How to play ocarina with sheet music

Learning to play the ocarina with sheet music is not as difficult as you may think. Lets consider a simple question, do you know how to drive, and can you swim? If so, think back to how you learned to do those things.

Most probably, you learned them gradually over a long period of time. Reading sheet music is likewise a learned skill, and one that takes time to develop. Yet you can learn enough to start playing some music in just a few hours.

The basics of sheet music

Logically, sheet music is very simple. Like written English, sheet music is a series of lines. but unlike English, each line of music is written on 5 more lines like below. These 5 lines are collectively called the 'staff' or 'stave'.

Sheet music represents notes with the staff, a set of 5 equally spaced horizontal lines.

Much of the apparent complexity of sheet music exists because it represents two different things at once. Melodies are a series of notes played to a rhythm, and sheet music is designed to tell you both:

  • Which note to play on your instrument.
  • How long each note should be played for.

Both of these things are shown on the staff using a symbol called a 'note'. In its simplest form, a note is just a circle that marks a vertical position.

Similarly to a graph, the vertical position of the note tells you which pitch to play on your instrument. Here are a small selection of notes, and how the same notes are fingered on a C transverse ocarina.

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

Notes are read left to right, and repeated notes in the same vertical position mean that the music is using a series of notes at the same pitch. In this case, four sequential G notes, followed by 4 sequential A notes.

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
"G" G "G" G "G" G "G" G | "A" A "A" A "A" A "A" A

Now, you may be thinking 'these notes don't look right', as you probably have an image of a 'note' from common culture, something like a circle with a line attached. You would be partially correct, and in fact there are multiple kinds of note:

Notes of different shapes represent different durations of time.

Notes consist of multiple parts:

  • The note head. As discussed, the vertical position of the head in the staff tells you which note to play on your instrument.
  • The stem and flags, modify the overall appearance of the symbol. Notes of different appearance tell you how long that note will be played before you move on to the next note, describing the rhythm of the music.
Music notes have 3 parts, a round head that marks pitch, and the stem and flags, which mark duration.

It is important to stress that only the position of the head within the staff defines the pitch, and all of the following show the same pitch. These are a series of successively shorter notes:

not found

Notice that:

  • The whole note only has a head, while all of the others notes feature a stem as well.
  • Up to the quarter note, no flags are used.
  • From the eighth note, each additional flag signifies that the notes duration is divided in half. One flag having half the duration of a quarter note, two flags half again (a quarter the duration), and so on.

If you would like to know more, take a look at the article Understanding rhythm.

How to play the ocarina with sheet music

There are a number of different ways of learning to play the ocarina with sheet music, depending on what you are trying to achieve:

If you want to learn to sight read

Sight reading sheet music is the ability to play music on an instrument from sheet music the first time you see it. Developing this skill is all about training your subconscious mind.

To learn how to sight read, you start with very simple music, and:

  • Learn how to perform some simple rhythms, and how those are notated in sheet music.
  • Learn the fingerings for a small range of pitches.
  • Practice sight reading music that only uses the rhythms and notes that you know, until you don't need to think about it.
  • Then you'd repeat this in a cycle, gradually learning more rhythms, and a wider range of notes.

It allows you to develop a strong subconscious association, but will take longer to get to a point where you can perform complex music. This is how music curriculums are typically structured.

If you want to play a specific song

If you just want to know which notes to play to perform a song, a more intellectual approach to reading sheet music will get you there faster.

As was noted, different vertical positions in sheet music represents a distinct note:

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
"C" C "D" D "E" E "F" F | "G" G "A" A "B" B "c" c |  "d" d "e" e "f" f |

By learning which note is represented by which position, you can 'decode' the notes needed to play any piece of music. You can then:

  • Break the melody into short sections.
  • Practice the fingerings for those note sequences.
  • learn the rhythm by ear

And then you will get to a point that you can perform it from memory.

This approach enables you to start learning very complex music from the start, however it will take a lot longer to develop fluency. Learning new music will also take time as this approach does not develop general skill, it teaches you how to play a single song, and everything you learn will be 'from scratch' to a large extent.

If you want to move on from ocarina tabs

The vertical positions of the notes in a piece of sheet music tells you the same thing as ocarina tabs. Thus, by learning how these relate to the fingerings on your ocarina, you can use sheet music just like tabs. It tells you the notes, and you can learn the rhythms by ear.

And there are two ways of doing this:

  • Learn how to decode note positions into note letters.
  • Learn to associate note positions directly with fingerings (as in sight reading).

The first option is the best if you just want to play your favourite song, but will take longer to get to a point where you can read fluently.

The best option?

The different approaches described here have distinct pros and cons. They are also not mutually exclusive. Learning to sight read will help you play new music easily, yet you may encounter music that is too complex to sight read. Even professional orchestra musicians need to resort to breaking things down in some cases.

These different options are elaborated on in the following sections of the book, and you can read over them, and design an approach appropriate for your unique goals and situation.

But in any case, even basic knowledge of sheet music has a lot of value. Sheet music is so common that it's practically a given that you will find anything you want to learn in the format. It is easy to adapt things written for other instruments to the ocarina.