Ocarina keys and pitch ranges
Ocarinas are made in different keys and pitch ranges to allow you to use higher or lower notes, or to fit in with other performers. Pitch ranges include bass, alto, and soprano—and keys include C, G, and F.
Pitch ranges (soprano, alto and bass)
In music, approximately 7 octaves are commonly used, which are numbered 1 to 7. An easy way of visualising these is to consider a piano keyboard. The low notes are on the left, and higher notes towards the right.
The ocarina is a limited range instrument, and a single chambered ocarina can only play within a small part of this total range. Single chambered ocarinas sound about 11 diatonic notes or an octave and a fourth, which is about the average range of the human voice. If visualised on the piano keyboard, it looks like this:
This by itself is very limiting, as you cannot make use of lower or higher notes for effect. Ocarinas are made to sound in different pitch ranges to work around their limited range. Fingerings remain the same, but the sounded pitch is raised or lowered by one or more octaves.
The pitch ranges of alto, bass, and soprano C ocarinas are illustrated below. Note that many ocarinas can play a few lower notes, covered under 'subholes' later in this section.Bass C ocarinas play from about C4 to F5: Alto C ocarinas play from about C5 to F6: And soprano C ocarinas play from about C6 to F7:
Contrabass ocarinas playing an octave lower, and sopranino ocarinas playing an octave higher also exist. Contrabass ocarinas are mostly used in ocarina ensembles. Sopranino ocarinas are rare.
Ocarinas with different pitch ranges retain the same fingering system, and playing a different one has the effect of transposing a performance up or down by one or more octaves.
Range is chosen to create the desired effect. For example, bass ocarinas are dark and sombre in tone, and blend pretty well when playing with a group of other instruments. Sopranos, on the other hand, are piercing and always take the lead in a mix.
Essentially, an ocarina's pitch range defines the lowest note that it is able to sound, and this also applies to multichambers. A double alto C, for example—a type of multichamber—extends the instrument's total range to two octaves by adding notes to the top, while the lowest note remains the same. This is covered later.
Many ocarinas have one or two 'subholes', which are additional holes added to extend the playing range downwards. For example, an alto C ocarina with one subhole allows the B below the tonic to be played. These notes are considered a range extension, thus an alto C does not become an alto B when a subhole is added.
Subhole notes are often tuned to require an irregular reduction in blowing pressure. They can also tend to sound quiet, have very unstable pitch, are often unclear or 'muddy'.
If you want more range, changing to a different key of ocarina or playing a multichamber in a lower key can allow the same notes to be played without those compromises.
The 'key' of an ocarina refers to the major scale sounded when no cross-fingered accidentals are used. For example. a C ocarina would produce a C scale, whereas the same fingerings on a G ocarina would produce a G scale.C Ocarina: G Ocarina:
So why is this useful? Say you want to play some music that is:
- Too high for a bass C ocarina.
- Too low for an alto C ocarina.
There is a good chance you can play it using an alto G, as it overlaps both ranges. In other words, you do not use an ocarina in a particular 'key' to play in that key, but rather to gain access to a different range of notes.
An alto G has a range that conveniently overlaps the range of both an alto C, and bass C ocarina:
The use of the term 'key' for this can be misleading as ocarinas are fully chromatic. To relate this to other instruments, a D tin whistle for example is a diatonic instrument that can only easily play one accidental, 'C natural'. You would have to use whistles in different keys to play music in different keys.
The ocarina is fully chromatic, and thus can play in any key that fits within the available range of notes. In general music terminology the term 'base pitch' is more appropriate, but people often use the word 'key' to mean both things.
Learning how to play ocarinas in different keys isn't that difficult, see: Playing ocarinas in different keys.
A multichamber ocarina takes a single chambered ocarina of a given pitch range, such as bass, alto, or soprano, and adds additional chambers which extend the range of the high end. Multichambers are available in pitch ranges from bass to soprano. A bass double starts an octave lower than an alto in the same key, and finishes an octave lower at the top.
There are two systems commonly used to tune multichambers: 'Asian' and 'Pacchioni'. The Asian system focuses on range, whereas the Pacchioni tuning aims more towards player convenience. The ranges provided by these systems are shown below. A general summary is given here, and the full details are covered on the page 'Multichamber ocarinas and their tuning systems'.
Pitch ranges have been shown relative to an 'alto' ocarina in C. You can transpose these up or down to get the range of bass or soprano multichambers, as well as ones in other keys. Note that soprano multichamber ocarinas may have fewer chambers.
Many multichambers have one or two subholes, although I have omitted them as they may or may not be available. You can just add one or two diatonic notes to the bottom of any of these ranges.
The Asian system tunes chambers as a linear progression. On a C instrument, the highest note on the first chamber is usually D, the second begins on E, and this pattern continues over subsequent chambers. Because of this, the system provides the most range.A double alto C has a sounding range of about two octaves: A triple has a range of about two octaves and a sixth: A quad has a range of about three octaves and a forth:
The Pacchioni system is more focused on player convenience. Instead of tuning the chambers as a linear progression, they are tuned such that a small number of notes overlap, similar to a stringed instrument. This does a few things:
- It reduces the need for chamber switching in some music
- It can gives you more choice when to switch between chambers.
- Notes can be trilled that would be impractical on the Asian system due to the chamber break.
Final notes on multichambers
Note that, with multichambers, more isn't universally 'better' as more range results in a heavier instrument. Consequently, you may still want a number of multichambers in different ranges and/or keys. Having multichambers in different keys offers the same possibilities of simplified fingerings and different ornamentation possibilities that exist with single chambers.
Finally the exact range provided by a multichamber can vary, so you'd have to check a fingering chart for a given instrument to be sure.
The system that is described here is the most common way of classifying ocarinas as of writing, but is not the only one. Ocarinas are not hugely standardised and different makers have developed their own systems. For example, 'tenor' is sometimes used as a synonym for the 'alto' range.
How pitch ranges relate to keys is also not always clear. A soprano G sounds an octave higher than an alto G, but it is not clear where an 'alto' becomes a 'soprano' within the range of available keys. A general answer is between D and F, but the exact break point varies between makers.
The Budrio / Italian ocarina septet tradition
Within the Italian ocarina septet tradition a different naming system is used for naming ocarinas. This is based on the 'fixed Do' solfage system and numbers ocarinas sequentially starting from Do 1, a soprano at C6. Higher numbers indicate lower pitch:
|Soprano C||Do 1||C6|
|Soprano G||Sol 2||G5|
|Alto C||Do 3||C5|
|Alto G||Sol 4||G4|
|Bass C||Do 5||C4|
|Bass G||Sol 6||G3|
|Contrabass C||Do 7||C3|
The author's thoughts
I personally find the standard naming convention needlessly confusing, as 'bass' ocarinas only play down to about middle C, which in other contexts isn't typically considered 'bass'. Contrabass ocarinas, which sound an octave lower than bass ones, do exist. In my opinion, calling 'bass' ocarinas 'tenor' and renaming 'contrabass' to 'bass' would be more sensible. However, at this point, doing so would only cause more confusion.
One way to address all of these issues is to forget about names like 'alto' and 'bass' altogether and just use octave numbers. Thus an alto C would be simply 'C5', referring to it's base note. This would make it clear how a given ocarina relates to other instruments, and would resolve the confusion that exists with keys as well.