What is an ocarina?

The ocarina is a wind instrument with a pure ethereal tone. They are typically made from ceramic, and can play music ranging from mournful, slow melodies to highly ornamented tunes. Most ocarinas are small, easily slipped into a pocket or bag, and played wherever it takes your fancy.

Picture of a transverse ocarina in D

The most characteristic feature of an ocarina is the use of a hollow chamber instead of a tube for sound production, combined with a ducted voicing similar to a recorder. A combination that gives them their unique tone.

In practice the term 'ocarina' is quite ambiguous and is used to refer to anything using a hollow chamber for sound production, ranging from novelty whistles, to serious musical instruments. They are often designed to play melodic music, and variations exist enabling solo harmony performance.

The history of the ocarina

Instruments that use a hollow chamber to produce sound have existed for thousands of years. Many cultures have similar instruments including various south American cultures, Mexico, and Asia. It is probable that they were discovered independently throughout human history.

These historic examples are often designed to look like birds and other animals, and can be used to imitate the sounds of the natural world. Different variations were designed to make sounds like bird calls, howling (the Mexican 'death whistle'), and rustling leaves.

In the 19th century, a small town in northern Italy called Budrio had a tradition of 'ocarinas'. Small ceramic whistles shaped like a goose, with one or two finger holes, and designed to imitate the sounds of a bird call. They are also the origin of the term 'ocarina', which means 'little goose' in a historic dialect of Italian.

Giuseppe_Donati and ocarina

Someone called Giuseppe Donati saw the potential to develop them into a serious musical instrument. He was a brick maker local to Budrio, who also played Piano, Organ and Clarinet. He experimented in his spare time, using the kilns of his employer to fire his instruments.

After much experimentation, he settled on a body shaped like a cone as he found it more ergonomic. On top of which he devised a 10 hole linier fingering system tuned to a western scale. His fingering system is the basis of most ocarinas today, and can play chromatically over an octave and a fourth.

Side Note

Chromatic is a music term that means 'plays all 12 notes per octave'. On a piano, that corresponds to both the white and black keys. The 'white keys' are the diatonic notes of the C scale, and the 'black keys' are the chromatic notes. For more information, see the page Octaves and scale formation.

Donati's transverse ocarinas, have a chamber shaped like a cone with a point on both ends. 8 finger holes on the top, and two thumb holes. The two pictures below show a Menaglio ocarina, a modern maker who maintains the Budrio tradition.

Italian ocarina shaped like a cone, with a mouthpiece on the side and finger holes on the surface.
An Italian ocarina shown from the underside with the sound hole in the middle, and thumb holes to the left and right.

Due to their physics, ocarinas can only play a small range of notes, and Donati worked around this by developing ocarinas from low pitched bass ocarinas, to high pitched sopranos. He formed a group using these instruments with his musician friends called the Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese (Budrio Ocarina Group), where different players cover different pitch ranges.

Initially the group started with 5 players (1865) before growing to 6 players, and finally 7 players in 1869. There are records in the Budrio Ocarina museum of newspaper articles recording performances by the group between 1869 and 1877 in Austria, Germany, The UK, France and elsewhere, and the group survives to the current day.

An ensemble of 7 Italian ocarina players in the theatre in Budrio. The GOB, Budrio ocarina group.

Due to their physics, low pitched ocarinas are physically larger than high pitched ones. The lowest commonly available playing from around C3, and the highest playing from about C6. Ocarinas lower or higher than this have been made as one-off instruments, but are not in common production. See Ocarina keys and pitch ranges.

A selection of Italian ocarinas with tuning plungers and split right pinky finger holes allowing the low sharp to be played.

The Italian ocarina spread through Europe, and other makers copied and improved on the design, for example adding tuning plungers which can be seen in the above picture. Multichambered instruments were also developed allowing a single ocarina to play a larger range of notes.

An interesting side-note in the instrument's history is that some south American musicians saw the GOB perform in Lisbon, and formed an ocarina septet in Brazil around 1880, although no further groups formed from this, and the Italian ocarina died out in south America.

The ocarina in Asia, and the addition of subholes

Ocarinas made their way to Japan sometime around the 1930's, and were first manufactured there by Aketagawa. Ocarinas became popular in Japan when a player called Sojiro performed music on the ocarina in a popular documentary film called 'Great Yellow River'. Today, the ocarina is widely played to a high standard in China, Japan and Korea.

The Asian ocarina design differs notably from Italian instruments, with a longer tail, and a more rounded shape. Asian makers also developed ocarinas with 'subholes', increasing the total number of finger holes from 10 to 12.

A diagram of a 12 hole ocarina depicting the subholes. Subholes are small additional finger holes placed besides other holes. They are used by covering 2 holes with one finger, and allow lower notes to be played.

The subholes are used by covering two holes with the pad of a single finger, and allow lower notes to be played than a 10 hole. Otherwise, the fingering system remains almost unchanged. Differences are explained in An introduction to the ocarina's fingering system.

A 12 hole ocarina made by Ross of Oberon Ocarinas.

Ocarinas have come back into western awareness from this Asian tradition through mainstream media. An ocarina was featured in the game 'The Legand of Zelda, ocarina of time' in the 1990's, a game that has remained popular.

Some of these people discovered that the ocarina is a real instrument, learned to play, and started publishing videos of playing on websites like Youtube. The musical capability of the instrument has become more known due to David Eric Ramos and others.

Multichamber ocarinas

A double ocarina

On most wind instruments it is possible to 'overblow', to play notes in different octaves by blowing harder or softer. Ocarinas cannot do this though. Each diatonic note has its own hole, and the total range a single chamber can achieve is limited by physics to slightly more than an octave.

To add additional range, multichamber ocarinas were created. Extra smaller chambers are added to the right hand, which are tuned to play higher notes. Multichamber ocarinas may have as many as 4 chambers, giving slightly more than 3 octaves of range.

These were developed sometime around the end of the 19th century, and most makers had them in their product catalogues.

Multichamber ocarinas provide additional benefits beyond just range though. They often sound better as splitting the total range over multiple chambers gives makers more control. They can also have ergonomic advantages as they do not require a right thumb hole.

Use of the word 'ocarina'

As was noted in the introduction, the term 'ocarina' is very ambiguous in real world usage. People often refer to anything that makes sound using a hollow chamber as 'ocarina', including the Italian ocarina described above, the historic sculptural whistles, and other variations like harmony ocarinas, despite the fact that these things serve very different functions.

'Ocarina' is really a collection of different instruments that happen to have the same name. Different types of ocarinas can be distinguished using classifiers, for example 'transverse ocarina' (see Types of ocarinas); however their usage varies and are frequently omitted.

This ambiguity may have arisen as as ocarinas fell out of use as serious musical instruments in Europe sometime in the 20th century, and do not have a strong player tradition outside of Asia today. People in most countries either are not aware of the instrument at all, or consider it a toy or novelty due to the mass availability of poor quality examples.

People are generally unaware of its musical capability, and appear to consider versions of the instrument the same, following the logic that 'if it produces sound using the same mechanism, and has the same kind of timbre, it is an 'ocarina'.

Regardless, the ambiguity of naming that exists in the ocarina ecosystem is confusing, and an awareness of different ocarina types is critical for any serious player. These different things, and how to identify them are discussed on the page Types of ocarinas.