Playing the ocarina in tune - ocarina intonation

Intonation means matching the pitch of the note you are playing, to the pitch that the note should be sounding at. It is most apparent when multiple notes sound together.

If you finger a single note on your ocarina and vary your blowing pressure, tracking your pitch using a chromatic tuner like the one below, what happens?

On a C ocarina, you may find that the sounded pitch of the low C could vary between about A#, and E just by changing your blowing pressure. So how do you take control of this and play the ocarina in tune?

One option is to play while watching a chromatic tuner. It works to a point, but what about when you are playing live, with other musicians? That's where the other essential skill comes in, learning to hear your intonation.

It is quite easy to learn by playing with accompaniment, and keep reading to find out how.

How to play in unison with a drone

A drone is a tool that plays a continuous note, and they are very helpful for providing a reliable reference point. For your convenience, I've provided one below.

If you set the drone to sound the same pitch as the note you are playing—such as C5, the low C on an alto C ocarina—hearing when the pitch of the drone, and the note that you are playing match perfectly is quite easy:

  • Whenever your pitch is flat or sharp, you will hear a rhythmic warble.
  • The speed of this will increase as you go further from the desired pitch and will slow down as you get closer to being in tune.
  • When your pitch and the drone's pitch match perfectly, the warble goes away and the drone almost vanishes.

The following tool simulates what you will hear; try dragging the pitch slider right or left and observe how the sound changes.

Now lets try it in practice. You may have already noticed that the high notes of an ocarina are less sensitive to pressure changes, and can be a good place to start practising, working down towards the lower notes.

Have a go at playing a note over the drone as a long tone, a single note played for a whole breath:

  • Start the note cleanly using the tongue.
  • Hold it for as long as you can without straining.
  • Then stop it again using your tongue.

As you do so, listen for any warble created by the drone and raise or lower your breath to get rid of it. Repeat this 10 to 20 times and aim to play the note in tune right from the start; it may take a few days of practice. You cannot be timid with this instrument; drop your breath to play quieter and you'll go out of tune.

Side Note

Using the right breathing technique makes this much easier. If you have not already please read 'Blowing an ocarina correctly'.

Try doing this for every note on your ocarina. Set the pitch of the drone to match, and play the note on your ocarina over the drone. For your reference, here are how some common ocarina notes correlate to pitch numbers:

  • A bass C ocarina's low C is C4.
  • An alto C ocarina's low C is C5.
  • An alto C ocarina's high C is C6.

To begin with, you may find it useful to have a tuner visible as well. Use it to give yourself a hint if need be but focus on listening; I recommend positioning it outside of your field of view and glancing at it if needed.

Why are my high notes screeching or airy?

If you find that your ocarina's high notes screech before they reach concert pitch, it is probable that you are playing in an environment colder than the ocarina was tuned to play in.

Likewise if your high notes sound airy, you may be playing in a hotter environment.

To solve the problem for now, you can either:

  • Set the pitch of the drone flator sharp using the 'pitch' slider.
  • Heat or cool the room you are playing in.

Ocarinas are tuned to play at a certain temperature, and the high notes are affected to a much grater extent if you play in a different situation. This is addressed in How air temperature affects an ocarina's pitch.

If you know the temperature your ocarina was tuned for, you can tune the drone by measuring the ambient temperature, then changing the pitch by 1 cent for every degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) higher or lower.

If this still does not solve the problem, you probably have a badly tuned ocarina.

Playing in unison with a melody

You should have a good idea how to play single notes in tune on your ocarina using a drone, and how they sound notes sound when sharp or flat, but how does this apply to a melody?

Assuming that you can already finger a number of tunes comfortably, the easiest way to begin developing their intonation is to play in unison with a well tuned rendition of the same melody. Doing so is quite easy, as you already learned how to hear when two notes are in unison.

Ideally, this performance should be quite plain as ornamentation like pitch slides or vibrato will clash unless you copy them exactly. The timbre(tone colour) of this accompaniment also matters. It easiest to hear intonation on the ocarina over pure-toned accompaniment.

There are a few different ways of getting clean performances to practice with:

  • The easiest way to get a clean performance is to work with a teacher, or friend whose pitch is reliable.
  • Failing this, you can recreate the melody in a MIDI sequencer.
  • Commercial recordings can be used as a last resort.

Should you opt to play over a recording, you will have to use a digital audio workstation (DAW) to alter the speed. Such tools can vary the speed of a recording without changing its pitch, or vary the pitch without changing tempo. Audacity works reasonably well; more advanced software such as Reaper does sound better, though.

A final option is to use a dynamic practice drone. A dynamic drone listens to the pitch you are playing using pitch detection, and plays the closest in-tune note for you as a reference. Dynamic drones do have latency though, and are thus most useful for slow practice.

Practice method

The main thing is to just start slowly, repeatedly playing over your teacher or recording, listening and correcting your pitch as needed.

You may find that your pressure change lags when changing between notes. This is OK. Just make a point of correcting them and it will get easier after a few days. If you are working with someone in person, they can give you hints as well.

It can be useful to imagine the sound of the note that you are about to play in your head slightly before playing it, a skill called audiation. This skill develops from listening to an in-tune recording of the melody repeatedly, and as you do so, imagining the notes in your mind's ear.

learning to sing or hum the notes, instead of playing it on your ocarina, can be helpful too. Alternate between doing this and hearing the pitch in your head.

I can't hear the pitch?

If you are new to the ocarina, and you still have to consciously think about your fingerings, you may not notice when you are out of tune. This happens as the conscious mind can only focus on one thing at once, and the problem will go away as the fingerings become subconscious for you.

Playing tunes to a fixed drone

Sometimes, playing over a melody can be a hassle, especially if you don't have access to a teacher. Another option to help you play the ocarina in tune is to play over a fixed drone.

Instead of setting the drone to match the pitch of the note you are playing, you leave its pitch constant. This gives you a reliable fixed point of reference, and every note on your instrument has a unique sound in relation to it.

You may use the tool below to get an idea how the different intervals sound against a drone.

Two notes are always sounding. The note C is played continually and you can hear how different notes sound over it by selecting from the note list. The pitch of the selected note may be changed with the pitch slider, letting you hear how it sounds when sharp or flat.

To apply this to music that you know, set the pitch of the drone to the key note of the tune you are playing. You can often find this by googling "song name key". The key is frequently also the last note in a melody.

The octave of the drone can be set to match the tonic note or an octave lower than it. For example, if you are playing a tune in C on an alto C ocarina and the tune resolves to the instrument's low C, you can set the drone to octave 4 or 5.

Play through your tune slowly, noticing how the different notes sound against the drone when they are in tune, sharp or flat. You may find it helpful to have a tuner visible initially.

Notice how the different intervals sound, and that some of them are easier to hear:

  • C to G, the perfect fifth is easy to hear.
  • C to E, the major second is also easy to hear.
  • C to B, the major seventh, can be more tricky.

In real music, the 'more tricky' intervals will usually be surrounded by ones that are easier to hear, and those provide points of reference.

As you work on this, you will notice a few intervals that frequently land flat or sharp. You can work on these with long notes. Play the first note as a long tone, getting used to the pressure needed to start it in tune. Do the same for the second note, starting and finishing both using the tongue. Once you are used to this, play the two notes one after another, but leave a long gap between them and focus on starting both notes in tune. Gradually reduce this gap until you are playing one note immediately after the other.

Equal temperament vs just intonation

The most common tuning system used in music is Equal Temperament. This system is convenient as it allows scales to be built from all of the 12 chromatic pitches. However, it isn't perfect as most intervals are a few cents out of tune.

As you are playing against a drone, you may gravitate towards a different system called just intonation. Don't be surprised if a note sounds fine to your ear when a tuner says it's a few cents flat or sharp. Ocarinas are usually tuned for equal temperament, but it's easy to make the small change needed with breath pressure.

Using the above tool, the differance can be heard clearly in the fifth (G). If you set the slider 2 cents sharp, the slow warble will go away. The difference between just intonation an equal temperament is small; most are within plus/minus 10 cents.

Hearing intonation over instruments with different timbre

In the real world, you will more often be playing with chordal accompaniment such as a guitar, piano or possibly a synthesized chord progression.

Real music usually follows a chord progression, essentially a drone that changes pitch to sound best with the current melody notes. These are usually harmonically close to the notes of the melody.

On the other hand, as the ocarina has a pure tone, it is easiest to hear intonation against pure toned accompaniment. The timbre of your accompaniment affects how easy it is to hear your intonation.

When you start to play with other instruments such as guitar or piano, your intonation will not be so obvious. In particular, the prominent warble will be subtle or absent.

In this example two notes are played that start in tune, and one gradually goes flat so you can hear how it sounds. For instance, in the first example below, it's possible to hear the warble. In the second, the pitch change is the same but there is almost no warble at all.

It is still possible to hear the shift of intonation, though it's more subtle. To play with other instruments, you have to learn to hear these more subtle changes.

A keyboard or midi sequencer is a great practice tool for doing so as its timbre can be changed to make your intonation easier or more difficult to hear.

I don't recommend playing with other ocarinas unless at least one of the players is experienced. If everyone's pitch is varying arbitrarily, there will be no stable point of reference. It will be almost impossible to hear what is in tune, especially if playing in unison.

How accurate does my intonation need to be?

You may wonder how accurate your intonation needs to be. This depends on quite a few factors including the speed of the music, the experience of the audience, and whether you are playing with others.

When you play by yourself, it is difficult to hear the exact pitch of an ocarina as there is no reference. This is why it can be difficult to play ocarinas in tune in the absence of prior experience.

When you are playing with accompaniment, the margin for error is smaller. Songs and melodies are written to a chord progression and this implies that notes will have a certain intonation.

In slower music with chordal accompaniment, plus/minus 5 to 10 cents is usually OK. If you are playing very quickly, pitch errors of individual notes are less obvious and intonation is perceived more on average.

If you are playing in unison, especially with other ocarinas, the margin for error is far smaller as any deviance will create audible beating. Some slow beating is tolerable and can actually add interest to the sound. Large errors causing rapid warbles generally sound obnoxious.

Playing ocarinas in unison

Playing ocarinas in unison is possible but demands considerable player skill. Pulling this off is much easier to do with only two players. As more players join, it becomes increasingly difficult for any single player to hear when they are in tune.

To do this, it is essential to have a reference with a different timbre.

If you have a collection of notes with the same timbre that are slightly out of tune, there is no centre of pitch. The group won't be playing a note like C, but instead some kind of compound note spanning from the flattest player to the sharpest.

If one player raises or lowers their breath pressure, the note will always sound bad to them.

The following tool demonstrates this issue. It plays numerous out of tune pitches centred around a note, and overlaid on this is an additional pitch, which you can control with the slider. Notice that nothing you do makes the result sound good.

Going forward

Like fingerings, it is important to develop your breath control and intonation to a point where you don't have to think about it.

It is perfectly fine to work on your intonation by playing tunes, but doing so has limitations. Using this method, you will mostly practise common intervals. Should you sight read an interval that you haven't practised, it may trip you up.

You can practice the intonation of every interval on the instrument using exercises like scales and intervals, and a scale is shown below. You can find a complete list of interval exercises on the page: 'Diatonic intervals for ocarina'.

X: 1
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: C
G A B c | d e f e | d c B A | G F E D | C D E F | G4 |

You do not need to have absolute (AKA 'perfect') pitch to play the ocarina in tune, but I can see instances where it would be useful. Relative pitch allows you to play in tune with yourself, but you may be flat or sharp relative to concert pitch.

This can be a problem if you are playing a performance with accompaniment but starting the performance without it. When the accompaniment comes in, you may hear that you are flat or sharp and need to compensate in a hurry, which can sound bad.

A cappella singers work around this by listening to a note and hold the pitch in mind immediately before starting. The same principle should work for ocarina.