Types of ocarinas

In common language the term 'ocarina' refers not to a single instrument, but to anything which makes sound using a hollow chamber. In practice, ranging from sculptural whistles that only play one note, to concert quality musical instruments.

As a player, you will see all of these available, and so it helps to understand all of the different types of ocarinas.

Transverse / Italian ocarinas

The transverse ocarina, which is the main subject of this website is a 19th century Italian instrument. They have a linear fingering system similar to that of the recorder or flute, and are fully chromatic.

Transverse ocarinas can have anywhere between 9 and 12 holes. The fingering system of all of these is the same, with additions that extend the instrument's range at the high and/or low end.

If you learn to play any of these, you can pick up a transverse ocarina with a different number of holes, and play it with little difficulty.

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.

Having a smaller range means that 10 hole ocarinas can be made with diverse 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 its entire range.
  • Play with increasing breath pressure, having quiet low notes and loud high notes.

12 hole ocarinas

The 12 hole ocarina is a variation 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, 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 A to F. 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. They also tend to suffer from airy sounding high notes, and weak low notes.

== TODO, add picture of a 12 hole ocarina

11 hole ocarinas

The 11 hole ocarina is a compromise between the 10 hole, and 12 hole designs. By eliminating one of the sub-holes, the timbre and volume of the whole instrument can be balanced. An 11 hole ocarina can play one semitone lower than a 10 hole ocarina, which is useful in a lot of music.

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 some unique challenges.

Inline ocarinas do not have the same basis of standardisation in design and playing techniques which exists in transverse instruments. The standard techniques for supporting a transverse ocarina on the high notes are ineffective on an inline ocarina, rarely with good alternative.

As a maker, I have also found the inline design acoustically problematic. In summary, the inline voicing tends to make these ocarinas more prone to screeching when blown at higher pressures. They also tend to have much larger thumb holes.

== TODO, make a diagram as I have no pictures.

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.

Harmony ocarinas, which are explained below, are multichamber ocarinas that are designed to play in harmony.

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.

== Picture would be good

For me, the pendant ocarina is largely 'a solution looking for a problem', and there are very few things they can do, that the transverse design cannot do much better. Primerily:

  • 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.
  • They are actually harder to play well than a transverse, as the player must compensate for the previously mentioned tuning errors, with irregular changes in blowing pressure.

That being said, pendant ocarinas do have a few advantages over the transverse, and can be useful in a few situations:

  • Having fewer holes allows them to be made very small, and most can be worn as a pendant. Thus, they are great for spontaneous musical performance as you can always have one with you.
  • Pendant ocarinas can be made much smaller than a transverse, which allows them to sound at a higher pitch, and may open up some unique musical possibilities.

I do want to stress that while having fewer holes can intuitively seem easier, the pendant ocarina is in no way easier to play. like all ocarinas, their pitch is unstable and varies greatly with blowing pressure. It is extremely easy to play a bunch of notes that don't fall into any single scale.

In the UK, the term 'ocarina' is mostly associated with the 4 hole instrument, and the most common result of web searches.

Sculptural ocarinas

Sculptural ocarinas combine a playable ocarina, usually based on a transverse or 4 hole instrument, and a sculptural visual design. They can be visually stunning, although it is also important to consider how design affects playability.

The design of an ocarina needs to fulfill both the ergonomic needs of the player and acoustic constraints of producing a good sound. In practice, optimising for playability puts a lot of constraints on what can be done visually.

Sculptural ocarinas exist on a spectrum between being primariluy instruments, and primarily art pieces. Designs which place visuals first tend to result in shapes and hole placements that are not very ergonomic, and visual features in places that get in the way of the player.

If the downsides of a visual design matter or not depends on what the instrument is for. If something is primarily an ornament to sit on a shelf, an unergonomic design isn't going to matter. Likewise playing simple music in a performance, the visual design isn't going to matter.

It is worth noting that 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 meany ocarinas on the market which are designed to replicate the ocarina featured in "The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time".

== picture would be good

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.

  • 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, and 'egg shaped' ocarinas have really poor ergonomics as the shape encourages fingers to slide off the body, making it feel unstable in the player's hands.
  • They usually have bad high notes as the egg shaped chamber and voicing design forced by the external shape is acoustically poor, and requires a very large chamber for a given pitch.

If you want an ocarina as an ornament, feel free to get one of these. Howeaver if you are at all serious about playing, avoid like the plague.

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.

In south America the term refers to traditional instruments. South American instruments vary a lot in their physical design, but i have been told by someone who lives there that native people do not differentiate between them, and do not consider the Italian ocarina different despite it being designed for a different function.

There is a lot more depth to the south American instrument's than can be seen in the modern knock off's of them. Ones designed could be called 'terbulance flutes'.

Microtonal ocarinas

Ocarinas with only one or two holes, which can vary their pitch by varying the amount of hole covered.

They can be really useful as teaching tools, as they force the player to consider and listen to the pitch they are producing.

The microtonal ocarina also offers a more accurate visual representation of the player skill required to play any ocarina. Having holes can lead to an assumption 'if I'm using the right fingering i'm playing the right note', but yet pitch changes hugely when the player varies their blowing pressure.

All ocarinas require a good ear to play. The holes guide the pitch, but are in no way fixed.

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.