Playing the ocarina in tune - ocarina intonation

The ocarina's pitch is quite unstable. It can be bent up or down by several semitones through changes in breath pressure. Keeping the instrument in tune is entirely in your hands as the player. This is done using two techniques: learning how much pressure each note needs, and making compensations by listening to your intonation.

Against popular belief, you don't have to be born with the ability to hear tuning errors; it is learned just like any other skill. The easiest way to start learning to hear your intonation is to play with accompaniment. With a bit of experience, any accompaniment will work, but I think it is best to start with a simple drone. For your convenience, I've provided one below. The remainder of the page explains how to use it.

Tuning the drone

So that people can play together, musical instruments are tuned to a standard called concert pitch. Ocarinas are no exception, but there is a catch: their tuning is affected by both pressure and temperature. Every note on an ocarina requires a different blowing pressure to play in tune, and together these pressures form an ocarinas breath curve. When an ocarina is initially made, it is tuned to play with a given breath curve at a given temperature, such as 20°C. I call this the instrument's tuning temperature.

If you blow using the same pressure, the pitch of a note will change with temperature. As the ocarina's pitch is also affected by blowing pressure, you can compensate for this by raising or lowering your breath. However, as the high notes are far less sensitive to pressure changes than the low notes, the shape of the breath curve also changes. If you play in a colder environment, you have to increase your pressure more on the high notes than the low.

This is visualised in the graph below, the orange curve represents the breath curve of a hypothetical ocarina at its original tuning temperature. The steeper red curve represents playing in a colder environment, and the green curve playing in a warmer environment. Particularly, notice how a small change on the low end requires a larger change on the high notes. If your environment is considerably colder than the ocarina was tuned to play in, the high notes will squeak before you can push them into concert pitch.

The net result of this is that it is not enough to learn only the pressure curve required to play in concert pitch in your current environment. Essentially, the ocarina will have multiple breath curves, and which one you have to use varies with temperature. As a beginner, this can be a lot to deal with. While you should learn the different breath curves in the fullness of time, there are two things you can do to eliminate this variation:

  1. Heat or cool the room to a constant temperature, preferably your ocarina's tuning temperature if known.
  2. Allow the sounded pitch to deviate from concert pitch. As long as every note is off by the same amount, you will be in tune with yourself. This is fine as long as you don't need to be in tune with another instrument. If you opt to do this the drone must be tuned to match. Determine your ocarinas best sounding pitch (described below), and set the drone to match.

Irrespective of which of these you choose to do, always warm your ocarina by blowing it for at least a minute before playing. The voicing mixes the warm air you are blowing with the air from your environment and the internal temperature will reach an equilibrium over time. I also strongly advise playing only one ocarina at first. Between ocarinas, breath curves vary hugely, and dealing with this is liable to confuse things.

Tuning temperature and best sounding pitch

Actually knowing an ocarina's tuning temperature is pretty difficult unless you can get it from the maker directly, as it is a subjective issue. An ocarina's high notes are fairly insensitive to pressure and have a limited range wherein they sound best. I call this region the best sounding pitch, the pitch at which the high notes subjectively sound best in your current environment. This is commonly used as a basis for tuning.

While this may appear to imply the tuning temperature, it isn't that simple. A maker can intend that an ocarina be played above or below this point for aesthetic reasons, as it affects the instrument's timbre. Also, an ocarina tuned to be loud will inherently use more air, thus will sound more airy. This airiness will be much less obvious to an observer at a distance, but will be quite apparent to the player. Thus, what you think sounds best can vary from what the maker intended.

But despite these factors, best sounding pitch is the easiest way to determine how the pitch of your ocarina varies with temperature. It can be measured as follows: If you are playing an ocarina in C, play the high E or F. Notice that when you blow too softly, the note will sound weak and airy, while blowing too hard makes it airy and harsh. Pushing the note further will cause the ocarina to squeal. Vary your breath up and down to find a point where the note has the cleanest sound.

Once you have found this point, measure how flat or sharp the pitch is using a chromatic tuner, a tool that displays the note letter and tuning of a sound. See the note below on chromatic tuners.

Note: An introduction to chromatic tuners

The interface of a chromatic tuner looks like this:

When the needle is centred in the display, the pitch of the note matches concert pitch. If the needle is to the right, the pitch is said to be 'sharp'. If it is to the left, the pitch is considered 'flat'.

The space between two semitones is divided into 100 units called 'cents'. The notes F and F sharp are 100 cents apart. If a note is 50 cents sharp, it is halfway between two semitones.

Tuners do not number cents linearly from the low note to high note. Cents are numbered relative to a note plus and minus 50. If you play an F then gradually raise the pitch, once the tuner passes F plus 50 cents, it 'rolls over' to F sharp minus 49 cents.

Two kinds of chromatic tuner exist, dedicated hardware tuners and software tuners. I find software tuners preferable as they have a considerably faster update rate. This matters for the ocarina as the instrument's pitch is so unstable; a slow tuner or one with 'needle damping', a feature that averages pitch over time, will not show you what you are actually doing.

I like APTuner as it has a clear numeric cents display which is easy to read. The PC version has no needle damping, and it can be disabled in the mobile versions. If using the mobile version turn the sample rate up to max in the settings.

Using the drone and what to listen for

The simplest way to start learning to hear pitch errors is to play in unison with a drone—for instance, playing the note C over a C drone. 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 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.

To put this into practice, pick one of your ocarina's notes, set the pitch of the drone to match, and play the note on your ocarina over the drone. As was noted above, the high notes are less sensitive to pressure changes so are a good place to start; on an ocarina in C, you could work on the high D or E. Set the note of the drone and its octave to match. An alto C ocarina's high D is D6. You may want to open two copies of this page so you don't have to keep scrolling to the top.

Play your chosen note 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 using the tongue. As you do so, listen for any warble created by the drone and raise or lower your breath to get rid of it. People new to ocarinas tend to use either far too much or far to little pressure. You cannot be timid with this instrument; drop your breath to play quieter and you'll go out of tune.

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. As you are able to hold the high notes stable, you can work on lower ones. They become increasingly unstable, but don't get frustrated or try to rush through it. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, stop and come back to it, as sleep is essential for learning. If you come back to it the next day, you'll find it'll magically become easier.

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 so that you can't obsess over it. The skill of hearing pitch is not common Western culture outside of music, so it is usually approached with little prior experience and takes time to develop. Developing this skill is essential, as you don't want to be dependent on a tuner. For example, a tuner will not tell you if you are playing in tune with a group, as they may not be exactly in concert pitch.

Side Note

Using the correct breath technique makes this exercise considerably easier. Centre your breathing on the lower chest so that your belly is going in and out instead of your shoulders raising and lowering. While you do so, lightly engage the muscles of the chest to draw the belly towards the spine. This creates support in the chest cavity and allows you to exhale in a slow and controlled way.

Practise exhaling slowly through your ocarina, aiming to hold the pitch stable. Another exercise is to hold your mouth and airway completely open. Take a deep inhalation, then let it out through the mouth as slowly as you can. This requires more control as there is no back pressure for you to work against.

This technique is called 'diaphragmatic breathing' or 'belly breathing' and is explained on the page Blowing an ocarina correctly. A web search for either of those terms will also give a lot of results.

Playing in unison with a melody

You should have a good idea how notes sound when sharp or flat from the previous exercise, 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. You are then still playing notes in unison, just playing more of them. This allows you to practise the pressure changes between notes, and learn to make compensations when you make a mistake.

The simplest way to do this is to work with a teacher, someone whose pitch is reliable. Failing this, you can recreate the melody in a MIDI sequencer, or play over a commercial recording as a last resort. Ideally, this performance should be quite plain as ornamentation like pitch slides or vibrato will clash unless you copy them exactly. The timbre of this accompaniment also matters as it affects how easily you will be able to hear your own pitch. As you observed in the prior section, when the timbre of two sounds are similar, an audible beating is created when they are out of tune. That will not happen with instruments of differing timbres.

If playing with someone else, a keyboard is a good accompaniment instrument as its timbre can be varied. It can also be made to play flat or sharp to compensate for the tuning variance with temperature, described above.

Practice method

Start practising in unison with your recording, paying attention to and correcting your pitch. At first, your pressures will lag when changing between notes; practise slowly and make a point of correcting them. If you are playing with a teacher or using a MIDI sequencer, varying the tempo of your accompaniment is straightforward. Should you opt to play over a recording, you will have to use a digital audio workstation (DAW) instead: they can vary the speed of a recording without changing its pitch, and change the pitch without changing speed. Audacity works reasonably well; more advanced software such as Reaper does sound better, though.

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. If you find this to be a problem, you may want to practise the fingerings for a while and come back to it. Breaking the melody down and working on a few notes at a time may also help.

Inversely, your finger skills may have developed beyond your breath control, especially if you've ignored or been unaware of your intonation. In this case, you may wish to practise at high speed, but that isn't a good idea. While your finger skills may be advanced, your breath control will be lagging behind. If you practise too quickly, you won't be able to focus on what you are doing, which tends to result in sloppy playing. Practise slowly and speed will come as the task enters your subconscious.

Due to the breath curve, when you descend to a note from above on the ocarina, it will tend to be sharp. The opposite is true of ascending intervals. At first, you will tend to lag and the second note will begin sharp or flat. This is especially problematic at speed. The breath does not change quickly enough, resulting in a sharp or flat note. Also, as the low notes are much more sensitive, it is easy to blow them sharp, while the high notes tend to be flat as they need so much more pressure.

Playing tunes to a drone

Sometimes, playing over a melody can be a hassle, especially if you don't have access to a teacher. Another option is to play over a drone, but instead of setting the drone to match the pitch of the note you are playing, its pitch can be left constant. This gives you a reliable fixed point of reference. Every note on your instrument has a unique sound against this drone. These are called intervals, and the skill of hearing them is called relative pitch.

You may use the tool below to get an idea how the different intervals sound against a drone. The note C is played continually and you can change the note played 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. Notice that it is easier to hear when some notes are correct than others. In practice, these 'difficult' notes fall between easier notes and these can also be used as a reference.

To apply this to music that you know, set the pitch of the drone to the key note of the tune you are playing. It matters if you are playing in a major or minor key. While G Major and E Minor both contain the same notes, a tune will be written to highlight a different note as a focal point. G Major is centred around G, whereas E Minor is centred around E. This is a good explanation of the difference. Because the key of a tune is its focal point, music usually resolves to it. Consequently, the key of the tune is often 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 should set the drone to octave 4 or 5. Play through your slowly, tonguing every note. Pay attention to how the different intervals sound against the drone when they are and are not in tune. You may find it helpful to have a tuner visible at first, but as was mentioned previously you should really focus on listening.

As you work on this, you will notice a few intervals that frequently land flat or sharp. Take note of these and practise them in isolation. Play the interval repeatedly and consciously alter your breath to correct it. Over time, you will learn how much you need to change your breath for each interval and it will become automatic. You will also begin to learn how the intervals should sound, a skill called relative pitch. Pitch errors will be apparent, and you'll be able to adapt dynamically even without a drone. Once you have began to develop a sense of pitch you can also use audiation. This involves hearing the sound of a note you want to play in your mind's ear slightly before playing it, which makes tuning errors obvious.

You can work on any difficult intervals 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. With practice, you will be able to notice and correct errors so quickly that an audience won't notice.

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.

Using the above tool, this can be heard clearly in the fifth (G). If you set the slider 2 cents sharp, the slow warble will go away. This perfect system is called Just Intonation. The difference between just intonation an equal temperament is small; most are within plus/minus 10 cents. These slight errors are not obvious to the human ear in real life.

As you are playing against a drone, you may gravitate towards 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.

Real world accompaniment

In the real world, you will more often be playing with chordal accompaniment such as a guitar, piano or possibly a synthesized chord progression. This can be both easier and harder. On one hand, chords contain 3 or more notes and are usually harmonically close to the notes of the melody. This can make intonation easier to hear than a simple drone. On the other hand, the timbre of your accompaniment affects how easy it is to hear your intonation. It is easiest to hear when both sound similar. As the ocarina has a pure tone, it is easiest to hear intonation against pure toned accompaniment.

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. 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 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, thus errors will be more obvious. 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 is possible but demands considerable player skill. Pulling this off is much easier to do with only two players. As there are more players it becomes increasingly difficult to correct pitch errors. If everyone pitch is off by a random amount, it is difficult for any individual to correct. If one player player raises or lowers their breath pressure, the note will always sound bad to them. Essentially there is no centre of pitch, the group is not playing a note like 'C', but some kind of compound note spanning from the flattest player to the sharpest.

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. If you don't, as soon as your focus shifts, you will unknowingly lose control of your intonation. As your skill improves, also learn how your ocarina's breath curve changes in warmer or colder environments. This can be done by either changing the temperature of your room or, more easily, by deliberately playing sharp or flat of concert pitch. How to do so is covered on the page 'Dealing with warm or cold environments'.

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 will trip you up. It is possible to learn every interval on the instrument using technical exercises, the simplest being a scale. 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 |

As I hinted above, equal temperament (the tuning most chromatic tuners display) isn't the only tuning system in use. Some music traditions have their own tuning standards, and varying intonation can be used for expression. Once you are able to control your intonation reliably, it is possible you may want to experiment with this. Deliberately playing notes flat or sharp can draw attention to them, and can create a sense of tension that can resolve into subsequent notes. It is also possible to begin a note slightly sharp or flat and then bend it into pitch, which can be used both as an ornament and a form of emphasis. The important thing is that application of these techniques must be deliberate and under control. It's no good having your pitch randomly sliding all over the place.

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. It is possible to work around this using relative pitch, if you listen to a note and hold this in your memory immediately before playing.

Thoughts on...

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