The types of ocarina
There are many types of ocarina, and the term 'ocarina' often refers not to a single instrument, but to anything which makes sound using a hollow chamber. They range from sculptural whistles that only play one note, to concert quality musical instruments.
Being aware of the different types of ocarinas will help you identify the most playable instruments.
Sculptural whistles are musical novelty items that can simulate the sound of bird calls and similar. They are produced in various shapes, including those representing birds and other animals.
Sculptural whistles are probably the first ocarinas which developed, and nowadays are often highly decorated with coloured glaze. They make great novelty items, but were never intended to be serious instruments.
Pre-Columbian, Peruvian, and Mexican ocarinas
Various ancient South American cultures used vessel flutes / ocarinas which as a group can be called 'Pre-Columbian ocarinas', and Mexico also has a similar tradition.
Exactly what these instruments were used for is the subject of debate. It is hard to understand their musical use, as they differ so much from other musical cultures. They appear to have been informed by the natural world, imitating sounds like birds, insects, thunder, wind sounds and rustling leaves.
The most common version of these today are reproduction tourist souvenirs, going under the name 'Peruvian ocarina', and frequently just 'ocarina'. These can be easily recognised by their flat shape, with intricate painted designs and 8 to 10 identically sized holes.
These reproductions are of extremely poor quality, with weak sound production and are not tuned. They are not good musical instruments, and are not worth considering as someone looking to play seriously.
However, historically they were made to much higher standards. The history of these instruments has been studied by Susan Rawcliffe and Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, worth looking up if you are interested.
Transverse ocarinas (Italian and Asian)
The transverse ocarina is a 19th century Italian instrument. They are held across the body similar to a transverse flute, but are much shorter and more globular in shape.
Transverse ocarinas were originally designed as serious instruments, with a linear fingering system similar to that of the recorder or flute, and are fully chromatic. Single chamber transverse ocarinas have a range of about an octave and a fourth, and Multichamber variants which are discussed later, can extend the range past two octaves.
They have anywhere between 9 and 12 holes. The fingering system of all of these is almost the same, with minor additions that extend the instrument's range at the high and/or low end. See An introduction to the ocarina's fingering system.
If you learn to play any transverse ocarina, you can pick up a transverse ocarina with a different number of holes, and play it with only minor changes in fingering.
10 hole ocarinas
The 10 hole ocarina is the original design of transverse ocarina, created by Guiseppi Donati in 19th century Italy. They have 10 finger holes and play chromatically over a range of an octave and a fourth, for example C5 to F6.
Due to the physics of the instrument, having a smaller range allows 10 hole ocarinas to have a strong, clean sound through the whole range, and can be made to have a range of different playing characteristics, for instance:
- Play at low breath pressure, with a balanced volume through the whole playing range.
- Play at high pressure, sounding very loud throughout the entire range.
- Play with increasing breath pressure, having quiet low notes and loud high notes.
They can also attain quite a range of timbres from 'pure' to 'reedy'. All of these things are set when the instrument is made, and as of writing very few makers are exploring this possibility space.
It is worth noting that 10 hole ocarinas may have more than 10 physical holes. What would be a single hole can be split into 2 holes to make sharp / flat notes easier to play, and such is called a 'split hole'. Adding a split hole to an ocarina does not change its classification.
Such things can easily be a source of confusion. It is an issue that arises from classifying ocarinas by the number of finger holes, although I am not aware of any better naming systems.
12 hole ocarinas
The 12 hole ocarina is a variation which was developed in Asia in the 20th century. 12 hole ocarinas use the same base fingering system as the 10 hole, but add two additional finger holes that are positioned next to other holes. They are played by covering one or both of the holes by sliding the pad of your finger.
Today, 12 hole ocarinas are the most commonly available kind of transverse ocarina due to the popularity of the design in Asia.
The subholes, combined with an enlarged chamber, extend the instrument's sounding range downwards by 3 semitones. Thus a 12 hole C ocarina would have a playing range from A4 to F6. The subholes can also be used to play accidental notes which require half covering holes on a 10 hole.
This additional range does come at the cost of reduced design freedom, and frequently worse sound quality. 12 hole ocarinas play with a steep pressure curve, having quiet low notes and loud high notes, and a relitively pure timbre.
11 hole ocarinas
The 11 hole ocarina is a compromise between the 10 hole, and 12 hole designs. They have one subhole which can be placed on either the left or right hand. The following image shows it on the right.
By eliminating one of the subholes, they retain much of the design flexibility of the 10 hole ocarina but providing one subhole allows a semitone below the instrument's base note to be played. That note is useful in a lot of music.
Inline ocarinas are essentially the same as transverse ocarinas, and use a identical or near identical fingering, with 10, 11, or 12 holes. However the mouthpiece is placed on the end of the chamber, with the body held straight out in front of you, much like a recorder or whistle.
The inline design allows your hands to be held straight which may put less stress on your wrists. They may be better if you have arthritis, RSI or other disabilities. However inline ocarinas are much less standardised, and made by fewer makers.
The design also creates some unique challenges:
- Inline ocarinas can feel less stable, as all of the instrument's weight is aligned on a single line between the player's thumbs and lips. The transverse by comparison forms a stable triangular distribution of weight between the two thumbs and lips.
- If one scales up an inline to make a bass or contrabass ocarina, the centre of mass moves much further forward from the player than a comparable transverse. This makes the instrument harder to handle.
- As a maker, I have found the inline design acoustically problematic. In summary, placing the voicing at the end of the chamber tends to make these ocarinas more prone to screeching when blown at higher pressures, which limits them to lower pressure tuning.
Transverse multichamber ocarinas
The transverse multichamber ocarina is essentially a single chamber transverse, onto which one or more additional small ocarinas have been attached, and tuned to play as a single instrument.
These multichamber ocarinas exist to provide a larger range of notes, as single chamber ocarinas can only sound a small range due to their physics. Sometimes harmonies can be played between the chambers, but this is not their main function.
Variations exist with two (double), three (triple) and rarely four (quad), chambers. The one shown below is a double. Each chamber in one of these instruments is entirely separate from the other chambers, having its own set of finger holes.
Unlike single chambered ocarinas, multichambers are classified by the number of chambers, and not hole count. This is done as the fingering system is not fully standardised and varies to some extent between makers.
Several different tunings and fingering systems are used in multichamber ocarinas, which have various pros and cons, and suit different kinds of music. Knowing the exact fingerings for any single multichamber ocarina requires reference to the manufacturer's fingering chart.
In addition to providing more range, multichamber transverse ocarinas also have a few other benefits:
- Splitting the range over multiple chambers reduces the range produced by each chamber, and can improve tone quality.
- Most multichambered ocarinas only have one thumb hole, allowing the right thumb to just support the instrument.
Transverse double, triple, and quad ocarinas may be able to sound in harmony close to their chamber break. Ocarinas made by Giorgio Pacchioni for instance allow a small number of thirds, fourths and fifths to be played in this way. See 'The fingering systems of multichamber ocarinas'.
Harmony ocarinas, which are explained later, are multichamber ocarinas that are designed to play in harmony. Due to their differing function, their design and ergonomics are quite different.
Pendant ocarinas (4, 5, and 6 hole ocarinas)
Pendant ocarinas were developed in the United Kingdom in the 1960's, and are instruments which play an octave using 4 finger holes and a binary-like fingering system.
Pendant ocarinas can and have been used for skilled musical performance. However they have a lot of objective disadvantages, relative to the transverse ocarina:
- The limited number of holes does not allow pendant ocarinas to be tuned as accurately as transverse ocarinas. This can seen if you measure the breath curve of one, and you must compensate by irregularly raising or lowing pressure.
- The fingering system frequently requires one hole to be closed, while opening another at the same time. It is thus really easy to produce unintended 'chirps', if the holes are not opened / closed at exactly the same time.
- Some chromatic (sharp / flat) notes can only be played in tune, with a volume that balances with surrounding notes, by partially covering finger holes.
That being said, pendant ocarinas do have a few unique advantages over the transverse:
- Pendant ocarinas can be made much smaller than a transverse while remaining ergonomic to play. They can thus be made to sound at a higher pitch, and may open up some unique musical possibilities.
- Being small they can be worn as a pendant. They are great for spontaneous musical performance as you can always have one with you.
It is also worth noting that the production quality of pendant ocarinas is quite variable between makers. They are often produced as novelty items and not tuned properly.
I do want to stress that while having fewer holes can intuitively seem easier, the pendant ocarina is no easier to play well than any other kind of ocarina. The player must know how to create expression, and like all ocarinas, their pitch is unstable and much skill is required to play in tune.
Sculptural ocarinas combine a playable ocarina, usually based on a transverse or pendant design, combined with a sculptural visual design. The two shown below were made by Oliver Gosselink and Ross Dubois.
They can be visually stunning, but as serious musical instruments, sculptural ocarinas are complicated to discuss as an ocarina designed for playing music needs to fulfil two different goals:
- The ergonomic needs of the player.
- The acoustic constraints of producing a good sound.
In practice, optimising for playability puts a lot of constraints on what can be done visually, and it is very easy for a sculptural ocarina to put visual features in places that get in the way of a player, or use a body shape that harms sound quality.
Sculptural ocarinas exist on a spectrum between being primarily instruments, and primarily art pieces. Unfortunately, differentiating between these falls entirely on you as the player, and understanding the factors that make an ocarina ergonomic, as well as the factors that make an ocarina work, is essential.
But in summary:
- Ones designed first as musical instruments can be very playable. Visual features may be added with awareness of standard playing techniques, and the player's need to hold the instrument.
- Ones designed primarily for visuals can suffer in playability. An easy example is zoomorphic designs, ones designed to look like animals or birds. Animals did not evolve to be playable musical instruments.
It is worth noting that the shape of an ocarina does matter acoustically. Particularly irregular shapes often have undesirable playing characteristics like pitch jumps, airy high notes, or screeching.
Also the pricing of sculptural ocarinas is higher due to the visual design. How good they sound is orthogonal.
Zelda, and media inspired ocarinas
Today there are a lot of ocarinas on the market which are designed to replicate the ocarina featured in "The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time". The quality of them varies enormously, with many being very poorly made and not tuned properly.
Any ocarina made that closely follows the design depicted in the Zelda games will have problems. The 'instrument' in the game is a visual prop that gives little concern to playability:
- The finger holes of the original are placed following the button layout of the nintendo 64 controller, and are not ergonomic to cover. Makers work around this by just adopting the transverse fingering system. However:
- The design is too rounded, which encourages fingers to slide off the body, making it feel unstable in the player's hands. 'Egg shaped' ocarinas have really poor ergonomics in general.
- They usually have airy high notes as the egg shaped chamber and voicing design forced by the external shape is acoustically poor. The shape prevents use of a voicing neck, resulting in a very large chamber volume for a given pitch.
This trend has also lead to some manufacturers selling ocarinas which are inspired by other media franchises with varying, often poor, playability.
For anyone interested in playing the ocarina as a serious instrument I strongly recommend avoiding zalda and other media inspired ocarinas entirely.
The Xun, pronounced 'shoon', is a Chinese ocarina like instrument that features a flute-like blowhole instead of a ducted voicing as found on the other designs listed here. I don't have much to say about them regarding serious playing as they are functionally a different instrument, with their own playing tradition.
As a chinese traditional instrument, little information is available about them in English. I have seen them with several fingering systems, one resembling the linier system of a 10 hole ocarina, and another which has 6 holes, and uses cross fingerings. I don't know if they are intended to play within the western 12 tone system, or Chinese microtonal scales.
The flute-like blowhole may allow more control and expressive playing, but they are also quite difficult to get sound from. Like all vessel flutes opening holes lets air escape, and producing clean high notes demands fine focusing of the airstream. It takes a lot of practice.
The microtonal ocarina is a design of ocarina with one or two large holes, covered by the palm of your hand. They are played by varying your hand position and blowing pressure.
The microtonal ocarina has been refined recently by Wesley Hicks. His design somewhat resembles a transverse ocarina with the two ends cut off, leaving just a voicing and two large holes that are covered by the palms of your hands.
What are they capable of? A lot more than you probably expect.
They can play western scales chromatically, or the scales of any other tradition if you wish. The only limit is your ability to hear the pitch in your mind, and adjust to match it. With a microtonal ocarina you absolutely have to listen.
This design also allows for enormous control over both pitch, and sounding volume as you can blow softly with more of the holes open, or blow hard and slightly close the holes to maintain the same pitch at higher volume. It is much more intuitive to do than on a transverse.
I consider them great teaching tools as they force you to hear the pitch you want to produce, and adjust your hands as needed. They are also great for exploring the sound of arbitrary pitches over a drone, allowing you to rediscover unisons, thirds, and fifths.
The microtonal ocarina also offers an accurate visual representation of the player skill required to play any type of ocarina well. Having fixed finger holes can lead you to assume 'if I'm using the right fingering I'm playing the right note', which isn't the case.
Harmony ocarinas are multichambers that are tuned to play in harmony with themselves. They differ from multichamber transverse ocarinas, as those are instead designed to extend range. Physical constraints mean that the designs, as well as playing styles of the two differ considerably.
A harmony ocarina usually consists of two chambers, each of which is played by a different hand. Thus different notes may be fingered at the same time, creating harmony.
These instruments can sound wonderful in the right setting, however design challenges arising from the ocarinas unstable pitch, and limited number of available fingers mean that these instruments are quite technically limited.
Harmony ocarinas are not standardised at all, and their design and layout varies a lot between makers. The chambers may be positioned side by side similar to an inline ocarina, or physically separated, joined by external ducting. Fingerings and tuning are not standardised either.
The following gives some general advise, but if you would like to explore harmony ocarinas your best bet is to look for manufacturers and read their documentation.
Ocarinas change pitch with blowing pressure, and pressure must increase as holes are opened to maintain sound production. Thus, the relative intonation of the chambers will tend to change as different notes are played, and people only have one mouth.
This is worked around in a few ways. First, most harmony ocarinas use a rectangular sound hole with the labium close to the exit of the windway, as this can sound at the same pressure over a larger range without becoming airy.
And the chambers may be tuned using one of two approaches:
- Tuning all of the notes to sound at the same pressure allows for arbitrary notes to be fingered, but higher notes will tend to sound airy.
- Alternately, tuning with an identical pressure curve allows the instrument to produce a clean tone, but can only play in harmony at a fixed interval, using identical fingerings on both chambers.
As noted, the fingering systems of harmony ocarinas typically assign one hand to one chamber. This allows them to be played independently, but is also limiting as fewer fingers are available for each chamber. There are two different approaches, linier, and cross fingered.
A linier fingering system, where each finger is assigned to a note sequentially, means that only about 6 notes can be played on each chamber. The example below depicts such a fingering with the chambers tuned at an interval of a fifth. The chambers have identical fingerings, but sound different notes. 1, 2, 3, 4 and T are the fingers: pinky, ring, middle, index, and thumb.
Some harmony ocarinas utilise a variation of the pendant fingering system arranged linearly for 4 fingers of each hand. With this system each chamber can attain a range of about an octave, at the cost of tuning accuracy.
The example fingering below demonstrates an ocarina with two chambers tuned to the same base pitch, so using the same fingering on both chambers would sound the same note. Ocarinas using this system may also be tuned with the chambers at a different base interval, like the previous example with linier fingering.
The Huacca, pronounced 'waka', is a vessel flute with multiple chambers tuned to play in harmony. They are similar to harmony ocarinas, but the term 'huacca' refers to a specific design that is relatively standardised, and worth using to avoid confusion.
They have two or three globular chambers either arranged side by side, or in a triangle, and wind-ways combined into one for the player to blow. On most of them I have seen, the base pitches of the chambers are tuned in unison.
On two chamber instruments, both chambers have finger holes. On ones with 3 chambers the 3rd chamber is a drone tuned to play one continuous pitch.