Ocarina playing characteristics and timbre

One thing to consider when choosing an ocarina is playing characteristics and timbre. Ocarinas can produce a range of timbres from loose and airy to deeply textured and buzzy. Playing characteristics like volume balance and the breath curve also vary a lot, which impacts the kinds of music that are easy to play.

Sound holes, timbre and range

As is discussed on the page How ocarinas work, the shape and size of the sound hole is the main thing that controls an ocarinas timbre, or tone colour.

Ocarinas are available with many different sound hole designs, and these impact the timbre, range and breath curve. In summary:

  • Rectangular sound holes have a buzzy timbre and play with a flatter pressure curve. Ocarinas with this kind of sound hole typically have a balanced volume over their range, with soft high notes. However the total range they can produce is also quite small, and they are sensitive to blowing pressure.
  • Teardrop, round, and oval sound holes lean towards a pure sound, with teardrop being the cleanest sounding. Round and oval voicings can produce a more textured sound somewhere between teardrop and rectangular. They tend to be louder on the high notes, and the longer shape of oval voicings may sound more chiffy, although this does depend on the area of the voicing in relation to chamber volume.
  • Sound hole size influences both volume and timbre. If chamber volume is fixed, larger sound holes generally sound more breathy while smaller ones bring out the characteristic timbre of the sound hole shape, pure or buzzy. Larger sound holes are usually more balanced in volume, louder overall, and need more air. Smaller sound holes are often much louder on the high notes and may attain more range.

Breath curves and playing characteristics

Together, the design of the voicing and chamber volume creates a 'possibility space' wherein an ocarina can sound. This space is quite large as ocarinas change pitch with blowing pressure, so makers choose the sizes of the finger holes to attain the desired playing characteristics.

As was discussed on the page covering breath curves, ocarinas vary in pressure sensitivity over their range and the low notes are more sensitive. This effect can be used in combination with the finger holes to expand the total range. The ocarina is tuned with a large low end to high end pressure difference, frequently with a low end pressure drop.

A graph showing the typical breath curve of an Asian 12 hole ocarina, the pressure increases gradually, more steeply towards the high end, with a sharp pressure drop on the lowest notes

This tuning does extend the range, but it also has an effect of altering the ocarina's volume dynamics, leaving the low notes considerably quieter than the high notes. A different approach that results in a more balanced volume dynamic is to increase the blowing pressure on the low end. But as blowing harder also raises the pitch, the total attainable range is also reduced. Ocarinas tuned in this way can typically only achieve 10 holes.

A graph showing the breath curve of an ocarina with a low end pressure raise, and a gentle curve towards the high notes. Increasing the pressure the low notes are tuned at in relation to the high notes makes the volume of the whole instrument more balanced, but tends to reduce sounding range

Closing notes

Ocarinas are lossy instruments, and one can only open so many holes before they start to sound unacceptably airy. Things like voicing design and tuning have a direct impact on range, but these same design choices also affect timbre. Thus ocarinas cannot be approached in the same way as other instruments. One must be willing to accept a smaller range if balanced volume, or a highly textured timbre is required.

As of the time of writing, there is a strong drive in the market towards standardising on the 12 hole fingering system. I believe this has arisen form a lack of understanding, and it should now be apparent why this is a problem. Approaching ocarinas in this way forces makers into a very small corner of the possibility space. Only designs leaning towards a pure sound, with a small voicing and steep pressure curve can attain the full range of a 12 hole.

Such designs do affect practical application, and the loss in low end volume means that such ocarinas are often only useable in a recording studio or otherwise quiet setting, as the low notes lack the volume to project. Available timbres are very limited, and rectangular voicings aren't found in 12 hole ocarinas as they cannot produce the required range.

A side effect is pushing for maximum range is airy high notes, and this has lead to an association that airy is bad. In fact, airiness is fine, and an ocarina with an airy timbre balanced across its range can be very effective in some kinds of music. The problem is when airiness is unbalanced between the high and low end. Achieving a balanced airy timbre tends to mean accepting a smaller total range.

Ocarinas are quite versatile, but to access most of that flexibility means getting out of the '12 hole box', either to 10 hole ocarinas or multichambers.