Types of ocarinas

In practice the term 'ocarina' is quite ambigious as it tends to be used as a catch all.

This website is about the transverse ocarina as it is the most playable that exists today, howeaver understanding other varients will help you to understand what you find, as all of these can comonly be found sold under the name 'ocarina', a situation which has probably arrisen due cultural ignorance.

There are many types of ocarinas, and in common language, the term 'Ocarina' is used generically for any whistle that makes sound using a hollow chamber. Not all of them are playable instruments.

In practice, the word 'ocarina' can have two different meanings:

  • Large scale: a term to refer to any instrument which produces sound using a hollow chamber. Another term for this is 'vessel flute', although it is rarely used.
  • Small scale: In certain communities, the term is used to refer to a specific kind of ocarina, usually the transverse or pendant.

It is helpful to understand the different things that the term refers to.

Transverse / Italian ocarinas

The transverse ocarina, which is the main subject of this website is a 19th century Italian instrument which is fully chromatic. Today, multiple variations of the instrument exist, which are differentiated by hole count:

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 C to F. However, the lowest sharp note can only be played by half covering the hole, if a split hole is not included.

Having a smaller range allows 10 hole ocarinas to have more diverse playing characteristics. They have a strong and balanced timbre throughout the playing range. They can be made to have balanced volume with strong low notes, or alternately with the high notes tuned to play at a higher volume.

12 hole ocarinas

The 12 hole ocarina is a variation of the 10 hole ocarina which was developed in Asia. 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. Today, 12 hole ocarinas are the most commonly available, due to the popularity of the design in Asia.

The subholes extend the instrument's sounding range downwards by 3 semitones, giving a total range of A to F on a C instrument. The subholes can also be used to play accidental notes which require half covering holes on a 10 hole.

It is important to note that the 12 hole ocarina is not fundamentally superior to the 10 hole. 12 hole ocarinas tend to suffer from either weak low notes, or airy high notes. To function ocarinas must be able to create a pressure differential in the chamber, and as holes are opened, air can escape, which limits the total range.

== Picture of a 12 hole ocarina

11 hole ocarinas

The 11 hole ocarina is a compromise between the 10 hole, and 12 hole ocarina. By eliminating one of the sub-holes, the timbre and volume of the whole instrument can be balanced, like a 10 hole ocarina, but the instrument can also play a semitone lower, and the subhole can also be used for playing accidentals.

Inline ocarinas

Inline ocarinas are essentially the same as transverse ocarinas, and use a identical or near identical fingering. However the mouthpiece is placed on the end of the chamber, with the body held straight out from the player, much like a recorder or whistle.

This design doesn't really have any advantages over the transverse. The inline design allows the hands to be held straight which may put less stress on the player's wrists, but also creates unique ergonomic challenges as supporting the instrument is more difficult.

Inline ocarinas do not have the same basis of standardisation in design and playing techniques which exists in transverse instruments. There are no standard playing techniques, like the 3 point grip for transverse ocarinas.

As a maker, I have also found the inline design accoustically problematic. Without going into a huge ammount of detail, the inline voicing seems to make these ocarinas more prone to screeching when overblown, and the long and narrow chamber tends to result in much larger thumb holes.

== Diagram, as I have no pictures.

Transverse multichamber ocarinas

Ocarinas can only sound a limited range due to their physics, and multichambered ocarinas exist to provide more range to the player. They take the basic fingering system of a transverse ocarina, and add add additional chambers. You can think of a multichamber ocarina as multiple ocarinas which are tuned to play as a single instrument.

A Pure Ocarinas Pacchioni system double alto D ocarina with shellac finish

Pendant ocarinas

Pendant ocarinas were developed in the United Kingdom in the 1960's, and are small instruments which play an octave using 4 finger holes and a binary-like fingering system. As they have fewer holes, they can be made very small, and warn as a pendant. It is easy to always have one with you as they are so small, and are great for spontaneous musical performances, and passing the time.

Pendant ocarinas do have technical limitations, as the limited number of finger holes does not allow all notes to be tuned perfectly, and the player must compensate with blowing pressure. The pendant design having fewer holes does have advantages, as it allows them to be made physically smaller than a transverse can be, allowing them to sound at a higher pitch.

There are opportunities to improve the design and create a more serious musical instrument. For example, if both of the right hand finger holes are tuned into split holes, and a subhole is added for the ring finger. This design has almost flawless tuning, and is fully chromatic.

== Picture would be good

Sculptural ocarinas

Sculptural ocarinas combine a playable ocarina, usually based on a transverse or 4 hole design, and a sculptural visual design. The main thing to note about them is that there is usually a trade off between visuals, and playability.

Recognising where some ocarina falls on the scale of playability requires understanding a lot about instrument design, but the design of them can be approached in two ways:

  • Instrument first, visuals are added to a base ocarina design which was designed as an instrument first. Priority is placed on providing features to aid the player, and good sound. Visual features are secondary and supplementary.
  • Visuals first, The visual design is created first without regard to ergonomic and functional requirements, and the functional aspects of the ocarina are designed to fit around it.

The issue with ocarinas which are designed from a visuals first perspective, is that they tend to put visual features in places that get in the way of the player, and / or prevent standard playing techniques from being used.

Sculptural ocarinas can be both visually impressive, and good instruments, but creating one requires design which considers the needs of the player, and acoustic needs of the instrument. It does limit what is possible visually.

Animals did not evolve to be ergonomic musical instruments.

Zelda, and media inspired ocarinas

Today there are meany 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, and the design in the game has various ergonomic and acoustic design flaws, which will be evident in any ocarina that copies it.

== picture would be good

This trend has also lead to some manufacturers selling ocarinas which are inspired by other media franchises. They are almost always designed 'visuals first', and have varying playability.


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 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.

== need a picture of a xun

Sculptural whistles

Sculptural whistles are musical novelty items produced in various sculptural shapes, including those representing birds and other animals. They are the first ocarinas which were designed, and are often highly decorated with coloured glaze. They can simulate the sound of bird calls, and have one or two untuned holes.

Peruvian ocarinas

Peruvian ocarinas are reproductions of south American traditional instruments, usually having a flat shape, with intricate painted designs and 8 to 10 identically sized holes.

I know very little about the history of these instruments, but the ones that can be found today are poor quality, produced as tourist souvenirs . They are not tuned and are not good musical instruments.

Harmony ocarinas

Harmony ocarinas are ocarinas which include multiple chambers which are tuned to play in harmony with each other. They differ from multichamber ocarinas, as multichamber ocarinas are designed to extend range, not play in harmony in most cases.

Harmony ocarinas are not standardised at all, with shape and fingering varying between makers. They usually resemble something like the following image, with two separate chambers, one played by the left hand and one by the right.

They can be used to perform interesting music, but are beyond the scope of what i want to cover on this website.

The basic layout of a harmony double ocarina. Two chambers are placed side by side, with the left hand holes controlling one chamber, and the right hand holes the other one


The Huacca is a vessel flute with multiple chambers, and play in harmony. Chambers can be played with finger holes, or else tuned to a single note as a drone. Have been made to be put on people's heads too.