What is an ocarina?

The ocarina is a wind instrument most notable for its pure ethereal tone. They are typically made from ceramic, and can play music ranging from mournful, slow melodies to highly ornamented tunes. Most ocarinas are small, easily slipped into a pocket or bag, and played wherever it takes your fancy.

Ocarinas come from a family of instruments called vessel flutes, instruments which produce sound using a hollow chamber. Many variations of vessel flutes exist, and people often use the terms 'ocarina' and 'vessel flute' interchangeably.

This website is about the transverse ocarina, a cone shaped musical instrument invented by Giuseppe Donati in the 19th century.

Picture of a transverse ocarina in D

Giuseppe_Donati and ocarina

The transverse ocarina comes from Budrio, a small town in northern Italy. At the time, the only vessel flutes were goose shaped ceramic toys designed to imitate bird sounds. The term 'Ocarina' comes from these instruments, and means 'little goose' in a local dialect of Italian.

Donati developed these into a serious musical instrument by creating an ergonomic form, and a 10 hole fingering system tuned to a western scale. His fingering system is the basis of most ocarinas today. It is a linear (opening sequential holes sounds sequential notes) and can play chromatically over an octave and a fourth.

Modern ocarinas generally retain this same design, but have evolved as 'subholes' were added by Asian makers, which extend the sounding range of the instrument downwards. The details of the fingering system are addressed on on the page An introduction to the ocarina's fingering system.

Multichamber ocarinas

A double ocarina

Most wind instruments can be overblown, a technique where the player blows harder to create higher pitched notes, however ocarinas cannot. Each diatonic note has its own hole, and the total range a single chamber can achieve is limited by physics to slightly more than an octave.

To add additional range, multichamber ocarinas were created. Additional smaller chambers are added to the right hand, which are tuned to play higher notes. Multichamber ocarinas may have as many as 4 chambers, giving slightly more than 3 octaves of range.

Multichamber ocarinas provide additional benefits beyond just range though. They often sound better as splitting the total range over multiple chambers gives makers more control. They also have ergonomic advantages. As they do not require a right thumb hole the thumb can exclusively support the instrument.

Other things

As I noted earlier, the ocarina is a vessel flute, but in practice, the terms 'vessel flute' and 'ocarina' are used interchangeably. Here I give a general overview of other things which often share the name, so that you can recognise them.

Pendant ocarinas

Pendant ocarinas were developed in the United Kingdom in the 1960's, and are small instruments which play an octave using 4 finger holes and a binary-like fingering system. As they have fewer holes, they can be made very small, and warn as a pendant.

It is easy to always have one with you as they are so small, and are great for spontaneous musical performances, and passing the time. Technically they are more limited and cannot be tuned as accurately as transverse ocarinas, but for these things, it doesn't matter.

Sculptural whistles

Sculptural whistles are musical novelty items produced in various sculptural shapes, including those representing birds and other animals. They are often highly decorated with coloured glazes, but only sound one or two pitches, and are usually untuned. They are not good as serious musical instruments.

Peruvian ocarinas

Peruvian ocarinas are reproductions of south American traditional instruments, usually having a flat shape, with intricate painted designs and 8 to 10 identically sized holes.

I know very little about the history of these instruments, but the ones that can be found today are poor quality, produced as tourist souvenirs . They are not tuned and are not good musical instruments.

Harmony ocarinas

Harmony ocarinas are ocarinas which include multiple chambers which are tuned to play in harmony with each other. They differ from multichamber ocarinas, as multichamber ocarinas are designed to extend range, not play in harmony in most cases.

Harmony ocarinas are not standardised at all, with shape and fingering varying between makers. They usually resemble something like the following image, with two separate chambers, one played by the left hand and one by the right.

They can be used to perform interesting music, but are beyond the scope of what i want to cover on this website.

The basic layout of a harmony double ocarina. Two chambers are placed side by side, with the left hand holes controlling one chamber, and the right hand holes the other one