The importance of open (patent free) design in the ocarina community

A side effect of the ocarina's widespread use as a musical toy is that their development has been relatively stagnant for some time. As far as I'm aware nobody has throughly examined them under the light of modern research techniques and computer simulation. As people become aware of the ocarina as a serious instrument this will start to happen and it's pot luck what will result. The problem is that any new discoveries would be patentable. Should such a discovery be a 'game changer', something that everyone wants, this could seriously disrupt the ocarina community. I don't think this would be a positive thing.

Despite what the name implies, 'the ocarina' is not a single instrument; the term refers to a haphazard collection of loosely related things ranging from whistles that only produce a single note, to art pieces, serious performance instruments and everything in-between. Even among serious instruments there are *many* variations in timbre, breath response and ergonomics:

Timbre: The ocarina's physics are capable of creating a wide range of timbres, from the characteristic 'pure' sound, a pure but airy sound to a reedy timbre like exhibited by Gosselink and Pacchioni ocarinas. What is optimal depends on player taste and the genre of music.

Ergonomics: Ocarinas vary hugely in their physical shape and hole placement. Everyone's hands are different and no single design can cater to all. People with a physical disability should not be discounted either.

Tuning: As an ocarina's pitch depends mostly on hole size instead of position, it is trivial to tune them to non-major scales. Tunings making use of microtones are also possible. Another consideration is that ocarinas are temperature sensitive and must be tuned for the temperature range they will be played in.

Pressure response: An ocarina's breath curve is determined largely by the maker and can be much more free-form than other wind instruments. They can have very low pressure, very high pressure, a regular change between there high and low notes or increase exponentially for a louder high end.

Volume: Ocarinas can be made to produce a wide range of volumes, from relatively quiet to ear splitting. What is preferable is completely situational.

Visuals: While these goals are often at odds with each other, ocarinas can be both good instruments and sculptures to some extent. Such designs are almost always one-off commissions.

I believe that the open, communal development we have today is critical to fulfilling the needs of players. Music is inherently a subjective art and so are the tools used to create it. One maker cannot cater to all of these variations as the number of permutations is enormous. Makers produce either designs that they personally like or what sells the most. Plus, the creator of a design is rarely aware of all applications. My Pacchioni system double in D for example: this design works well for Irish traditional music but Pacchioni was not aware of the use case. He isn't interested in the genre.

This is especially problematic with ocarinas as there playing characteristics are set by the maker and cannot be changed. It is fine when development is fully open but if things start to become patent-encumbered, it may become impossible for a player to obtain what they want. This would create considerable fragmentation in the community and bury certain designs just because they are not as popular.

Simultaneous discovery also needs to be considered. Everyone works in the same universe constrained by physics. When someone has a problem they experiment with these rules and may find a solution. However the number of solutions are finite, two or more people looking at the same problem can easily arrive at the same solution. I highly recommend reading "what technology wants", which covers this in detail.

When I began making ocarinas, I was terrified of other makers as I feared that their mere existence would ruin any chance of making sales. However, this no longer bothers me as I can see that the ocarina is much more diverse than I realized. Makers can still compete on quality and by providing playing characteristics that appeal to a different audience.

Following the 80/20 rule, 80 percent of people will be happy with a single design. Small makers fill in the 20 percent: high end, niche or one-off items. I don't believe that they compete directly with larger makers and blocking them would reduce diversity. So what would I suggest? Simply don't tell people what you are doing. From a naive point of view it is very difficult to figure out why a particular design works. Ocarinas are insanely finicky and changes on the order of 0.1 mm can make a huge difference.

While I am aware that cloning, 'knock offs', and counterfeits are a thing and dilutes a brand, I think trademarks and copyright are a better solution. It blocks lazy copying while allowing people to take inspiration. If you must patent something at least make it licensable for a sane cost. Small makers usually have small margins; it doesn't take much to make the business uneconomical.

Making an idea popular requires either an enormous marketing budget or an open design. If something is free to implement, its public visibility increases naturally as there are multiple sources, thus multiple marketing efforts. Increased visibility increases the number of buyers, which increases the possibility of making sales. If the design is named after the maker, this also raises awareness of their existence, such as my mention of Pacchioni above.

So in summary, I strongly believe that a diverse community and market is better for everyone.

Thoughts on teaching music to children

The following are some thoughts on teaching music and instruments to children. As I have mentioned before I did not understand music as a child. I've been thinking about why this happened and how it could have been avoided.

Accounting for learning styles

Music can be taught in multiple ways:

  • Theoretically based on music theory, patterns and note names.
  • Visually by watching other players and replicating
  • By ear, listening to melodies and figuring them out on an instrument.
  • Through physics, such as observing the slow oscillation of a bass guitar string.

People learn in different ways and none of these are inherently correct or wrong, just different. For something to be understood it must align with an individuals learning style. Not catering to this will lead to a subset of students thinking "I suck at music". This was a big obstacle for me as my learning style leans toward physics and theory. If an approach isn't working try something else.

The education system is quite poor at catering to learning styles. Classes are typically assigned to a single teacher who will have a preferred way of teaching. By comparison, adults can browse different explanations in books/on-line and try multiple teachers to find a method that works for them. Some students failing to understand does not imply that someone is a bad teacher, just that their approach doesn't work for the learner. I don't think anyone can teach in a way that makes sense to all students.

Passive learning should not be underestimated either. My interest in technology started from watching my dad making model ships and doing general DIY. Unlike music, I picked up those skills quite intuitively. I was exposed to things years before they came up in school and was among the best in class in these subjects. Perhaps teachers should allow and encourage students to observe experienced players.

Teaching muscle memory effectively

When some muscle movements such as the fingerings of an instrument are repeated frequently they become automatic. This is called muscle memory and is absolutely critical to playing musical instruments. Developing muscle memory requires regular practice, far more than the one lesson a week typically given to music in schools.

I suspect it would be better to have a lesson every day for a few weeks in the beginning. This directly shows the learner how muscle memory develops if they practice regularly and doesn't require them to take that on faith. Simply telling them to practice is unlikely to be effective as they have no context to understand that. Obviously it isn't practical to maintain this indefinitely but it should be enough to plant a seed.

Beyond this pairing with a parent or guardian who also plays or is simultaneously learning is a good idea. Practicing with someone else is a lot more enjoyable, especially for young children with a short attention span. Plus while a child can understand something in a lesson, when they come back to it after a day or two the context is lost and they may not understand anymore. Pairing solves this as the adult can explain things when it is needed.

Music may also be promoted as a fun social thing, encourage the children to form bands and get them to show off their skills to each other. This creates a natural competition which encourages practice. Make sure that making mistakes is socially accepted and encourage them to point out each other's errors.

Teaching technique

Playing an instrument is technically complex and there are numerous errors that can be made in technique. In the case of the ocarina one has to:

In each of these cases there are many ways that things can go wrong. Just holding the instrument offers mistakes like covering holes using the fingertips or forcing the thumb to bend backwards. It may be best to teach initial lessons one to one as it is easier to notice and quickly correct mistakes.

Environmental teaching may also be a solution. In this technique instead of telling the student what to do, they are placed in an environment in which the solution is obvious. This is frequently used for teaching mechanics in video games, for instance this episode of game makers toolkit shows its use in half life 2.

For music, this would involve visual demonstration combined with verbal cues and some hands on adjustments. The latter is required as students can come to the wrong solution — it can be difficult to connect a verbal instruction with a physical action. Playing with accompaniment, a form of environmental teaching, is the most intuitive way I know of developing a sense for intonation.

Don't assume that children will intuitively correct postural errors. I experienced a similar problem with my pen grip for writing. I have hitch hikers thumbs and for a long time folded my thumb back while holding a pen/pencil. This causes joint pain and made me avoid writing until I got a computer. Writing by hand is still difficult for me because of this.

Using individual interests

I strongly believe that music should be taught using an individuals interests as a hook. Often someone wants to learn music because they have heard a song or tune that resonates with them. They want to learn how to play it. Build on this and show them how to play it; don't bog them down with technical exercises. If that means making vast simplifications and playing really slowly, that's OK. New players have not yet learned to hear details, so even a loose facsimile can resonate and build confidence. From their point of view they are playing their favourite song.

As someone progresses, they will notice their technique limiting them. At this point, show them how to improve it through subtle hints and guidance. A good way to do this is to make technical exercises from tune fragments. Having this connection enables the student to see how the exercise relates to the music they want to play, it is no longer an abstract thing. I think pure technical excesses should be avoided with complete beginners. They want to play their favorite song and lack the context to understand how technical exercises help them do so.

Avoiding confusion from simplifications

Making simplifications is fine if it helps someone to progress but it may also be misleading. While learning a simplification it is easy to assume that it is the whole story. Suddenly revealing additional complex layers can be really off-putting and cause a student to give up. Consequently, where simplifications are made, it should be made obvious to the learner that they don't have the whole story. I cannot recommend ocarina tabs for this reason, as there is a huge volume of missing information and little indication that it is missing. By comparison, if you ignore rhythm and focus on the note heads while learning sheet music, it's blatantly obvious that you don't have the whole story.

If a student asks a question about omitted details, at least try to answer it. At one point in my school music class, the teacher introduced the basics of keyboard and sheet music, and I asked, 'What are the black keys for?' While this is a perfectly natural question, it was shrugged off. That response caused me to falsely assume that it's extremely complicated. If instead they had shown me another scale or introduced the major scale formula, I may not have abandoned music.

In closing

Much of the skill in playing an instrument is separable from the instrument itself. Melodies can be played on any Western instrument with enough range. I think music teaching should focus on how music works in a general sense rather than focusing too closely on a single instrument.

I don't think that everyone has to enjoy playing music. Some will take to it immediately, some will come back to it years later and some may never do so. This is OK—people have different strengths and weaknesses. Children should be allowed to explore and discover what there's are. If someone isn't grasping something try a different approach or let them give up, forcing things usually just results in resentment. If it is instead left open they may come back to it in the future.

Avoiding a recorder disaster in the ocarina comunity

The recorder, a simple tubular wind instrument. In the hands of a skilled player they are capible of some pretty impressive music, just look up players like Michala Petri, Lucie Horsch and Hidehiro Nakamura. Yet when many people think of the recorder they don't think of these great musicians. What comes to mind is classrooms of children producing high pitched sequels and playing out of tune. They are oblivious to the true capability of this simple instrument. A reputation disaster.

I believe this has come to be because of poor teaching and a lack of mainstream roll models. Recorders rarely feature in mainstream music. They are taught by people who are not expert musicians. In the UK recorder is taught in primary school. At this kind of school most subjects are taught by the same teacher. No single person can be equally skilled in all subjects. This is especially true considering that arts take a back seat to maths and literacy.

The recorder suffers from a flawed illusion of simplicity. It looks simple to someone who is inexperienced, lacking the visually complex key systems of other wind instruments. In fact many 'complex' instruments actually make it easier to produce a reasonable sound. Piano and keyboard for instance both have stable pitch, the same key reliably plays the same note.

This cannot be said of the recorder. Pitch depends on blowing pressure and blowing too hard will cause the note to squeak. The player has to control both there breath pressure and fingering simultaneously to avoid this. If a teacher is unable to correct these mistakes it will be frustrating as the student is left with a problem and no solution.

I fear that if the ocarina sees widespread adoption in education it will end up in the same position as the recorder. Considered a child's instrument with few aware of it's real ability. Nobody bothering to try and play it well.

On the ocarina breath control errors create serious intonation issues. You can easily play an E while fingering a low D just by blowing too hard. I suspect that in a classroom this would be solved by ignorance. Detecting these errors requires ear training, they are invisible without it.

This is bad. If someone is not shown how to play in tune they will never learn how to. Rather than ignoring intonation it would be better to teach an instrument with stable pitch. If one specifically set out to do so it would be straightforward to design an instrument for teaching children. In my mind this would be an electronic instrument as they offer greater design freedom.

Playing a wind instrument is a task with numerous technical pitfalls. One has to hold the instrument correctly. control there breath pressure, start / finish notes crisply using the tongue and constantly pay attention to pitch. In each of these cases there are many ways that things can go wrong. Just holding the instrument offers mistakes like covering holes using the fingertips or forcing the thumb to bend backwards. These mistakes may make the instrument painful to hold, may cause player frustration and will limit there ability.

I think at least in the beginning stages instrument lessons should be one to one, one teacher and one student. It enables the teacher to notice and correct mistakes quickly. By comparison a haphazard classroom environment leaves a lot of opportunity for mistakes to go unnoticed. It is likely to produce a mess. Seeing as teachers have trouble with squeaking recorders I have no confidence they could teach how to play the ocarina in tune.

Poor teaching can be worse than no teaching. In my time playing in public I have talked with numerous adults who believe they are incapable of playing music. The most frequently cited reason? Bad experience with the recorder in school.

Finally I think if an instrument is to keep a positive reputation where there are many bad players it must be used skilfully in mainstream music. Unfortunately the general public runs on first impressions. If there only experience is children playing poorly they will assume the instrument sucks. This can be countered by exposure to skilled performance.

Can I learn to play an instrument?

Yes of course you can learn to play an instrument, let me show you the basics:

Music is constructed from a seven note scale, I suspect you've heard of C major for example. It consists of the notes called C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Each one of these names refers to a unique pitch. You can click or tap on the buttons below to hear how they sound.

Melodies are simply a collection of these notes played one after another. For example a tune could consist of the notes below. Reading these from left to right you would play E, then D, then C and so on.

E D C D E E E

Try playing these notes using the buttons given above. It should sound like this:

All melodic instruments in western music are based on this same system of notes. Playing an instrument is a simple matter of pressing the right key, fretting the right string, or using the correct fingering to sound the notes in the right order.

Octaves

You may have noticed that something is missing from the explanation above. Surely music contains more than 7 notes, pianos have 88 keys after all.

When two notes sound and one is exactly double or half the frequency the human mind perceives them equivalently. This is convenient for us musicians because the notes actually repeat. After the note B, the sequence repeats from C one octave higher.

If you don't believe me just watch and listen to the following animation. The same sequence of notes is played 3 times in 3 different octaves. Finally all 3 of them are played together. Notice how they all sound much the same.

Ilusions of simplisity in music

The modern world is full of illusions of simplicity, things which look simple beacouse they where designed to. Under this facade lies a great deal of complexity. A practical example of this idea is a car. Cars are incredibly complicated, they depend on thousands of mechanical parts to function. However a driver only has to know the controls: steering wheel, gear stick, gas, clutch and break pedals. Even less in case of an automatic.

The illusion holds because it's complete, there is no 'catch'. The cars mechanical and electronic systems automate many tasks for the driver. Regulating fuel delivery, engine temperature and balancing power between the driving wheels. Without this automation driving would be a much more taxing experience.

This same idea is present in many musical instruments as well, perhaps the most obvious being the piano. It's metal frame ensures that the strings hold there tuning and the hammers allow notes to be played consistently. Because of this the player doesn't have to worry about there pitch: as long as the right key is pressed the right note will sound.

Toward the other extreme are instruments like the Theremin, Slide whistle and members of the Violin family. Pitch, volume, and in some cases timbre are all in the hands of the player. Consequently it is challenging to begin playing them. To produce a musical sound the player must learn to control many things at once.

Then there are instruments which lie between the two. The recorder and ocarina for example. At first they look simple because there fingering system is approachable, something often touted in marketing materials. Yet this illusion has a gaping flaw.

To play musically these instruments require good breath control and a sense of relative pitch. On the recorder one has to control there breath to avoid squeaking. The same errors on the ocarina cause it to go wildly out of tune. It's trivial to play a 'D' while fingering low 'C'.

Both instruments are highly misleading for someone new to music. If someone plays in ignorance of these issues they will never learn to play musically. It can also lead to an apathy towards music in general. I've performed at numerous venues and had the opportunity to talk with many people. When asked 'do you play music' a considerable number of them thought they where incapable of doing so. They had a bad experience with the recorder as a child and never looked further.

I think this situation is stupid as it's easily avoided. Instead of ignoring breath control, teach an instrument that does not require breath control.

An electronic instrument could easily fill this need. It could provide a simple fingering system, consistent pitch and steady volume. This would allow a player to quickly play tunes they know. It would also be trivial to play in a group and actually sound good.

Of course such an instrument would have limited expressive capacity. Electronic instruments conveniently solve this problem too: they can be reprogrammed. Features can be enabled as a players skill develops. At first everything may be automated so skills like rhythm, scales and sight reading can grow in isolation. Over time features can be enabled to allow more expressive playing.

Is the ocarina easy to play?

The question is often asked: is the ocarina easy to play? It looks simple so it must be easy? Unfortunately this is not the case. Ocarinas are approachable and a lot of fun to play but I honestly cannot say that they are easy.

'Easy to play' generally means 'easy for a new musician to produce a passable sound'. Ocarinas are not ideal because there pitch is unstable. Actually, the ocarina has the most unstable pitch of any wind instrument I'm aware of. A small increase in breath pressure will push the lowest notes several semitones sharp. This wouldn't be a concern if the whole instrument went sharp by the same amount but it doesn't. On the high end the same change would only raise the pitch by a few cents. Because of this new musicians usually play the low notes sharp and the high notes flat.

If you are new to music there is a good chance you will be oblivious to these mistakes. I fell foul of this: after playing for several months I began to develop confidence in my playing. When someone revealed that my intonation was all over the place I felt like I'd been conned. I read many tutorials on the ocarina and none mentioned intonation.

To produce a pleasing sound multiple things must happen simultaneously. You have to read the note, apply the correct fingering, see where it fits in the rhythm and use the correct breath pressure to play in tune. For a new musician it's like rubbing your tummy while patting your head.

The easiest instrument to play is one that looks after some of these issues for you. A good option is to learn the basics of music on a digital keyboard. They can be obtained cheaply. Pitch is consistent and key velocity can be disabled so volume is too. Don't be intimidated by having so many keys, there are only 12 distinct notes in music which repeat in octaves.

All instruments in the western tradition are based on the same system. Consequently you can easily move between them. Once you begin to develop an intuitive feel for playing tunes, even with one finger, you will find it much easier to play the ocarina.

Intonation can be developed intuitively if you play with accompaniment and ignoring it is not a good idea. I found that out the hard way. While in ignorance my mind gravitated toward arbitrary pitches. This was frustrating when I started to develop my relative pitch as I would perceive both the correct and wrong pitch as correct.

I recommend learning the ocarina because it inspires you, not because it has a reputation for being easy to play. All instruments have challenges and limitations. Regardless what instrument you choose to play allow yourself to suck, I promise you will get better.

Desigining an instrument for teaching music to children

Using traditional acoustic instruments for teaching music to children imposes a number of technical issues. To produce a pleasing sound with them multiple things must happen simultaneously. The child has to read the note that they want to sound. They must remember and apply the fingering to play it. Then they must consider when to play it and how long for.

Depending on the instrument numerous additional challenges exist. If they are playing a keyboard they must control how hard they press the key and with which finger. Wind instruments demand the player use the correct breath pressure and embrasure. Strings require awareness of the bow or plectrum to play the correct string.

For the result to sound musical all of these must happen simultaneously. This is very challenging for a child new to music. There first results will not sound good which is very off-putting.

The best way to solve this problem is to provide an instrument that reduces these variables, allowing one aspect to be learned at a time. The recorder has been used for this due to it's simple fingering system. However playing that instrument still demands the player uses the correct breath pressure. Errors in fingering or the child blowing too had will cause the instrument to squeak. I've ran across many adults who have assumed they are incapable of playing music due to such experiences with the recorder in school.

Teaching an instrument to children in a group setting is inherently problematic. It is difficult for the teacher to correct every child's mistakes. If mistakes are not corrected the child is left with a problem and no clear solution. Worse the mistake will become ingrained in muscle memory, becoming self-perpetuating.

I believe that an electronic instrument is by far the best solution to this problem. Electronic instruments can be designed to be error tolerant, providing a hint to the child learning music instead of squealing horribly or going out of tune. Additionally they can truly isolate tasks: a keyboard can ignore key velocity for instance. This allows the child to focus exclusively on which note they are playing. Later as this task begins to enter there muscle memory, velocity can be enabled and expressive playing introduced.

Another significant concern when teaching music to children is the mechanics of the instrument itself. Children have smaller hands and playing an instrument designed for an adult will never be ergonomic. Electronic instruments also solve this problem as they are not limited by physics. The interface can be designed entirely around the players needs.

Once a child has grasped basics like sheet music, notes and rhythm they can move to another instrument. With this in hand it is much easier to adapt to a more technically demanding instrument. Every instrument in the western tradition was designed around the same basic ideas so it's not difficult to try others.

My troubled experience with music as a child

As an instrument maker you may assume that music has played a deep roll in my life. Unfortunately that wasn't the case and I only grasped it as an adult.

It's a strange outcome looking back at it because I grew up surrounded by instruments including piano, guitar and multiple recorders. However neither of my parents actively played them. My dad used to play the clarinet but he stopped before I was born.

Around the age of 5 or 6 I had music lessons on the keyboard and violin but it didn't connect with me at the time. Exposure to my grans folk and theater music lead me to develop an interest in music around the age of 10. I remember particularly liking the songs from the musical Oliver.

I wanted to learn to play these but did not know how to relate what I was hearing to an instrument. The piano was intimidating with so many keys and I did not know the fingerings for the recorder. Consequently it was extremely difficult to make anything musical. When I did by chance there was no clear progression and I quickly lost interest.

Several years later when I started high school I remember one music class that introduced the basics of sheet music. For the first time ever something actually made sense. I took home the music from the class and learned to play Fur Elise on the piano.

This small success raised several questions: what are the black keys for? Why are multiple keys called 'A' when they clearly sound different? The music teacher in school shrugged off the questions. I had other interests that were proving to be more fruitful so music was once again abandoned.

It only 'clicked' for me in my early 20's. I happened to play Final Fantasy 9 which I'd missed as a child. The games music strongly connected with me and inspired me to attempt to learn it. Unlike my prior experiences access to information wasn't a problem anymore. I discovered a tutorial that explained the major scale formula and within a few minutes had an idea why the black keys exist.

Simultaneously I discovered the origin of octaves. When the frequency of a note is doubled or halved the human mind perceives both pitches equivalently. For example the note A4 has a frequency of 440Hz. If this is doubled to 880Hz you get A5. Similarly the note A3 is half at 220Hz. This realization allowed me to grasp the repeating note names.

With these two revelations everything else fell into place. I started playing the ocarina and within a few weeks could play a number of the themes from FF9. From there I branched out to other instruments. I learned to play a few chord progressions on the guitar and began playing a wide range of traditional folk music. This has been my main interest since.

Goodbye 11 holes, hello multichambers

While an 11 hole ocarina would be good in theory, in practice they are more trouble than they are worth. My recent work on the 11 holes was bringing out behavioral characteristics which I strongly dislike, including a non-linear breath curve. This does increase the sounding range, but at the expanse of making the whole instrument considerably harder to play.

The fact of the situation is that the ocarinas physics are fundamentally lossy. Regardless of how good of an 11 hole I am able to make, if I apply exactly the same improvements to a 10 hole ocarina I'll have a better instrument. A good 11 hole design and a smaller chamber results in a fantastic 10 hole ocarina.

There are a number of mis guided beliefs floating around regarding 10 hole ocarinas. Firstly that they have a muddy sounding low note due to a lack of venting. This is not true of a 10 hole with a properly sized voicing.

Secondly some people are concerned about not being able to play the low 'C' sharp. For some time all of my ocarinas have included a split hole for playing the low sharp. It is a superior solution vs using the subhole as it allows the note to be tuned independently. To play it you just slide back your right pinky to cover only one of the holes. Consequently loosing the subhole does not affect the ease of playing this note.

While creating the 11 hole ocarinas has been a useful exercise for improving my understanding of the instrument. Moving forwards my development focus will be shifting to mutichamber ocarinas. Thus far it has been impossible to put much effort into them as refining the 11 holes was taking an enormous amount of time.

I feel that this is also a better use of my energy. As the individual chambers of multichamber ocarinas individually have a small sounding range it is possible to optimize the tone and playing characteristics beyond what can be achieved in single chambers. The multichambers will retain the sub-hole of the 11 hole design. Including it does not have a detrimental effect on the instrument.

Researching the ocarinas breath curve and how tempriture effects it

Over the past years I have had the opportunity to play ocarinas in a very wide range of situations. This has meant dealing with freezing temperatures in the middle of winter, to barely tolerable highs in the summer.

The pitch of the ocarina is affected by temperature, though how is not well understood. Being a mouth blown instrument the air will be warmed by the body. However this warmed air is constantly mixed with ambient-temperature air from the environment.

As there pitch is so sensitive to changes in blowing preasure, ocarinas are tuned by the player raising or lowering there breath while listening to the sounded tone. Whenever I have been playing with other musicians I've always experienced difficulty playing in tune from the first note. As the ocarina is tuned by ear, this is somewhat a given.

However the needed change does not feel like I'm applying an equal breath change to every note. I always need to listen to my pitch relative to the other musicians, making deliberate compensations for every note until my muscle memory takes over. It's like there is a need to re-learn the instruments breath curve with every playing session.

Due to this I have come to suspect that ocarinas have a non-linear response across there playing range. To reserch the underlying behaviour I created two questions which are testable by experiment:

  1. How does the ocarinas pitch respond to changes in pressure across it's sounding range, where ambient temperature is constant?
  2. How does the ocarina respond to changes in ambient air temperature?

This article describes my results of testing these two questions. The intention was to obtain a 'high level' or 'ballpark' overview, and as such my methodology and test equipment is not as rigorous as it could be. Throughout the article I make note of methods which could be improved, as well as results which appear abnormal.

To eliminate variation in instrument tuning all measurements where taken using the same ocarina.

How does the ocarinas pitch respond to changes in pressure?

To test how an ocarinas pitch responds to pressure across it's range I have measured the pleasure required to sound every note. These measurements where taken at A440, and offset above/below this in 20 cent intervals using an electronic tuner. The tested tunings where:

  • A440 minus 40 cents
  • A440 minus 20 cents
  • A440 (zero cents)
  • A440 plus 20 cents

The pressure needed to sound every note at these offsets was measured using an electronic pressure transducer from a tube alongside the instruments wind-way. Because I do not have anything to use as a reference I have made no effort to calibrate to a standard. Thus my results are given in arbitrary 'units'. While these cannot be compared with 3rd party measurements, they can be compared with other values from the same measurement device. See 'How I made these measurements' for further details.

In order to avoid introducing errors from varying ambient temperature the ocarina was pre-warmed by playing it for several minutes. After this all measurements where taken quickly over about 15 minutes, leaving little time for the ocarina to cool.

My tuner was first set to a440 minus 40 cents and the pressure measured for each note one after the other. This was repeated for -20, 0, and +20 cents. Every time the tuner was adjusted, the instrument was re-warmed by blowing 5 full breath long tones immediately before making measurements for that tuner setting. The ambient air temperature was 15 degrees centigrade.

Following are the results of this experiment:

Cents C D E F G A B C D E F
-40 30 31 33 32 33 33 35 37 41 50 56
-20 34 35 39 42 43 43 46 49 55 63 68
0 36 39 44 46 48 51 54 61 69 75 83
20 39 43 48 51 57 61 69 78 85 103 121

And graphed:

The first thing I noticed from the graph is that the curves diverge. As the pitch increases at the low end, a greater amount of pressure is required to maintain the same pitch raise at the high end. Raising the pitch from -40 cents to -20 at the low end required a raise of 4 units (30 to 34), while the same change on the high end required a raise of 12 units (56 to 68).

This divergence between the low and high end also appears to increase the further the pitch is raised. Raising from zero cents to plus 20 required a change of 3 units on the low end (36 to 39), but 38 units on the high end (83 to 121). That is 26 units (38 - 12) more than raising the high F from -40 cents to -20.

These values increase as the pitch is pushed further, i.e. high f, minus 40 to minus 20 12 unit increase, minus 20 to zero 15 unit increase, zero to plus 20 38 increase. Steadily getting larger.

The results at the low end appear to contradict, -40 to 20 changing by 4, -20 to 0 changing by 2 and 0 to 20 changing 3. Based on the shape of the other 3 curves the -20 cent curve between low C and G appears to be reading high. I would expect it to lie closer to the middle between the minus 40 and zero curves.

I believe this is a quantisation error caused by the limited resolution of my measurement set-up. It is also probable that I contributed to the error. The ocarina is very sensitive to changes in pressure on these low notes and holding it stable is not easy. The first could be addressed with a more sensitive measurement device. The second by taking multiple measurements and making an average. However this does increase the chance of error from environmental temperature change, as it would take longer to take more measurements.

Eliminating temperature changes as a factor could be attained by measuring the internal temperature simultaneously with pressure. And looking for any correlation between the measurements.

Another abnormality I observed is the sharp angles present in the plus 20 cent curve which do not correlate with any of the other curves. I do not know what caused this, and repeating the measurements would be required to determine if they are a one off error or not.

How does ambient air temperature affect an ocarinas tuning?

To test how ambient air temperature affects the tuning of an ocarina I have measured the pitch of an ocarinas high F at different temperatures. The high F was used as a reference as this note is the least affected by changes in breath pressure.

The ambient temperature of my workshop swings greatly depending on the temperature outside. I took a measurement playing the high F, adjusting my breath pressure until the note sounded best to my ear, then took note of how many cents it differed from F at a440. This was recorded along with the ambient air temperature.

Breath warming was minimised by leaving the ocarina for several hours before taking each measurement, and then taking the measurement during the first breath. A number of measurements where taken over several days.

Results, all temperatures are in degrees Centigrade:

Temperature Cents from A440
2.5 -39
10 -25
12 -22
14 -19
17.4 -14
16.7 -15
20 -7
22 -3

When graphed this appears to be a liner plot. I have added a line of best fit:

Without the effect of breath warming the pitch of the ocarina appears to shift linearly at a rate approximately 9 cents per 10 degrees.

There is some variation in the plotted points, which I assume is due to variation in what I was perceiving as 'best sound' at a given time.

As the ocarina is a blown instrument and the human body warms the air it is breathing, this air will warm the ocarina over the duration of a playing session. However the air inside the ocarina is continually being mixed with air syphoned in through the voicing from the surrounding environment.

Because of this the internal air temperature will find an equilibrium between the breath and ambient air temperature. Consequently I would expect the ocarinas pitch to sharpen if played from cold. Exactly how much, and over what time duration would require another experiment to determine.

Conclusions

Ocarinas are affected by ambient air temperature. While this can be compensated for by changing breath pressure, the ocarina responds non-linearly to these changes across it's sounding range. Ocarinas will play best at the temperature they where tuned at. When played in a environment colder than it was tuned in the notes may be blown up to pitch. However doing so requires a larger change in breath pressure on the instruments high notes than low notes.

This non-linearity is likely responsible for the pitch errors I have been experiencing. It makes it difficult to learn an ocarinas breath curve as the curve required to play in concert pitch changes with ambient temperature.

Dealing with a non-linear breath curve shift as a player is problematic. This is analogous to having a string instrument whose frets move with temperature. As the 'set points' of the breath change muscle memory is not re-enforced.

In light of this, I'd recommend blowing the ocarina to stabilise it's temperature before a performance. From there play the ocarina with your usual breath curve and re-tune any accompaniment to you. Doing so will allow your breath curve to remain more consistent, allowing muscle memory to be re-enforced.

If you absolutely have to play in concert pitch in a cold situation, I would recommend obtaining an ocarina tuned to play in a440 at a lower ambient temperature.

This also makes sense as ocarinas tend to have a relatively limited pressure range in which they have there best tone. Blowing harder will raise there pitch, but it also makes the tone increasingly airy. In extreme cases this also causes the high notes to squeak.

Because the needed pressure change appears to grow the higher the note, I suspect ocarinas with fewer holes would experience less divergence between there high and low end. The measurements where taken on an 11 hole ocarina, though I did not measure the low B. On a 10 hole ocarina I would expect the required pressure change between the low and high end to be smaller.

I think that makers should specify the temperature an ocarina was tuned to play best at. If someone plays an ocarina in concert pitch in a cold environment and the high notes squeak as a result, they may assume they have a badly made instrument.

How where these measurements made?

The pressures involved with blown wind instruments are low. Water in A u tube may be used to measure low pressures, the difference between the water level in the two tubes is proportional to the pressure applied. This is commonly given as inches of water or centimetres of water.

While the u tube works for measuring low pressures I found it cumbersome to use as the water takes several seconds to stop moving after pressure is applied.

All commonly available 'dial' and digital pressure gauges are designed for measuring pressures considerably higher than the range I'm interested in, for example car tyre pressures and compressed air systems which use tens to hundreds of psi. I have measured ocarina breath pressures in the past using a U tube filled with water, and the highest pressure observed was 19 centimetres of water, about 0.27 PSI.

I discovered that pressure transducers do exist for such low pressure ranges. These are electronic components which linearly convert pressure into a voltage. I created a gauge using one of these and an arduino microcontroler to sample it's analogue output. The values from which where streamed to a Linux computer via USB serial.

The values obtained from this are simply the direct output of the Arduino's ADC, minus a zeroing offset as the transducer outputs a voltage higher than zero volts when no pressure is applied. I have made absolutely no attempt to calibrate these units to a universal standard as I do not have a reference standard with with to do so. However measurements taken may be compared with others made from the same device.

Since buying this transducer I have become aware of others which are designed to work with lower pressures. Using one of these would increase the resolution in the low pressures being measured. As is always the case, when you do something for the first time you inevitably find better ways of doing things.

Why an ocarinas chamber shape matters

It is commonly thought that the shape of an ocarina does not matter acoustically as the entire volume is always in oscillation. I have come to question this assumption due to the ease of attaining clear high notes in soprano ocarinas, while lower tunings struggle to do so.

I believe this is at least partially caused by chamber shape. I've long known that the size of a finger hole can never exceed the internal diameter of the chamber. If a hole is larger than the chamber, the chamber itself becomes the limiting factor and the pitch cannot rise.

This phenomenon is inherent in designing transverse soprano ocarinas. In order to attain the high pitch a small chamber volume is required. However in order to keep the instrument playable by people with larger hands the finger holes must be positioned far apart. The combination of these two factors forces the use of a high aspect ratio chamber, a chamber with a small internal diameter with respect to it's length.

I believe that this is, at least in part, responsible for the ease of attaining clear high notes in soprano ocarinas. To attain there pitch the size of many finger holes, particularly the thumb holes, must be close to the internal diameter of the chamber itself. When this happens, the air oscillating in the chamber seems to enter/exit via the hole, effectively bypassing the air in the section of chamber downstream of the hole. This seems to dynamically reduce the effective volume of air oscillating in the chamber as higher notes are played.

As is the case when the chamber volume is reduced by making a smaller ocarina, reducing the mass of air in oscillation allows it to oscillate faster and freely.

This effect may be easily employed in higher keyed ocarinas, however as the chamber volume increases the chamber must become increasingly bulbous. Bass ocarinas must be designed to keep there finger holes close so they may be played by people with smaller hands. Attaining the needed volume for a bass ocarina with a high aspect ratio chamber would require the finger holes to be spaced very wide apart and the length of the chamber would be unwieldy.

Continuing with the idea of chamber volume bypassing, one way of attaining the same effect with a manageable chamber design would be to have multiple 'sub volumes' attached to a main chamber. Each would have a hole at there base which bypasses the following chamber volume. Such a design is likely to have non-fundamental modes of resonance, which could bring out unpleasant tones, or cause some scale notes to have mismatched timbre.

Such a geometry could be folded within the volume of a typically shaped transverse ocarina chamber, meaning that the external appearance could be much the same as existing bass ocarinas. For example the two thumb holes of a bass ocarina could be used to bypass volume by enclosing them within a 'trunk' only open at one end, as shown in the following diagram.

It is probable that this could also be used to reduce active volume for ocarinas using a keyed hole to extend the range upwards. By inducing a slimier 'trunk' around that hole, as shown for the two thumb holes. This may be more effective in this situation as a larger hole could allow a greater volume to be bypassed.

Playable 3d printed ocarina experiment

Having seen a few uninspiring 3D printed ocarinas, I was curious weather it was possible to create a playable musical instrument using current technology. Playable meaning In tune, with good ergonomics, a good appearance and a musical tone.

I produced a 3D model of my current Pure Alto C. I followed it's dimensions closely but reduced it to a 10 hole, increasing the chance of getting a playable high end. When proofing a technology it makes sense to use the best implementation you can get access to. To this end I had it 3D printed by shapeways, who reportedly use 'million pound grade' machines.

3d printed ocarina
3d printed ocarina layers

My first impressions where generally good. Out of the box the ocarina had a smooth but powdery finish somewhat like unglazed earthenware. The detail-resolution attained by Shapeways' process is impressive. It's orders of magnitude better than anything I have seen out of consumer-grade filament machines. Ergonomically it handles much like the ceramic version, but is considerably lighter.

Shapeways uses a laser sintering process, fusing successive layers of powder. Unfortunately the cleaning process had not removed this powder from the windway, leaving the ocarina unplayable. After clearing the windway the ocarina was able to produce a sound through it's entire range. However the roughness created from the layers had not left a smooth enough finish inside the windway. This caused turbulence and left the ocarina with a noisy, edgy and harsh tone. The tone improved considerably after polishing the wind-way with some fine sandpaper.

As I had deliberately undersized the holes, it was not in tune, as there size is greatly effected by small changes in the chamber. It was subsequently tuned by opening out the holes using the same process used in my ceramic ocarinas. These could be measured and the model updated appropriately, which would make future ocarinas in tune.

It plays and sounds ok, but pails in comparison to the ceramic ocarina it was based on. Due to the layered nature of 3D printing, a considerable amount of detail resolution would be required to create a smooth enough wind-way 'out of the box'.

As of the current point in time, obtaining prints of this quality is very costly. The ocarina in this post cost just shy of £50, due to the need for hand finishing, the market price would have to be £80 to £100 plus shipping. Consequently selling them is uneconomic.

Material safety is also an unknown, plastics are well known for leaching toxic chemicals.

Once the price comes down 3d printing could be a means of producing bass ocarinas, and contrabass ocarinas. The reduced weight alone would be very welcome, as ceramic bases are very heavy and this weight hinders agile playing. Contrabass ocarinas are also difficult to make out of ceramic as they are prone to caving in.