Different ways of notating music for ocarina

What is the first thing that comes to your mind from the phrase 'music notation'? You may automatically assume 'sheet music', but it is far from the only option.

Fundamentally, 'notation' is just a means of communicating how to play a song, and there are many ways of notating music for the ocarina. We will be exploring some of these, as well as their pros and cons.

Ocarina tabs

Ocarina tabs literally depict the fingering of the whole instrument for every note in a song. Generally, black means that a hole is closed, while white means that its open.


  • If you are a new musician, ocarina tabs offer an intuitive path to learn melodies you've heard before. If you can hear something in your head or sing it from memory, tabs allow you to learn the fingerings needed to play it on the ocarina.
  • Ocarina tabs force you to listen to recordings or a teacher's playing. It can thus help you develop your ear and learn stylistic details.
  • Tabs can also be used in combination with other forms of notation to communicate alternative fingerings, to make a certain note transition easier.


But despite being intuitive, ocarina tabs have a ton of cons when used for general music notation:

  • The verbosity of ocarina tabs means they can only practically notate simple music.
  • Tabs imply that using the correct fingering means one is playing the right note, which is false as pitch varies with blowing pressure.
  • If you are a new musician, learning using tabs means that you won't learn the logic behind scales, which makes it impossible to understand how ocarinas in different keys relate to each other.
  • Tabs do not notate rhythm, and are useless without an audio reference to copy.
  • By the nature of how they work, tabs are unable to communicate fingering differences between ocarinas. Even for the same type of ocarina, the optimal fingerings of sharp / flat notes vary between ocarinas due to chamber acoustics.
  • Tabs can lead to you consciously thinking about finger positions, leading to playing that sounds hesitant. Finger positions and transitions really should be trained untill subconscious.

There is nothing wrong with using ocarina tabs if they help you get started playing, or as supplemental information like suggesting alternate fingerings. However I'd advise moving on to a different form of notation as soon as possible for the bulk of your music.

ABC notation

The general problem with notating music by showing finger positions is verbosity. To address it most forms of music notation use symbols. Instead of showing a fingering chart, we can show a single symbol such as 'A':

Thus we can write out many more notes without using up a ton of space. In western music we use a scale of 7 notes, which repeat in octaves. ABC notation represents them with the first 7 letters of the alphabet:

A, B, C, D, E, F and G

Notes in different octaves are shown using case. The lower octave of an Alto C ocarina is represented using upper case, and the upper octave using lower case. You can remember this by thinking that the larger letters are heavier, and sink to the bottom.

Another thing that we gain by representing notes abstractly is the ability to include other information, such as how long a note will be played for. ABC notation does this by following the letter with a number.

If we assume that a letter alone, 'A' represents a one beat note, A2 is a note twice as long. Shorter notes are shown with a slash, and A/2 is a note that's half as long. Thus you can write out a melody as follows . Like English they are read left to right. We add spaces to separate unique melodic ideas.


ABC notation started out as a means of notating European folk music, but it has since been standardised, and has facility to notate most of what sheet music can. If you'd like to learn more its easy to find information online.


  • ABC notation is easy to write by hand, or type on a computer with no special software.
  • With practice, one can learn to sight-read it on an instrument.
  • Standards compliant ABC notation can be easily played as audio, converted to sheet music, or automatically transposed. The ability to machine transpose it is useful for adapting music to the range of a given ocarina.
  • If you are interested in playing Irish, and other European folk music, thousands of these tunes are available in the format online for free.


  • ABC notation can be more difficult to sight read compared to sheet music (discussed later in the article). This is mainly because it is one-dimensional, and sheet music can be read by looking at the shapes formed by groups of symbols.
  • The music available in the format is mostly limited to European folk music. This does not stop you from using it for other things if you wish.

Numeric notation

Numeric notation is conceptually similar to ABC notation, it just uses numbers instead of letters. In this notation, the numbers 1 through 7 represent the notes C through to B:

Notes in a higher or lower octaves are indicated by placing one or more dots above or below a given number. One dot above meaning one octave higher, and a dot below meaning one octave lower.

A number alone means a note of one beat, and other durations are written using dashes:

  • Following a note with a dash increases its duration. A note followed by a single dash is a two beat note, and two dashes is a 3 beat note.
  • Placing a dash underneath a note halves its duration, and so a note with one underline is half a beat, and two is a quarter of a beat.

Bringing this together, here's some music in numeric notation:

I have little else to say about numeric notation as its pros and cons are very similar to ABC notation. It is mainly used for Chinese music, and it's easy to find more information about it online.

Audio recordings

Perhaps you wouldn't consider it notation at all, but a recording is possibly the best form of music notation there is. Sheet music, ABC and tabs are 'instructions'. They tell you what to do to get a sound, while an audio recording is the sound.


Audio literally demonstrates how someone intended something to sound, down to the finest details. A recording captures everything, including ornamental and other expressive details which other forms of notation struggle to accurately represent.

  • Listening to audio recordings of skilled players is great for developing your musicality. You can hear exactly how someone phrases and ornaments some music.
  • You can record parts of live performances to learn from them with little effort.
  • It is extremely easy to use a smartphone or portable audio recorder to record your playing as a memory aid.


The main disadvantage of using audio recordings to notate music is the need to learn what you are hearing, including:

  • How to find notes by ear.
  • Understanding the stylistic and expressive intent of the performance.
  • Recognising ornamental techniques and translating them to your instrument.

It is also worth noting that audio demonstrates how something should sound, and not the techniques required to produce that sound. Thus, audio and video combined may be the best way of documenting a performance.

The function of notation, Emic vs Etic

This is a good point to mention that music notations can serve different functions, which are called Emic and Etic:

Emic music notation

Emic notations are 'insiders' notations. They give you an outline of what to do, but omit details such as ornamentation. Emic notation is useless unless you had someone explain what it means, and can then fill in the missing detail yourself.

Examples of emic notations include:

  • Ocarina tabs.
  • ABC notation.

Sheet music and audio recordings are generally etic (next heading), but can also be used for emic reasons. For example a quick recording demonstrating only the outline of a tune would be emic. Folk musicians often use sheet music as emic notation, and play it differently to what a literal reading would imply.

Etic music notation

An etic notation by comparison attempts to notate the full details of exactly how something should sound.

Examples include:

  • Audio recordings of skilled performances.
  • Some uses of sheet music.

Classical scores try to notate exactly how a piece should be performed, and Bartók's transcriptions try to use notation for a similar intent as an audio recording.

MIDI / piano roll notation

MIDI notation, also called piano roll notation, is a way of representing music graphically. You won't normally read from it directly, but understanding it can help one to understand sheet music. It's also worth being aware of, as it's a convenient way of entering music on a computer.

In MIDI notation, notes are represented as boxes placed in a grid:

  • The horizontal width of the box denotes the duration of the note.
  • The vertical position of a box in the grid defines the pitch, with higher notes being placed higher vertically.
  • The horizontal position of a box tells you when the note will play, and time increases linearly towards the right.

It looks like this:


The primary advantage of midi notation is that it is extremely easy to enter on a computer, smartphone or tablet just by clicking and dragging the note boxes around. It is really easy to use MIDI notation to jot down a melody, and immediately hear how it sounds.


  • Midi notation is bad at notating expressive details, and bad at representing note transitions. Midi is based on a 'piano' world-view where notes have a definite start and end. The ocarina and other wind instruments do not work like that as there are many ways of moving between notes, like pitch slides, legato / staccato.
  • MIDI notation is mathematically rigid in both pitch and rhythm, and isn't a good model of how experienced human musicians perform.

Graphical notation

Graphical notation is a non-standardised form of notation which represents music using lines, curves and similar patterns. Generally speaking, it is similar to midi notation in that vertical position represents the pitch to be played, and horizontal position represents time.

Such a notation is able to easily represent 'broad strokes' of the movement of pitch, particularly large, smooth swoops which other forms of notation struggle with. But it is less clear how these shapes relate to an instrument. One can improve that by writing these patters on a staff (see 'Sheet music' below):

This kind of notation is often used for teaching young children a general concept of music notation, however it isn't in widespread use otherwise. I think it would be of great value if combined with standard sheet music, as a means of accurately communicating vibrato, pitch slides, and other forms of ornamentation.

It may also be of interest to note that this form of graphical notation has similarities with an early form of music notation, called Neumes, which evolved into modern sheet music.

Sheet music

The details of how sheet music works are explained in the article The logic of sheet music, but in essence it is a graphical notation not that dissimilar to MIDI notation.

Pitch is shown by the vertical position of circular blobs called 'note heads', and each position represents a different note. Like other kinds of notation they are read left to right.

X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
"C" C "D" D "E" E "F" F "G" G "A" A "B" B "C" c "D" d|

Timing is shown by the overall shape of note symbols, which tells you how long the note should be held before moving to the next one. Notice that all of these share a round 'head', which marks the pitch as noted previously.

Notes of different shapes represent different durations of time.


  • Sheet music is the de-facto standard in Western music. A huge volume of it exists, encompassing countless genres of music.
  • Being two dimensional is a big advantage as sheet music can be read by looking at the shapes between groups of notes on the page. With practice, you can recognise common patterns and instinctively know how to play them.
  • It is also very versatile, you can use sheet music for quick emic notations, or complex and detailed etic ones. As long as you follow known standards, other people will know what you mean.
  • Finally, you don't have to read music well to start getting value from it.


  • The way sheet music notates keys makes transposing music seem much more complicated than it actually is.
  • Sheet music is also quite mathematically ridged, and can't easily notate subtle changes in pitch, or rhythm. Human musicians use both of these for expressive reasons, and in most cases that can only be learned from listening to a performance.


Music notation is ultimately a means of communication, allowing one musician or composer to share their music with others. All forms of notation have pros and cons, and I'd recommend trying out different options, and learn whatever notation gives you access to music you enjoy.

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