timbre. Subhole notes can function as passing tones, but you wouldn't want to end a piece of music on them. They also have ergonomic problems: sliding fingers is technically harder than lifting them and skin tends to cling to a shiny surface, which exacerbates the problem. Subholes may also increase the airiness of an ocarinas high notes.

If you want more range, multi-chambered ocarinas are superior as they do not involve such compromises.

Multi-chamber Ocarinas

A multi chamber ocarina adds additional range above what is available from a single chambered ocarina. They are essentially two or more ocarinas tuned to play as a single instrument. They can offer considerablely more range than a single chamber.

There are two systems used to tune them, 'Asian' and 'Pacchioni'. The Asian system provides the most range, an 'Asian' tuned double alto C has a sounding range of two octaves.

The Pacchioni system provides less range, but has a few notes of overlap between the chambers. This gives you more choice when to switch between them. It also reduces the need for switching in some music.

Naming conventions

While the terms 'Bass', 'Soprano' and 'Alto' are fairly common today, there is no universal standard for classifying ocarinas. Over time different makers have developed their own systems. For example 'Tenor' is sometimes used to describe ocarinas in the 'alto' range.

Another system used by traditional Italian ocarinas is based on the solfage system. This system numbers ocarinas sequentially. Do1 is a soprano at C6, Do3 is a alto at C5. Between the two is Sol2, G5. The system alternates between Do and Sol, with higher numbers referring to lower pitches.

Modern European Pitch
Soprano C Do 1 C6
Soprano G Sol 2 G5
Alto C Do 3 C5
Alto G Sol 4 G4
Bass C Do 5 C4
Bass G Sol 6 G3
Contrabass C Do 7 C3
Exercises

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