The technicalities of composing for the ocarina

Composing for the ocarina requires a different approach to many instruments due to their limited range and lack of easy control over volume dynamics. The musical function of the ocarina is pretty close to the tin whistle and certain kinds of bagpipe.

There are many types of ocarinas, of which the most widely adapted for serious playing is the Italian transverse ocarina and derivatives thereof. These ocarinas have a range of approximately an octave and fourth, are fully chromatic, and have an innate volume dynamic where the high notes are louder than the low.

Ocarinas can produce timbres ranging from the 'pure' tone the instrument is most known for, to a textured 'buzzy' timbre. This is set when the instrument is made, and varying it requires changing instrument. Ocarinas are are loud, piercing, and almost always take the lead in a mix.

Working with limited range instruments may be a lost art to some extent. A limited range chromatic instrument offers possibilities for minor and modal music, for example modulating between different modes in the same range. Examples of this can be found in music for the French central bagpipe, Swedish bagpipe and Arabic music.

Two different approaches have been used to extend the range of the instrument:

  • Ensemble and septet. A wide range can be attained by writing for multiple players, each playing ocarinas tuned to different keys, with overlapping ranges. Melodies can then be written to hand off between the players, while others provide harmony. There is an established tradition of the ocarina septet, a group of 7 players performing together.
  • Multichambered ocarinas Multichambered ocarinas are essentially multiple ocarinas which are combined into a single instrument with a larger range. Physically they play very similarly to single chambered ocarinas. Some multichamber ocarinas can play harmonies between chambers, but this isn't their main intent.

Any individual, skilled ocarina player can be expected to be able to:

  • Play chromatically over a range of at least an octave and a fourth using a single chamber ocarina, spanning different ranges by changing instruments (see 'Sounding range' below).
  • Alternately, play chromatically over a range of about two octaves and a sixth using a multichamber ocarina (with compromises discussed under 'multichamberd ocarinas').
  • Leap between any note on the instrument and any other note cleanly at high tempos.
  • Articulate notes with tonguing or slurring, and make use of a wide assortment of ornamentation including glissandos, vibrato, mordants, grace notes, and cuts / strikes.

The sounding range of single chambered ocarinas

Single chambered transverse ocarinas are fully chromatic instruments with a limited range. They can produce about an octave and a fourth (e.g. C5 to F7) .

To work around the limited range, ocarinas are available in multiple tunings, for example C, G or B flat, shifting the pitch of the whole instrument up or down. An ocarina in G may for instance play from G4 to C6.

It is important to stress that ocarinas in different keys and ranges are used to gain access to a different range of notes, not play in a given key, as the instrument is fully chromatic.

Ocarinas have been made in all 12 keys between C3 and C6. The most commonly available ranges for single chambered ocarinas are those used by the traditional ocarina septet:

  • Contrabass C — C3 to D4
  • Bass G — G3 to A4
  • Bass C — C4 to F5
  • Alto G — G4 to C6
  • Alto C — C5 to F6
  • Soprano G — G5 to C7
  • Soprano C — C6 to F7


As noted, the original design of the transverse ocarina sounds a range of an octave, with an extension to the fourth above. Subholes are a modification to this system which extends the range of the instrument downwards:

  • An ocarina with one subhole (11 hole ocarina) provides an extension of one semitone below the base note (one diatonic note).
  • An ocarina with two subholes (12 hole ocarina) provides an extension of a minor third below the base note (two diatonic notes).

The range extension provided by subholes however is not 'free'. Due to physics, it changes the playing characteristics and tone balance of the whole instrument:

  • The subhole notes are usually very quiet, muddy in timbre, and very unstable in pitch.
  • Introducing subholes often causes the ocarina's high notes to sound airy and thin.
  • Subholes may cause the ocarina's breath curve to be steeper, affecting volume balance and making wide leaps harder to play in tune.
  • Subholes are played by sliding a finger, which is ergonomically more challenging than lifting / placing them, and can be an obstacle at higher tempos.

The range that an ocarina can sound naturally decreases as chamber volume increases. Introducing two subholes in 'soprano' range ocarinas has very little impact to their playing characteristics. Only exceptionally well made alto ocarinas can have two without suffering from the problems noted.

In alto range ocarinas, subhole notes can work effectively as passing notes, but you generally don't want to start or finish a piece of music on one of these notes, unless you are deliberately going for a weak effect.

Bass and lower ocarinas should not be expected to have subholes, and if a bass ocarina does have subholes, don't expect them to sound very good.

The ranges of ocarinas are discussed in detail in the article Ocarina keys and pitch ranges.

Music notation

Music for ocarina is written in standard music notation in the treble clef, and ones in different octaves are usually treated as a transposing instrument whereby the ledger line C below the staff refers to an ocarina's low C. Consequently:

  • Soprano ocarinas sound two octaves higher than written.
  • Alto ocarinas play an octave higher than written.
  • Bass ocarinas sound at written pitch.
  • Contrabass ocarinas sound an octave below written pitch.
  • Sub-contrabass ocarinas sound two octaves below written pitch.

The treble clef is used for notating music in all octaves as all of these instruments have the same fingerings. Players often start on an alto C ocarina before moving to ones in different octaves.

Ocarinas in other keys may be treated either as transposing instruments, or written at sounding pitch. Just be sure to clearly indicate what you are doing:

  • In prearranged ocarina ensemble music, ocarinas in G and other keys are usually treated as transposing instruments and music is written as-if they were in C.
  • Individual player's may prefer music written at sounding pitch. As music for the ocarina is uncommon, players commonly choose the key of an ocarina to fit the range of some music they want to play, and may learn to read at written pitch.

One reason for writing music at sounding pitch is that a player may prefer to play something on a multichamber in a different key, which overlaps the required range. When music is written at sounding pitch it is easier to work out how to do so.

Ocarina septet, and other ocarina ensemble music also follows the pattern of using the treble clef regardless of sounding octave. Some historic septet music used the F clef for contrabass parts, although this is no longer common.

Playing characteristics, volume dynamics and ornamentation

For any single fingering within the ranges outlined in the previous section, an ocarina will only play in tune at a single volume. Ocarinas have an innate volume dynamic where the high notes are considerably louder than the low ones. The exact volume dynamic varies between ocarinas and is not standardised.

Volume dynamics are technically possible, and achieving them requires partially venting or shading finger holes and changing blowing pressure so that the pitch does not change. This is quite difficult to do consistently and as of writing, is not common practice among players.

Similar to bagpipe music, creating an interesting performance on an ocarina depends on:

  • Utilising the innate volume dynamic of the instrument.
  • Using varied articulation and ornamentation.

An easy way of approaching composing for the ocarina is to write the music such that the parts of the music one wants to emphasise are high notes, and parts that are de-emphasised are lower notes. Yet this alone is rather restrictive.

Notes can also be emphasised using articulation and ornamentation:

  • Notes in the high range can be de-emphasised using very short staccato articulation.
  • Ocarinas can perform a wide assortment of ornamentation. Ocarinas respond very quickly to changes in fingering and briefly opening or closing a hole creates a percussive blip. These can be combined rapidly to create emphatic ornaments.

As well as being quieter, the pitch of an ocarina's lowest notes is exceptionally sensitive to pressure changes and can easily be bent sharp by about a major third, and flat by about a major second. The high notes, on the other hand, are very insensitive to pressure changes, and only bend about a quarter tone flat or sharp before they start to sound bad.

The pitch instability can make for effective ornamentation, for example starting at low pressure, and bending the note up to the intended pitch, creating a simultaneous change in pitch and volume. Naturally, breath vibrato is also easily achieved on any note.

Ocarinas are easiest to play in a relatively stepwise fashion. The larger the interval, and higher the tempo of the music, the harder it is for a player to perform cleanly. This is due to a few factors:

  • Fingers will 'shade' holes and lower the sounded pitch even when they are far from the holes, and this makes playing at very high tempo technically difficult as fingers must move a large distance (relative to other wind instruments), and movement time can end up being a large part of a note's total duration.
  • The pressure difference between the low and high notes is also a lot more pronounced than many other instruments. As holes are opened the player must blow harder to maintain a strong sound. Due to the forced volume dynamic, patterns that repeatedly leap between a low note and high note may sound unbalanced.

That being said, very high tempo music that uses a lot of leaps can be performed on ocarina given a sufficiently skilled player. There are examples of Asian ocarina players performing 'flight of the bumblebee' on a multichamber ocarina on YouTube, with very impressive technical competency.

The best way of learning the limits of the ocarina would be to find a skilled player online, offer them music to try, and see what they are capable of performing, and what sounds good.

Multichamber ocarinas

Multichamber ocarinas extend the range of a single chamber upwards. For example:

  • The first chamber of an Asian system double alto C plays from C5 to D♯6 (ignoring subholes)
  • The second chamber plays for E6 to C7, giving the whole instrument a range from C5 to C7

Multichambered ocarinas with as many as 4 chambers can be found, but ones with two or three are by far the most common as of writing. Chambers are numbered starting from one and ascend upwards. The first chamber is responsible for the lowest notes, and subsequent chambers for higher ones.

The physical layout of a multichamber ocarina. The first chamber is almost identical to a single chamber ocarina, with holes for the left and right hand positioned opposite each other. Additional chambers are added to the right hand, which extend the range upwards, usually having about 4 holes per chamber. Up to 3 additional chambers can be added. These chambers are additive, meaning that the second chamber on a triple ocarina is the same as the second chamber on a double, although exact fingerings do vary between makers

Each chamber is somewhat analogous to a single string on a chordophone, in that they must be fingered and played separately. However, the total range that is played by each chamber is much smaller. The first chamber has the largest range with about a minor tenth, and higher chambers producing about a minor sixth each.

Exactly what range is provided by each chamber depends of the tuning system. There are two different tuning systems found on multichambers, Asian and Pacchioni:

  • The Asian system provides the most range, where each chamber is tuned as a linier extension from the previous chamber.
  • The Pacchioni system aims to make playing more complex music easier by tuning chambers with overlapping notes.

The ranges provided by each chamber of both of these systems is discussed in detail in the article Multichamber ocarinas and their tuning systems.

It should be noted that both of these designs exist primarily to extend the sounding range. Some multichambered ocarinas can play well-tuned harmonies between chambers, but this can't be assumed as of writing. Maintaining precise harmony tuning between chambers for a range of different intervals is complex due to the physics of the instrument.

There have been some experiments with introducing internal channels allowing the higher chambers to use fingerings incorporating both the left and right hand, with varying success, and other compromises.

Playing characteristics of multichamber ocarinas

The playing characteristics of multichambered ocarinas are very similar to that of singles. The higher notes of the first chamber are generally much louder than the lowest notes. Higher chambers are likewise louder on their higher notes than low ones.

The volume balance between multiple chambers is usually relatively flat on average. There tends to be a mild drop in volume between the lowest note on one chamber and highest note on the previous one. This does again vary between ocarinas and isn't standardised.

It is easiest to move between notes on one chamber as well as between notes on two adjacent chambers. Making a leap which skips over an intermediate chamber takes more time, due to the larger distance the windway and fingers must move to reach the desired chamber.

For me personally, Playing 4/4 eighth notes, with each note on an adjacent chamber (leaping back and forth) is possible up to about 180 BPM. On a triple ocarina with a chamber skip, the same exercise at 170 BPM is achievable. Both feel like I could raise the tempo with practice.

On Asian system multichambers, there is no note overlap between chambers, so you cannot 'cheat' as can be done on violin by changing positions. The Pacchioni system does provide an overlap and offers some of those benefits. See Multichamber ocarinas and their tuning systems.

Performing a switch cleanly is usually done by tonguing the note (stopping the sound) to prevent off-sounds from being created. While composing, the music needs to be phrased such that these forced breaks don't awkwardly split phrases.

Regarding an alto C ocarina:

  • The break between the first and second chamber is between D6 and E6 in both the Asian and Pacchioni systems.
  • The break between the second and third chamber is between C7 and D7 on an Asian system, or G6 and A6 on a Pacchioni system.
  • The break between the third and fourth chamber is between A7 and B7 on an Asian system, or between C7 and D7 on a Pacchioni system.