Ocarina types and naming conventions

The ocarina is a flexible instrument, so many types of ocarina exist. While this includes novelty items, variations are apparent even among serious instruments. A problem thus arises: how do you classify these different types with a sensible naming convention?

Ocarinas are usually classified both by the number of finger holes and by the number of chambers. A chamber is an enclosed cavity, driven by the voicing and windway to create sound. Single chamber ocarinas have one of these, and are normally classified by the number of holes that they have. The common basis of this instrument is Guiseppi Donati's 10 hole design, 8 finger holes and 2 thumb holes, typically called a 10 hole ocarina. Most serious ocarinas are derived from this design.

Ocarinas can also be found with more than these 10 basic holes through the addition of subholes and split holes. A subhole is an additional hole added to an ocarina which extends the playing range downwards, and otherwise an ocarina with subholes plays the same as one without. Ocarinas can have one or two subholes added, and such an instrument is called an 11 hole or 12 hole ocarina. An example of a subhole is shown in the picture below. Note that with ocarinas, more holes isn't necessarily better, as covered at the end of the page.

Ocarinas can also have 'split holes', which look like a subhole, but serve a different function. Split holes do not increase the sounding range. They are a single hole which has been split into two to make an accidental (sharp or flat) easier to play. Ocarinas are fully chromatic and these notes are generally played by 'cross fingering', covering the existing holes in a different order. On the high notes, this produces a well tuned accidental as there are many possible combinations. The number of options available decreases towards lower notes, and the available holes don't always allow a well tuned accidental. A split hole addresses the problem by giving the accidental a dedicated hole.

Note that the presence of a split hole does not change how an ocarina is named: while an 11 hole ocarina with a split hole technically has '12 holes' in the sense of having 12 holes to be covered by the fingers, it is still an 11 hole ocarina in naming and practice. You can think of a split hole as two .5 holes, together counting as a single hole. This is done because strictly using hole count as a classifier would be ambiguous, as the holes can serve differing functions.

Classifying ocarinas using hole count can be problematic for other reasons. Ocarinas offer an unusual degree of flexibility in how they are tuned. It is trivial to tune holes in other ways, which can be done to make playing music from a given tradition easier, such as the Lydian soprano G I make for Highland pipe music. Non-Western scales are also possible, and naming using hole counts reveals nothing about these differences. In such cases, it is important to look for additional descriptions or a fingering chart.


The ocarina is a lossy instrument: as holes are opened, more air can escape, and the player must blow harder to compensate. Yet this effort is ultimately futile as, beyond a certain range, the tone becomes unacceptably weak and airy. Multichamber ocarinas address this issue with multiple chambers, each providing a small part of the total range. This is covered in more detail on the pages Multichamber ocarinas and Multichamber fingerings.

Multichambers are typically not classified using hole count. While the design is relatively standardised, there are variations such as the presence or absence of subholes on higher chambers. There are also two different tuning systems for them, Asian and Pacchioni. Due to these differences, naming using hole count would be ambiguous. Instead, they are classified relative to the number of chambers: double, triple, and quad. Details of individual variation requires reference to a fingering chart.

Variations in playing characteristics

Even within one of these groupings, ocarinas can vary a great deal. Varying factors like chamber volume, voicing size, and tuning, plus other factors like the size and smoothness of the windway, results in differing playing characteristics and timbre (tone colour). For example, traditional Italian ocarina designs trade off some range to attain maximum volume, using a very large voicing, an open windway, and high pressure. The 12 hole design on the other hand uses a (typically) lower pressure, smaller voicing, and smaller chamber volume, reducing airstream turbulence and allowing a larger range to be attained.

Many variations in volume, and timbre are possible, varying from a very pure sound, a 'reedy' sound, or a loose, airy sound. But of these, only designs leaning strongly towards a pure sound can provide the full range of a 12 hole. Thus, more holes isn't universally 'better'. Pursuing more holes locks a maker into a small the corner of what the instrument's physics is technically able to do. Such designs even then still tend to suffer from airy high notes. My preference leans towards 10 and 11 hole single chambers and multis. Multichambers can easily surpass the range of a 12 hole with none of the compromises.

Thoughts on...