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


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 like 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. He was exposed to goose shaped instruments called 'ocarinas', means 'little goose' in the local dialect of Italian.

Crude, and capible of sounding just a few pitches, Donati thought he could do better. He developed a serious musical instrument, settling on a body shaped like a cone as he found it more ergonomic. On top of which he devised 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 ocarinas have a 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.

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 differs notably from italian instruments , with a longer tail, and a rounded 'cappello'.

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, and otherwise the fingering system is the same. See 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 can also have ergonomic advantages.

Ambigutity in the term 'ocarina'

Given that ocarinas have been little known and not widely plsyed in many cultures, there has been a tendency to call all instrumrnts thst produce sound usinv a hollow chsmber 'ocarina', ranging in quality from cheap novelty items to exprnsive instruments. In the context of other instrument would have different names.

It is also confusing as names are normally not distinguished, ocarina can meen both the general case and spasific, and it id impossible to know what someone is talking about from the term alone.

I want to mention at this point that in common language the term 'ocarina' is often used as a catch all for anything that produces sound using a hollow chamber. Another term for which is 'vessel flute', although rarely used.

It can be confusing as it may not be clear what someone is talking about. In this book I use the term 'ocarina' to refer to the transverse ocarina.

Variations will be addressed more in the following article, but this website is about the transverse ocarina.