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.

Picture of a transverse ocarina in D

To be more specific, this website is about is the transverse ocarina, an instrument from Italy. Ocarinas have a long and complex history with many variations, and in common culture all of these get called 'ocarina', with no classifiers. Thus the word can have both large scale and small scale meninges.

  • Large scale: a term to refer to any instrument which produces sound using a hollow chamber. Another term for this is 'vessel flute', although it is rarely used.
  • Small scale: In certain communities, the term is used to refer to a specific kind of ocarina.

And yes, this can be confusing. On this website, when the word is used alone, I mean the transverse ocarina, and in other cases a type classifier will be used.

History

Ocarina-like instruments have existed for thousands of years. Many cultures have ceramic whistles that sound by blowing into a hollow chamber. and were probably discovered independently by multiple cultures. They are most commonly in the shape of birds and other animals, and can be used to reproduce sounds resembling bird calls. However they were never designed as serious musical instruments.

Giuseppe_Donati and ocarina

In the 19th century an Italian called Giuseppe Donati developed these bird whistles into a serious musical instrument, the transverse ocarina. He was working in Budrio, a small town in northern Italy. The region had a tradition of 'ocarinas', goose shaped whistles. In fact, the word 'ocarina' means 'little goose' in the local dialect of Italian.

These whistles inspired him to develop 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, and can play chromatically over an octave and a fourth.

Transverse chamber shaped like a cone with a point on both ends. 8 finger holes on the top, and two thumb holes.

Donati developed ocarinas that play in multiple keys and octaves, and a tradition of playing ocarinas in a group of 7 players. A group plays ocarinas ranging from large contrabass instruments to small sopranos.

Lower pitched ocarinas are physically larger.

The ocarina in Asia

At some point Italian ocarinas made their way to Asia and were copied and developed upon. They became popular when a player called Sojiro performed music on the ocarina in a popular documentary film. Today, ocarina is widely played to a high standard in China, Japan and Korea.

The Asian ocarina design takes on a different shape, with a longer tail, and a rounded 'cappello'. The different design could be explained, if when the ocarina came to Asia, the playing techniques of Italian players did not.

Italian players use the left hand point to support the instrument on the high notes. However Asian players use a different technique where the narrow end of the chamber is gripped with the ring and pinky finger. The tail is longer to allow this, however I personally consider the Italian design superior.

Asian ocarina designs also differ as Asian makers added 'subholes' to the instrument increasing the total number of finger holes from 10 to 12.

These additional holes extend the sounding range by adding additional notes to the instrument's low end, but also affect the behaviour of the whole instrument, and tend to make the high notes sound worse.

on on the page An introduction to the ocarina's fingering system.

The instrument has come back into western Awareness from this Asian tradition through media, including Totoro and the Zelda franchise.

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.