Ocarina keys and pitch ranges

Side Note

This page assumes you understand octave registers, their naming convention, and scales, if not please read 'Octaves and scale formation'.

Ocarinas are made in different pitch ranges—bass, alto, and soprano—and keys, like C, G, and F. When you first approach the instrument, it may be unclear what these are for. What are the practical functions of these, and what should you be looking for?

Pitch ranges (soprano, alto and bass)

In music, approximately 7 octaves are commonly used, which are numbered 1 to 8. 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.

An octave arises from doubling the pitch of a note, and 7 octaves are commonly used in music, numbered 1 through 7

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:

A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of an alto C ocarina highlighted

This by itself is very limiting, as a player cannot make use of lower or higher notes for effect. To solve this problem, ocarinas are made to sound in different pitch ranges. 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: A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of a bass C ocarina highlighted Alto C ocarinas play from about C5 to F6: A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of an alto C ocarina highlighted And soprano C ocarinas play from about C6 to F7: A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of a soprano C ocarina highlighted

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, 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.

Subholes

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.

A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of an alto C ocarina with one subhole highlighted

While this additional range looks like a great thing, these notes have limited use in practice. Subhole notes generally lack volume, have very unstable pitch, and tend to sound unclear or 'muddy'. They can be useful as passing notes, such as quickly playing the leading tone of the ocarina's key, B in C Major. These additional holes also allow fingerings for playing several accidentals. You wouldn't want to start or end a performance on a subhole though, unless done for deliberate effect.

Attempting to include too many subholes causes problems as the range attainable by a single chambered ocarina is limited by its physics. A single chamber can only support so many holes before the high notes become unacceptably airy. One subhole (an 11 hole ocarina) is usually not a problem, but two subholes (12 hole ocarina) is on the limit of what a single chamber is able to do, and frequently causes problems.

If you want more range, changing to a different key of ocarina or playing a multichamber in a lower key are superior options. These options are explained in the following two sections. Indecently, including subholes on a multichamber is much less of a problem, as each chamber is responsible for a smaller part of the total range.

Keys

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: A diagram showing the right hand fingerings of an alto C ocarina

C: T I M R P
D: T I M R
E: T I M
F: T I
G: T G Ocarina: A diagram showing the right hand fingerings of an alto G ocarina

G: T I M R P
A: T I M R
B: T I M
C: T I
D: T

While the term 'key' has become standard, it is somewhat misleading as ocarinas are fully chromatic. You do not use an ocarina in a different 'key' to play in that 'key', but rather to gain access to a different range of notes. Say you want to play something that is too high for a bass C ocarina, but too low for an alto C. There is a good chance you can using an alto G, as it overlaps both ranges.

A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of an alto G ocarina highlighted

Playing ocarinas in different keys allows you to vary your sounded pitch, so as not to be fatiguing in a long performance. Also, it is almost essential when playing with other musicians, as they may be unable, or unwilling to change the key of their music just to fit around the limitations of your instrument.

While you may think that playing ocarinas in different keys is a nightmare because you have to remember different notes for the same fingerings, it actually isn't that difficult. Because all major scales are based on the same pattern, you can play a tune with the same fingerings on an ocarina in a different key and it will sound the same, but higher or lower in pitch. Learning to sight read at pitch is also a useful skill, and isn't that difficult with a good approach.

Additional considerations

Thus far, the basic ideas of ocarina keys and pitch ranges have been addressed, but there are some other things to consider. While the idea behind this system is almost universal*, the terms used to describe different ranges sometimes vary. Over time, 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.

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 a confusion that exists with keys as well.

* When ocarinas are played in an ensemble, a different naming system is sometimes used. This is described at the end of the page.

Multichamber ocarinas

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 on its high end.

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.

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. Note that 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. 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.

Pitch ranges are 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 ocarinas may have fewer chambers. As the pitch increases, chamber volume decreases, and it can reach a point of being too small to be playable.

A general summary is given here, and the full details are covered on the page 'Multichamber ocarinas and their tuning systems'.

Asian

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 diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of a double alto C ocarina highlighted A triple has a range of about two octaves and a sixth: A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of a triple alto C ocarina highlighted A quad has a range of about three octaves and a forth: A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of a quad alto C ocarina highlighted

Pacchioni

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, and gives you more choice when to switch between them. This allows trilling of notes that would lie across two chambers.

A double has a range of an octave and a fifth or sixth. The extra note is provided by the P* system, which includes a second chamber thumb hole: A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of a P* pacchioni system double alto C ocarina highlighted A triple has a range of 2 octaves: A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of a pacchioni system triple alto C ocarina highlighted A quad has a range of 2 octaves and a fourth: A diagram showing a piano keyboard with the range of a pacchioni system quad alto C ocarina highlighted

The Budrio naming convention

Historically, ocarinas have been played in ensembles of 7 players and, within this tradition, a different system is used for naming ocarinas. This is based on the 'fixed Do' solfage system and numbers ocarinas sequentially, where higher numbers indicate lower pitch. Do 1 is a soprano at C6, while Do 3 is an alto at C5. Between the two is Sol 2, G5. See the following table:

Modern Budrio 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