How to play the ocarina by ear

Contrary to popular belief, playing the ocarina by ear is not something you must be born with. It is like reading or speaking a foreign language: you may recognise certain patterns in the sound, but won't have any idea what it means until you learn the words and grammar.

Music is similar. A melody is a series of notes of different pitches, and these form larger structures called figures and phrases. Playing the ocarina by ear means learning to recognise these patterns, and how to reproduce them on your ocarina.

let's consider 3 notes with a low, medium and high pitch. You can hear them by clicking on the buttons below. Note that it is not important which notes they are right now, just listen to how they sound in relation to each other.

If you play with these for a while, you will notice a few things:

  • Moving from Low to Medium, and from Low to High sounds different.
  • Moving from Low to High sounds different than moving from High to Low, even though the pitches are the same.
  • Playing any note followed by the same note also has a distinctive sound.

Playing a simple melody by ear

You can form a melody from these 3 notes by playing different notes in sequence. For example, a melody could be:

Low, Low, Medium, Low, Low, Medium, High, Low

The key to playing a melody like this by ear is to notice that there are only a limited number of ways that one note can move to another note:

  • A sequence of notes at the same pitch: Low, Low, Low.
  • An ascending sequence: Low, Medium, High.
  • A descending sequence: High, Medium, Low.
  • A leap: Low to High, or High to Low, skipping Medium.

All of these patterns have a distinctive sound and learning how to play by ear just means learning to recognise these patterns, and reproduce them on an instrument.

The tool below generates melodies using the 3 notes introduced above, and you can play by clicking on the buttons as before.

Either play around with it, or continue reading for some more guidance.


Playing these melodies by ear is a simple 3 step process:

Step 1: Listen to the notes

Start by listening to the 3 notes being used one after another, and remember their pitches and how they sound.

Step 2: Listen to the melody

It can feel intuitive to try to play by ear by playing in real time over what you are hearing, but this really isn't a good idea. Doing that, you're only giving yourself a fraction of a second to hear the note!

This is why the second step is to listen through the whole melody a few times without playing. The goal is to hear and memorise the structure:

  • Notice how the melody changes from note to note.
  • For each note, does it sound like High, Medium or Low?

You may find it useful to draw the shape of the melody on paper at first, a simple line graph of the pitches. For example, if the melody was 'medium, low, high, low', you could draw it like this:

When you play by ear, you want to hear the different pitches and visualise them in your mind. Drawing the pitches as a graph may also be helpful at first.

Try to hear how moving from Low to Medium, and Low to High sound different. The distance between two notes is called an 'interval', and how they sound changes with how far apart the notes are.

Step 3: Play

Play the notes, and listen. Does it sound the same?

Now lets try it on the ocarina!

As was demonstrated above, it is easiest to get started playing the ocarina by ear when you know the range of notes being used. We are using a few notes from the middle of the range as they have more stable pitch.

A diagram showing the fingerings of the notes G, A, and B for an alto C ocarina.

The following tool uses pitch detection to know when the correct notes have been played. Click 'Learn!' to get started.

Tips and guidance

The process of playing by ear on a real ocarina is about the same as above:

Play the 3 notes on your ocarina to hear how they sound

Play the 3 notes shown in the fingering chart above on your ocarina so that you can hear how they sound. You may find it useful to use a tuner to make sure you are playing them in tune.

Listen to the melody.

Listen to the entire melody and hear how it changes from one note to the next. Like before you may find it useful to draw out the shape of the melody.

Play it by ear on your ocarina.

Try playing the notes on your ocarina.

The tool will show you when you've played the correct notes, and shows how accurately you are playing with a horizontal line:

  • If the line is at the bottom the note you are playing is lower than what you are hearing.
  • If it is at the top, it is higher than the played note.
  • If it is in the centre, you are playing the same note, and are in tune.

If you are struggling, try slowing down the tempo. Also note that process of elimination can be used. If a sequence ascends by 3 notes, and the melody only uses 3 notes, then you know it starts on the lowest note.

Playing rhythms by ear

You may be wandering why I have not yet discussed rhythms with regards to playing by ear, and the reason is that most people can copy a rhythm by ear without difficulty.

Playing rhythms by ear is advantageous as you'll more easily learn to play rhythms musically. There are a lot of expressive details in human performances, such as variations in the exact durations of notes. It can easily be learned when you are playing by ear, but may not be notated in sheet music.

That being said, it is still important to practice rhythms to learn to play them accurately. In particular, learning how it sounds when a note is played early, late, and in time will help you to naturally correct any mistakes that you may be making.

Learning how to clap some of the common rhythmic patterns will also be useful. This, and the subject of the previous paragraph are discussed in How to practice rhythms.

Congratulations

By this point you should have played your first music by ear on the ocarina, congratulations!

From here it is just a matter of practice. Try working on some melodies with a larger sounding range, introducing one or two notes at a time.

The second part of this series, Finding notes and playing longer melodies introduces some more techniques that will help you approach more complicated music, especially if you don't know the range of notes that it is using.

And the third part, Using melodic patterns to play by ear teaches you to recognise common patterns used in music, and will help you find notes fluidly.

Level 1

1 - G,A

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2 - G,A

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1 - G,A,B

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2 - G,A,B

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3 - G,A,B

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4 - G,A,B

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1 - G,A,B,c

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2 - G,A,B,c

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2 - G,A,B,c

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2 - G,A,B,c

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Common patterns etude 1

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Common patterns etude 2

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