Playing 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, or 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 master. Yet you can learn the basics in just a few minutes.

The basics of sheet music

As we explored in The logic of sheet music, much of the apparent complexity of this notation stems from the fact that it communicates several different things at once:

  • Which note (fingering) to play on your instrument.
  • How long each note should be played for.
  • Frequently, it also tells you how to play something stylistically.

Like written English, sheet music is written in lines, each of which represented by 5 more lines like below. Collectively these are called the 'staff' or 'stave'.

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

Both the pitches and rhythm of a melody are shown on the staff using symbols called notes. Several different kinds of note exist, all having common features that we'll get to in a moment.

Notes of different shapes represent different durations of time.

The eighth and sixteenth note are probably familiar to you as those symbols are often used in culture to to represent the concept of music. But the whole note may not look right, or may seem to have something missing.

Notes actually consist of multiple parts, called the stem, head and flags, which communicate different things:

Music notes have 3 parts, a round head that marks pitch, and the stem and flags, which mark duration.

The head marks a vertical position on the staff (much like a point on a line graph), telling you what note to play on your instrument. Each position corresponds to a different fingering on your ocarina and a few are shown below. You can find the rest of these in your fingering chart.

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

The appearance of the entire symbol (head, stem and flags together) describes how long the note will be played for. A whole note consists only of a head. Adding a stem halves its duration, and so on as shown in the previous diagram.

Notes are read left to right, and the following example depicts a series of successively shorter notes, with each next note to the right being half the length of the previous one. See the article Understanding rhythm for more.

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When you see music with successive note heads in the same vertical position, it means that the music is using a series of notes at the same pitch:

Learning to read sheet music on the ocarina

Because sheet music represents several things at once, we need to be tactful in how we approach learning to read it. As a melody is a series of pitches played to a rhythm, I think the best approach to learn to read sheet music on the ocarina is:

  • Learn to read some simple rhythms.
  • Learn to read a small range of pitches, and how to finger them.

Then this process is repeated, gradually introducing more and more complex notation.

I suspect the most common cause of struggle with sheet music is due to trying to read something too hard too soon.

As with everything, we need to learn to walk before we run. That being said, it is possible to read complex music as a beginner, and we touch on how to do so at the end of the article.

Learning to read rhythms

The foundation of all rhythms is the beat, a consistent division of time like the tick of a clock, a metronome, or the sound of your feet as you walk.

Sheet music notates rhythms by using one of the note symbols to represent the duration of one beat. In many cases we use the quarter note for this, which you can see in the following diagram:

  • The bottom line shows a steady beat,
  • and the top line shows how sheet music would show this, a series of quarter notes.
How the notes in sheet music relate to the beats of a rhythm.

Which note symbol we use to represent one beat is communicated by the time signature, the two numbers at the start of the staff. '4/4' in this case, read 'four four'.

It tells you a few things:

  • That there will be 4 quarter notes per bar (the space between the vertical lines), or the equivalent duration of other notes.
  • That we will be using the quarter note to represent one beat.

It is often said that the bottom number tells you which note 'gets the beat', but this isn't entirely true. You can read more about this, and other aspects of rhythm in the article Understanding Rhythm.

Reading your first rhythms

So, lets read some rhythms. The first thing you'll need is a metronome, which can easily be found as web apps online if you search for 'metronome'.

Put on the metronome at a slow tempo like 60 BPM. To start with just hear the beat, and try to hear it in your head as a click or drum beat. You may also want to tap your foot.

Let's start out by clapping some rhythms. As we discussed, the quarter note represents one beat 4/4 time . Thus, to read this one you just clap once per click, for a total of 8 clicks. Keep doing this until you feel at ease with it.

X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: C
G G G G | G G G G |

The half note, which you can see below, represents a duration of two beats, twice as long as the quarter note. To read this rhythm, you listen to the metronome and clap once for every two clicks. It may help you to count the beats as you hear them '1, 2, 1, 2, ...', clapping on 1, and ignoring 2.

X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/2
K: C
G G | G G | G G | G G :|

And the eighth note has half the duration of a quarter note, splitting each beat into two. To get a feel for playing them:

  • Set your metronome to twice the tempo, 120 if you initially had it set to to 60.
  • Practice clapping every time you hear a click, and continue until it feels natural. You may also find it useful to say 'ap-le' or 'ti-ka' with each pair.
  • Set your metronome back to 60 but clap as you were, splitting the beat in two.

Notice that when you have multiple 8th notes in sequence, the flags are normally joined together into a beam:

X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: C

Finally we can tackle a rhythm which mixes the different note durations. Once you get the hang of this one, find yourself some blank manuscript paper (printable templates can be found online), and have a go at writing out some rhythms using these notes.

X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: C
G2 GG G4 | GG G2 GG G2 |

Learning to read pitches

The heads of notes draw patterns on the staff. For example, you may see a group of notes like this, ascending like a staircase:

These patterns correlate to equivalent patterns of finger movement on our instruments. If you play the following finger patterns, one note per metronome click, you are playing the same thing written in the notation above.

We read music notation by connecting the visual patterns formed by groups on notes to fingering patterns we have internalised through repeated practice. And thus we can see a pattern of notes, and immediately know how to perform them.

Lets learn to recognise a few more of these patterns. First, four notes of the same pitch, which looks kind of like a 'floor'.

And second, a descending sequence which you might think of like a descending staircase, or a child's slide.

Spend a bit of time practising each of these figures until you can play them without thinking about your fingers. Separate the notes with your tongue, and remember that as you go up the scale you have to blow harder, and the opposite as you go down.

Now lets use these patterns to read some sheet music. Notice the shapes formed by the groups of notes and perform the associated patterns you've learned.

X: 3
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: C
|: GABc | cccc | 
   cBAG | GGGG :|

Do you see the 'double dot' at the start and end of the staff? This is a repeat mark and it tells you to repeat everything from the start repeat |: until the end repeat :| once.

As you've been playing these patterns you may have noticed some things about how the fingering patters on the instrument relate to the patterns in the notation:

  • When a note is one position higher than the previous note, we lift one finger.
  • When a note is one position lower than the previous note, we place one finger.
  • Notes that are farther apart correspond to moving multiple fingers.

That observation can actually be used to read other patterns of notes on the staff, but you may also have questions like 'why is this fingering represented by putting a note in this position?'. That's where note names come in, which we'll address next.

But for now it would be great to just find some sheet music and have a look at patterns formed by the notes. You may notice some things like the following, which come from a tune we'll be playing later in this article.

Learning the note names

We can get pretty far in reading music just by learning to recognise and perform different patterns, but what if we wanted to tell another musician which note we are playing? That's where learning the note names comes in.

In western music we name the notes using the first seven letters of the alphabet which repeat in octaves. Below we use lower case for the higher octave.

We know where each note is due to the clef. Almost all music for the ocarina uses the treble clef as shown, which tells you that the note 'G' can be found on the second line from the bottom. The other notes exist relative to it.

Notes that are higher or lower than those on the 5 line staff are shown using ledger lines. This includes the low B and A of 12 hole C ocarinas as shown below. See The logic of sheet music for more.

Remembering which note is in which position

There are some tricks we can use to help remember which note is where:

  • The spaces spell the word 'face' from bottom to top.
  • And the lines are E G B D F, commonly taught as "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge".
  • The 'blob' at the bottom of the treble clef is roughly in line with low the C ledger line.

Learning and practising these positions may also be approached in much the same way as we learned the fingerings. Taking small groups and practising them separately:

To practice these, get some blank manuscript paper, and:

  • Choose one of these note ranges.
  • Write out a line of random notes in the chosen range, saying the name of the note aloud.
  • Read them back to a metronome. Say the name in your head while fingering it on your ocarina. (use your fingering chart to look it up if need be).
  • Ask a friend to write out random notes, and then test yourself by reading them, again saying the names aloud and fingering them on your ocarina.

A completed exercise would look something like this. Don't worry about note durations, just use whole notes, or black circles if you prefer.

X: 1
M: none
L: 1/2
K: Cmaj
C2D2E2C2 | D2E2C2C2 | C2E2C2E2 | E2D2C2E2 |

You can also practice reading notes using this tool, which randomly generates note positions. It is fine to look them up at first:

Bringing everything together

Lets bring everything together and sight read something, a folk tune called shepherd's hey:

X: 1
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: Cmaj
B2 dB c2c2|B2dB A2A2|B2dB c2Bc|d2d2 G4:|
|:B2G2 c4|B2G2 A4|Bcd2 c2Bc|d2d2 G4:|

The first thing to do is to look through the notation for any rhythmic or melodic patterns that you don't know. Needing to consciously work out the fingering for a note, or how a rhythm should sound is much slower than performing patterns you already know.

You want to identify any unknown patterns first so you can practice them on your instrument. Thus when you read through the whole tune you'll know what to do, and things will flow naturally.


  • Ensure that you can feel a pulse, either internally or using a metronome, and clap it.
  • Read the rhythm, and hear it in your mind.
  • Clap or tap the whole rhythm, ensuring that you can do so without stuttering.
  • Listen to the melody (ask someone to play it), and hear how it sounds, while looking at the notation.
  • Singing or humming the melody can also help you internalise it.
  • Finally play the music on the ocarina. Due to the previous steps you'll know exactly how its going to sound.

This may seem like a lot, but doing this additional preparation avoids a lot of struggle and frustration. We learn best when we experience the same thing from numerous points of view.

As you play more music, you'll start to internalise common rhythms, and melodic patterns. Reading new music will require less and less preparation.

Finding music to practice

One of the most common reasons that people fail when learning to read sheet music is trying to play something too difficult too soon. When you learned to read, was your first book something huge like The Lord of the Rings? I doubt it.

Its really important to practice music close to your ability, and there's a lot of it available:

  • Easy song collections, there are numerous books of easy versions of common songs.
  • Graded exercises for similar instruments, for example the lower grade books for recorder are easily adapted to a single chamber ocarina.
  • Folk tunes Many folk tunes are very simple and great to practice with.

Graded music collections are particularly useful, being designed to help you develop your sight reading gradually. They start out with very simple rhythms and melodies, and slowly become more complex.

But do note that what has been taught so far includes only the natural notes. As you play a wider range of music you'll need to learn how to read key signatures, as well as more complex rhythms. These are discussed later in the book.

Playing sheet music above your ability

You may be wandering 'how long is it going to take before I can read my favourite song? The answer depends mostly on how complex it is.

However, It is possible to start learning to play very complex sheet music on the ocarina even as a total beginner. The trick is to go through the music note by note, and write it out in a notation that you can already read.

For example, you might look through the music and write out the letter names of the notes:

C D E F G A B c d e f

Once you know the notes the melody can be learned like this:

  • Listen to the melody repeatedly to learn how it should sound.
  • Break the melody into short sections.
  • Practice the fingerings, pressure and rhythm for each chunk in a loop.
  • Combine the pieces and play the whole melody.

Eventually you'll get to a point that you can perform it from memory.

While this approach enables you to start learning very complex music from the start, it doesn't develop the general pattern memory that we need to sight read.

Closing notes

We've learned the basics of playing sheet music, and you should now be able to read some basic music, which is awesome. Getting from this point, to being able to sight read anything is mainly a matter of practice, and slowly building your ability.

Keep reading to learn:

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