What is an ocarina?

The ocarina is a wind instrument most notable for its pure ethereal tone. Quality transverse ocarinas are capable of creating everything from beautiful, mournful, slow melodies to highly ornamented, upbeat tunes. They have a straightforward linear fingering system similar to a flute or tin whistle, and are fully chromatic. Most ocarinas are small, easily slipped into a pocket or bag, and played wherever it takes your fancy.

Giuseppe_Donati and ocarina

The modern ocarina was created by Giuseppe Donati in 19th century Budrio, northern Italy. At the time, the only available vessel flutes were crude toys capable of playing just a few notes. Donati developed an instrument and fingering system capable of playing chromatically over an octave and a fourth. The word 'ocarina' comes from a historic dialect of Italian, and means ‘little goose’. It originally referred to sculptural ceramic whistles shaped like a goose, and Donati adopted the name for his instrument.

Donati's instrument was shaped like a cone, with a protruding mouthpiece and 10 finger holes. Modern instruments generally retain this same design, but have evolved in a number of ways. Most notably, 'subholes' were added by Asian makers, which extend the sounding range of the instrument downwards. Ocarinas can have one or two subholes; the one shown below is an 11 hole ocarina.


Unlike most wind instruments, ocarinas cannot be overblown to create higher octaves. Each diatonic note has its own hole, and chromatic notes are created using cross-fingering, covering the existing holes in a different order. To add additional range, multichambers were created. These retain Donati's basic fingering system, adding additional chambers tuned to play as a single instrument. They extend the sounding range to two octaves or more while maintaining the characteristic pure tone.

Multichambers also provide additional benefits beyond range. As every note has its own hole, single chambers require two thumb holes to maximise their range, and the right thumb hole is also the primary support point. While there are methods of handing this, it is a technical challenge. Multichambers eliminate this issue as each chamber is tuned to a different part of the total range, and only one is fingered and blown at a time. Consequently, the right thumb hole can be eliminated, allowing the thumb to exclusively support the instrument.

A double ocarina

While ocarinas are visually simple, playing them well is harder than it looks, and you may be surprised at what they are able to do. All instruments have their strengths and weaknesses, and much of the skill involved in creating a musical performance is knowing the situations where a given instrument can hold its own. Ocarinas are ideal solo instruments, having considerable volume. Their pure tone easily cuts through a raucous crowd and people seem to love it. I've silenced the audience at many open mics with the ocarina. However, I do find them most effective in small doses, as a 'seasoning' among other instruments.

The ocarina has only a small repertoire of its own, so music for it is often adapted from other sources. Many people adapt song melodies to the ocarina, and their loud and piercing tone is ideal for playing many kinds of folk music, such as traditional French music and Highland pipe tunes. The ocarina's musical function is actually similar to that of a bagpipe, but their pitch is much less stable. Ocarinas only sound in tune at one pressure for a given fingering, and have an innate volume dynamic where the high notes are louder than the low.

The unstable pitch is often the hardest aspect of playing the ocarina. On an alto C for example, when fingering low C, the sounded pitch can be bent from about A♯ to E by changing breath pressure. Every note requires a different pressure to sound in tune, and the player must both learn these pressures, and use their ear to make compensations. Ocarinas make questionable first instruments because of this; it is very easy to focus on fingerings while in ignorance of one's intonation.

You may think that because volume dynamics are difficult, ocarinas cannot create expressive performances, but that's not true. Expression can instead be found in articulation and ornamentation including pitch slides, vibrato, trills, turns, mordants, and classical grace notes. Notes can be articulated using tonguing, interrupting the air with the tongue, or cuts and strikes, sounds of such short duration that they're perceived as atonal blips or clicks. Ornamentation can be created with the latter, including rolls, cranns, and strike cranns.

The ocarina is an instrument that rewards a creative approach, and you will find that they are capable of some pretty impressive music if you are willing to put in the effort. If you are interested in learning more about the ocarina's features, please see the page 'What are ocarinas capable of?'.

About the ocarina What are ocarinas capable of?