Ocarina keys and pitch ranges

Side Note

This page assumes you understand octave registers, their naming convention, and scales, if not please read Octaves and scale formation.

Ocarinas are made in different pitch ranges—bass, alto, and soprano—and keys, like C, G, and F. When you first approach the instrument, it may be unclear what these are for. What are the practical functions of these, and what should you be looking for?

Pitch ranges (soprano, alto and bass)

Compared to many instruments, the sounding range of an ocarina is limited. Single chambered ocarinas sound about 11 diatonic notes or an octave and a fourth, which is about the average range of the human voice. This by itself is very limiting, as a player cannot make use of lower or higher notes for effect. To solve this problem, ocarinas are made to sound in different pitch ranges. Fingerings remain the same, but the sounded pitch is raised or lowered by one or more octaves. Common pitch ranges are alto, bass, and soprano, illustrated below. Note that many ocarinas can play a few lower notes, covered under 'subholes' later in this section.

Bass C ocarinas play from about C4 to F5:

Alto C ocarinas play from about C5 to F6:

And soprano C ocarinas play from about C6 to F7:

This system is used to classify all ocarinas, including multichambers, although multichambers are further classified as I explain below. A double alto C, for example, extends the instrument's total range to two octaves by adding notes to the top, while the lowest note remains the same. Essentially, an ocarina's pitch range defines the lowest note that it is able to sound. Keep this in mind when choosing an ocarina.

Ocarinas with different pitch ranges retain the same fingering system, and playing a different one has the effect of transposing a performance up or down by one or more octaves. Range is generally chosen to create the desired effect. For example, bass ocarinas are generally dark and sombre in tone, and blend pretty well when playing with a group of other instruments. Sopranos, on the other hand, are piercing and always take the lead in a mix.

While the idea behind this system is almost universal*, the terms used to describe different ranges sometimes vary. Over time, different makers have developed their own systems. For example, 'tenor' is sometimes used as a synonym for the 'alto' range. To be sure, look for the octave register numbers, such as C5 to F6, as these are standardised.

I personally find the above system needlessly confusing, as 'bass' ocarinas only play down to to about middle C, which in other contexts isn't typically considered 'bass'. Contrabass ocarinas, which sound an octave lower than bass ones, do exist. In my opinion, calling 'bass' ocarinas 'tenor' and renaming 'contrabass' to 'bass' would be more sensible. However, at this point, doing so would only cause more confusion.

Another option would be to forget about names like 'alto' and 'bass' altogether and just use octave numbers. Thus an alto C would be simply 'C5', referring to it's base note. This would make it clear how a given ocarina relates to other instruments, and would resolve a confusion that exists with keys, covered in the next section.

* When ocarinas are played in an ensemble, a different naming system is sometimes used. This is described at the end of the page.

Subholes

Many ocarinas have 'subholes', which are additional holes added to extend the playing range downwards. For example, an alto C ocarina with one subhole allows the B below the tonic to be played. While this additional range looks like a great thing, these notes have limited use in practice. These notes are considered a range extension, thus an alto C does not become an alto B when a subhole is added.

Subholes can be useful as passing notes, such as quickly playing the leading tone of the ocarina's key, B in C Major. They can also be useful for playing accidentals of higher notes. However, subhole notes generally lack volume, have very unstable pitch, and tend to sound unclear or 'muddy'. You generally wouldn't want to start or end a performance on a subhole for these reasons, unless done for deliberate effect. Making use of subholes in fast music is also a challenge, as lifting fingers is easier than sliding them.

The muddy tone is a characteristic that can arise when all of an ocarina's finger holes are closed. There is some value in introducing an additional 'vent' hole and, historically, this was placed such that it couldn't be covered while playing. A subhole is best considered a vent hole that is tuned and positioned to be playable as an additional note. Because of this, subhole notes should not be considered 'proper' notes.

Attempting to include too many subholes causes problems as the range attainable by a single chambered ocarina is limited by its physics. A single chamber can only support so many holes before the high notes become unacceptably airy. One subhole (an 11 hole ocarina) is usually not a problem, but two subholes (12 hole ocarina) is on the limit of what a single chamber is able to do, and frequently results in airy high notes. If you want more range, changing to a different key of ocarina or playing a multichamber are superior options. These options are explained in the following two sections.

Indecently, including subholes on a multichamber is much less of a problem, as each chamber is responsible for a smaller part of the total range. Also note that muddiness depends on instrument design, so the low notes of a 10 hole ocarina aren't inherently muddy sounding. In my experience, a design which offers more range, to support multiple subholes, also exaggerates the muddy low end.

Keys

The 'key' of an ocarina refers to the major scale sounded when no cross-fingered accidentals are used, such as C major on a C ocarina. If you instead used the same fingerings on an ocarina tuned to G, it would sound a G major scale. See the examples below. 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.

Ocarina in C

Ocarina in G

Retuning an ocarina in this way causes it to overlap with the range of other ocarinas. An alto G ocarina, for instance, has a range from G to C, overlapping with both the bass and alto C ocarinas; this is visualised below. Pitch ranges also apply: a soprano G sounds an octave higher than an alto G. However, it is not clear exactly where an 'alto' becomes a 'soprano' within the range of available keys. A general answer is between D and F, but the exact break point varies between makers. To be sure, look for the range given in standard.

While the term 'key' become standard, it is somewhat misleading as ocarinas are fully chromatic. The term is also confusing as it can allow for overloaded use of the word. Take the following sentence example: "Due to the ocarina's limited range, playing in a given key often requires changing the key of the ocarina." Here, the word 'key' is overloaded, referring both to the key of the music, and the base pitch of the instrument.

That issue aside, there are several practical reasons why you may want to change the base pitch of an ocarina. The primary purpose of having ocarinas in different keys is not to play in the named key, but to gain access to a different range of notes. This is especially important with single chambers, as their range is so limited that it's impossible to play a full scale in every key. For instance, you cannot play G Major octave to octave on a single chambered C ocarina, as the high F# and G are out of range. However, this scale can be played on an ocarina in G, and less obviously on an ocarina in D.

Beyond achieving a given range of notes, playing ocarinas in different keys has several more advantages. A less obvious one is playing ocarinas in different keys often results in simpler fingerings. This can also open up ornamental possibilities that would otherwise be very difficult or impossible. Changing range is also useful in a performance setting, as playing everything within a limited range can be fatiguing to listen to.

While you may think that playing ocarinas in different keys is a nightmare because you have to remember different notes for the same fingerings, it actually isn't that difficult. 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. Learning to sight read at pitch is also a useful skill, and isn't that difficult with a good approach.

Multichamber ocarinas

A multichamber ocarina takes a single chambered ocarina of a given pitch range, such as bass, alto, or soprano, and adds additional chambers which extend the range of the high end. As each chamber requires its own set of holes and the player must move their fingers between them, the practical limit to the number of chambers is about 4, although ocarinas with 2 or 3 chambers are much more common. Multichambers are available in pitch ranges from bass to soprano, which transposes the range of the whole instrument. A bass double starts an octave lower than an alto in the same key, and finishes an octave lower on its high end.

Note that, with multichambers, more isn't universally 'better' as more range results in a heavier instrument. Consequently, you may still want a number of multichambers in different ranges and or keys. Retuning a multichamber offers the same possibilities of simplified fingerings and different ornamentation possibilities that exist with single chambers.

There are two systems commonly used to tune multichambers: 'Asian' and 'Pacchioni'. The Asian system focuses on range, whereas the Pacchioni tuning aims more towards player convenience. The ranges provided by these systems are shown below. Note that the exact range provided by a multichamber can vary, so you'd have to check a fingering chart for a given instrument to be sure. Many multichambers have one or two subholes, although I have omitted them as they may or may not be available. You can just add one or two diatonic notes to the bottom of any of these ranges.

Pitch ranges are shown relative to an 'alto' ocarina in C. You can transpose these up or down to get the range of bass or soprano multichambers, as well as ones in other keys. Note that soprano ocarinas may have fewer chambers. As the pitch increases, chamber volume decreases, and it can reach a point of being too small to be playable. Ocarinas sounding in octave 7 and higher are very loud and shrill.

A general summary is given below, and the full details are covered on the page covering multichambers.

Asian

The Asian system tunes chambers as a linear progression. On a C instrument, the highest note on the first chamber is usually D, the second begins on E, and this pattern continues over subsequent chambers. Because of this, the system provides the most range.

A double alto C has a sounding range of about two octaves:

A triple has a range of about two octaves and a sixth:

A quad has a range of about three octaves and a 4th:

Pacchioni

The Pacchioni system is more focused on player convenience. Instead of tuning the chambers as a linear progression, they are tuned such that a small number of notes overlap, similar to a stringed instrument. This does a few things: it reduces the need for chamber switching in some music, and gives you more choice when to switch between them. This allows trilling of notes that would lie across two chambers.

Double has a range of an octave and a fifth or sixth. The extra note is provided by the P* system, which includes a second chamber thumb hole:

Triple has a range of 2 octaves:

Quad has a range of 2 octaves and a fourth:

The Budrio naming convention

Historically, ocarinas have been played in ensembles of 7 players and, within this tradition, a different system is used for naming ocarinas. This is based on the 'fixed Do' solfage system and numbers ocarinas sequentially, where higher numbers indicate lower pitch. Do 1 is a soprano at C6, while Do 3 is a alto at C5. Between the two is Sol 2, G5. See the table below:

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
Ocarina for irish music

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