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.

An ocarina sound hole with a teardrop shape.

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 (10 holes or less), and they screech easily if overblown.
  • 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, are usually more balanced in volume, louder overall, and need more air. Smaller sound holes are about the opposite. They bring out the characteristic timbre of the sound hole shape (pure or buzzy), and tend to be much louder on the high notes.

Many people go for 'pure' sounding ocarinas as they are the most available, or most widely known characteristic of the instrument. Do try out ocarinas with other timbres though, as a more textured sound can blend in better with other instruments.

Breath curves and playing characteristics

The choice of sound hole shape, as well as its overall size in relation to the chamber volume creates a 'possibility space' wherein an ocarina can sound. Imagine if you started with an ocarina with no finger holes, then progressively make the holes larger, measuring the lowest and highest pressure that the instrument will produce sound. You'd be left with a range something like this:

The design of an ocarina's sound hole and chamber volume creates a possibility space wherein the instrument can produce sound.

A maker is free to place the ocarina's breath curve anywhere within this range by adjusting blowing pressure and sizes of the finger holes.

Because ocarinas change pitch depending on how hard they are blown, the maximum possible sounding range would be attained by a curve from the bottom left, to upper right of the possibility space. That is low pressure on the low notes, high pressure on the high notes. Such a tuning would not sound very good, it would have very quiet low notes and exceptionally airy and finicky high notes.

12 hole ocarinas make use of a similar, but less extreme pressure curve. Typically they are tuned such that the low C to high F play with a steeply increasing curve. The lowest notes are tuned with an irregular pressure cut. If graphed it looks something like this:

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. The lowest notes of such an instrument often don't sound very good.

A different approach that results in a more balanced volume dynamic over the range of the instrument is to slightly enlarge the sound hole and increase the blowing pressure on the low end. Tuning an ocarina like this also reduces the total range to about 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

In general, an ocarina with fewer finger holes will sound more balanced in timbre and volume over its whole range than one with a larger range, as well as have a shallower breath curve. However this does depend on how the ocarina was tuned, and can only be known for sure by playing the ocarina.

In summary:

  • Ocarinas with steeper breath curves are louder on average, with a large difference in volume between the high and low notes. That pressure difference also makes playing high tempo, or technically complex music more difficult.
  • Ocarinas with flatter breath curves have the opposite characteristic: their volume is more balanced over the range, and such instruments are typically easier to play at higher tempos.

Which of these factors is desirable varies depending on what you are trying to do with the ocarina. A steep breath curve can be useful if a volume dynamic of loud high notes fits with the way that the music was written.

Chamber volume and sounding volume

Ocarinas can be designed to be loud or quiet while sounding at the same pitch. This is achieved by changing the volume of the chamber, blowing pressure and the size of the sound hole:

  • Ocarinas that have a larger chamber volume and sound hole play with a higher pressure and are louder.
  • Ocarinas with a smaller chamber volume and sound hole play at a lower blowing pressure and are quieter.

Note that both of these types can be made with either a steep or shallow breath curve. Chamber volume and sound hole size changes the loudness of the lowest note, while the steepness of the breath curve controls the volume dynamic between the high and low notes.

A louder ocarina can be useful if you are playing outside or in a large room without amplification. However such instruments also require a larger volume of air to sound, which makes it more challenging to play very long notes.

You can get a reasonable idea of the pressure required to play an ocarina by looking at the sizes of the finger holes. Larger holes generally indicate an ocarina tuned a higher pressure, but this isn't foolproof as hole size also depends on chamber shape and wall thickness.

Closing notes

Ocarinas can offer players quite a diverse range of options with playing characteristics and timbre, which will suit different situations. But many of these aspects coupled:

  • One can only open so many holes before the high notes 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.

If you're looking for an ocarina with a balanced volume and highly textured timbre, the total sounding range of the instrument is going to be reduced.

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 sound cleanly over full range of a 12 hole.

Ocarinas are quite versatile instruments, but to access most of that flexibility means getting out of the '12 hole box', either being willing to accept less range, or using multichamber ocarinas. Multichambers do not suffer from the same limitations as each chamber produces a small part of the total range.

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