Last updated
2016-01 Ocarina front.jpg
A mono-chamber 12-hole ocarina
Classification Wind, woodwind, aerophone
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 421.221.42
(Vessel flute with duct and fingerholes)
Related instruments
Xun, huaca, slide whistle, tin whistle, molinukai

The ocarina is a wind musical instrument; it is a type of vessel flute. [1] Variations exist, but a typical ocarina is an enclosed space with four to twelve finger holes and a mouthpiece that projects from the body. It is traditionally made from clay or ceramic, but other materials are also used, such as plastic, wood, glass, metal, or bone.



Giuseppe Donati, Italian inventor of the modern ocarina, with his work Donati.gif
Giuseppe Donati, Italian inventor of the modern ocarina, with his work

The ocarina belongs to a very old family of instruments, believed to date back over 12,000 years. [2] Ocarina-type instruments have been of particular importance in Chinese and Mesoamerican cultures. For the Chinese, the instrument played an important role in their long history of song and dance. The ocarina has similar features to the Xun (塤), another important Chinese instrument (but is different in that the ocarina uses an internal duct, whereas the Xun is blown across the outer edge). [3] In Japan, the traditional ocarina is known as the tsuchibue (kanji: 土笛; literally "earthen flute"). Different expeditions to Mesoamerica, including the one conducted by Cortés, resulted in the introduction of the ocarina to the courts of Europe. Both the Mayans and Aztecs produced versions of the ocarina, but it was the Aztecs who brought to Europe the song and dance that accompanied the ocarina. The ocarina went on to become popular in European communities as a toy instrument. [1]

Ocarina, c. 1900, Museu de la Musica de Barcelona Ocarina 1.JPG
Ocarina, c. 1900, Museu de la Música de Barcelona

One of the oldest ocarinas found in Europe is from Runik, Kosovo. The Runik ocarina is a Neolithic flute-like wind instrument, and is the earliest prehistoric musical instrument ever recorded in Kosovo. [4] The modern European ocarina dates back to the 19th century, when Giuseppe Donati from Budrio, a town near Bologna, Italy, transformed the ocarina from a toy, which played only a few notes, into a more comprehensive instrument (known as the first "classical" ocarina). The word ocarina derives from ucaréṅna, which in the Bolognese dialect means "little goose". The earlier form was known in Europe as a gemshorn, which was made from animal horns of the chamois (Dutch : gems). [5]

In 1964, John Taylor, an English mathematician, developed a fingering system that allowed an ocarina to play a full chromatic octave using only four holes. [1] This is now known as the English fingering system, and is used extensively for pendant ocarinas. It is also used in several multi-chamber ocarinas, especially in ones that are designed to play more than one note at a time.

In media

The ocarina features prominently in the Nintendo 64 games The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask , as well as the NES game EarthBound Beginnings. The games have been credited for increasing the popularity of ocarinas and the sale of them. [6] In the 1953 Finnish children's book Tirlittan , the title character also plays an ocarina. [7]


Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti (1923–2006) called for four ocarinas (to be performed by woodwind players doubling their own instruments) in his Violin Concerto, completed in 1993. In 1974, the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (1933–2020) incorporated 12 ocarinas in his composition The Dream of Jacob . Later, he incorporated 50 in the final section of his Symphony No. 8, completed in 2008, where they are meant to be played by members of the choir.


There are many different styles of ocarinas varying in shape and the number of holes:

Musical performance

Tone production and acoustics

How an ocarina works:

  1. Air enters through the windway
  2. Air strikes the labium, producing sound
  3. Air pulses in and out of the ocarina, as the vessel resonates a specific pitch (see Helmholtz resonator)
  4. Covering holes lowers the pitch; uncovering holes raises the pitch
  5. Blowing more softly lowers the pitch; blowing harder raises it. Breath force can change the pitch by several semitones, of which about a third of a semitone either way is useful. [10] Too much or too little air will harm the tone. [11] This is why ocarinas generally have no tuning mechanism or dynamic range, and why it is hard to learn to play one in tune.

The airstream is directed on the labium by a fipple or internal duct, which is a narrowing rectangular slot in the mouthpiece, rather than relying on the player's lips as in a transverse flute. Like other flutes, the airstream alternates quickly between the inner and outer face of the labium as the pressure in the ocarina chamber oscillates.

At first, the sound is a broad-spectrum "noise" (i.e. "chiff"), but those frequencies that are identical with the fundamental frequency of the resonating chamber (which depends on the fingering), are selectively amplified. A Helmholtz resonating chamber is unusually selective in amplifying a single frequency. Most resonators also amplify more overtones. [12] As a result, ocarinas and other vessel flutes have a distinctive overtoneless sound.

Unlike many flutes, ocarinas do not rely on pipe length to produce a particular tone. Instead, the tone is dependent on the ratio of the total surface area of opened holes to the total cubic volume enclosed by the instrument. [13] This means that, unlike a transverse flute or recorder, sound is created by resonance of the entire cavity and the placement of the holes on an ocarina is largely irrelevant – their size is the most important factor. Instruments that have toneholes close to the voicing/embouchure should be avoided, however; as an ocarina is a Helmholtz resonator, this weakens tonal production.

The resonator in the ocarina can create overtones, but because of the common "egg" shape, these overtones are many octaves above the keynote scale. [12] In similar Helmholtz resonator instruments with a narrow cone shape, like the Gemshorn or Tonette, some partial overtones are available. The technique of overblowing to get a range of higher-pitched notes is possible with the ocarina but not widely used because the resulting note is not "clean" enough, so the range of pitches available is limited by the total area of the holes.

Some ocarina makers bypass these physical limitations by creating ocarinas that have two or three resonating chambers, each with their own windway and labium. There are two main systems that dictate how these additional chambers are tuned: the Asian system and the Pacchioni system. The Asian system maximizes range by beginning each chamber one semitone higher than the highest note of the previous chamber. The Pacchioni system instead focuses on smoothing the transition between chambers by overlapping their ranges slightly, thereby making it easier to play melodies that fall in that range. [14]

Musical notation and tablature

Ocarina music is written in three main ways. The most apparent is the use of sheet music. There are archives of sheet music either specifically written for ocarinas, or adapted from piano sheet music. Since some ocarinas are fully chromatic and can be played in professional musical situations, including classical and folk, sheet music is an ideal notation for ocarinas.

Second is the use of numerical tablature, which expresses the musical notes as numbers. Some makers have developed their own system of numerical tablature for their ocarinas, while others follow a more universal system where numbers correspond to different notes on the scale. This method is typically used by beginners who have not learned to read sheet music.

A third method uses a pictorial tablature similar to the ocarina's finger hole pattern, with blackened holes that represent holes to cover. The tablature represents the holes on the top of the ocarina, and, where necessary, the holes on the underside. This enables easy playing, particularly for beginners. The two most popular tablature systems are:

Depending on the artist, some may write a number or figure over the picture to depict how many beats to hold the note. [15]


Due to its lack of keys, the ocarina shares many articulations with the tin whistle, such as cuts, strikes, rolls, and slides. [16] However, tonguing is used more often on ocarina than on tin whistle, and vibrato is always achieved through adjusting breath pressure instead of with the fingers. [17]

Similar instruments

Other vessel flutes include the Chinese xun and African globe flutes. The xun (simplified Chinese: 埙; traditional: 塤; pinyin: xūn) is a Chinese vessel flute made of clay or ceramic. It is one of the oldest Chinese instruments. Shaped like an egg, it differs from the ocarina in being side-blown, like the Western concert flute, rather than having a recorder-like mouthpiece (a fipple or beak). Similar instruments exist in Korea (the hun ) and Japan (the tsuchibue ). [18]

A related family of instruments is the closed-pipe family, which includes the panpipes and other instruments that produce their tone by vibrating a column of air within a stopped cylinder.[ citation needed ]

The old fashioned jug band jug also has similar properties.[ citation needed ]

The traditional German gemshorn works nearly the same way as an ocarina. The only difference is the material it is made from: the horn of a chamois, goat, or other suitable animal. [18]

Sindhi borrindos, a form of vessel flute produced in different sizes to give different tones. The borrindo is made out of soft alluvial clay, plentiful in the central Indus Valley. Borrindo.jpg
Sindhi borrindos, a form of vessel flute produced in different sizes to give different tones. The borrindo is made out of soft alluvial clay, plentiful in the central Indus Valley.

The borrindo is a simple hollow clay ball with three to four fingering holes, one hole slightly larger than the other three, which are smaller and of equal size to one another.[ vague ] The holes are arranged in an isosceles triangular form. The borrindo is made out of soft alluvial clay available in plenty everywhere in the central Indus Valley. Being of the simplest design, it is made even by children. Some adults make fine borrindos of larger size, put pottery designs on them, and bake them. These baked borrindos, with pottery designs, are the later evolved forms of this musical instrument, which appears to have previously been used in its simple unbaked form for a long time.[ citation needed ] The sound notes are produced by blowing somewhat horizontally into the larger hole. Finger tips are placed on smaller holes to regulate the notes. Its ease of play makes it popular among children and the youth.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Flute</span> Woodwind instrument

The flute is a family of classical music instrument in the woodwind group. Like all woodwinds, flutes are aerophones, meaning they make sound by vibrating a column of air. However, unlike woodwind instruments with reeds, a flute is a reedless wind instrument that produces its sound from the flow of air across an opening. According to the instrument classification of Hornbostel–Sachs, flutes are categorized as edge-blown aerophones. A musician who plays the flute is called a flautist or flutist.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Recorder (musical instrument)</span> Woodwind instrument

The recorder is a family of woodwind musical instruments in the group known as internal duct flutes: flutes with a whistle mouthpiece, also known as fipple flutes. A recorder can be distinguished from other duct flutes by the presence of a thumb-hole for the upper hand and seven finger-holes: three for the upper hand and four for the lower. It is the most prominent duct flute in the western classical tradition.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tin whistle</span> Six-holed woodwind instrument

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<i>Ney</i> Wind instrument (type of flute)

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fipple</span> Musical instrument

The term fipple specifies a variety of end-blown flute that includes the flageolet, recorder, and tin whistle. The Hornbostel–Sachs system for classifying musical instruments places this group under the heading "Flutes with duct or duct flutes." The label "fipple flute" is frequently applied to members of the subgroup but there is no general agreement about the structural detail of the sound-producing mechanism that constitutes the fipple, itself.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chinese flutes</span>

Chinese flutes come in various types. They include

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Western concert flute</span> Transverse woodwind instrument

The Western concert flute is a family of transverse (side-blown) woodwind instruments made of metal or wood. It is the most common variant of the flute. A musician who plays the flute is called a flautist, flutist, or simply a flute player.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Flageolet</span> Woodwind musical instrument

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tonette</span>

The stub-ended Swanson Tonette is a small, end-blown vessel flute made of plastic, which was once popular in American elementary music education. Though the Tonette has been superseded by the recorder in many areas, due to their price, durability and simplicity, plastic Tonettes are still in use in elementary schools around the nation. The range of the Tonette is from C4 to D5. A skilled player can produce notes above the principal register by overblowing and half-covering holes. Similar instruments are the Song Flute, Flutophone, and Precorder.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Xun (instrument)</span>

The xun is a globular, vessel flute from China. It is one of the oldest musical instruments in China and has been in use for approximately seven thousand years. The xun was initially made of stone, baked clay, or bone, and later of clay or ceramic; sometimes the instrument is made with bamboo. It is the only surviving example of an earth instrument from the traditional "eight-tone" (bayin) classifications of musical instruments.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gemshorn</span>

The gemshorn is an instrument of the ocarina family that was historically made from the horn of a chamois, goat, or other suitable animal. The gemshorn receives its name from the German language, in which Gemshorn means a "chamois horn".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Native American flute</span> Flute designed by Native American peoples

The Native American flute is a flute that is held in front of the player, has open finger holes, and has two chambers: one for collecting the breath of the player and a second chamber which creates sound. The player breathes into one end of the flute without the need for an embouchure. A block on the outside of the instrument directs the player's breath from the first chamber—called the slow air chamber—into the second chamber—called the sound chamber. The design of a sound hole at the proximal end of the sound chamber causes air from the player's breath to vibrate. This vibration causes a steady resonance of air pressure in the sound chamber that creates sound.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wind instrument</span> Class of musical instruments with air resonator

A wind instrument is a musical instrument that contains some type of resonator in which a column of air is set into vibration by the player blowing into a mouthpiece set at or near the end of the resonator. The pitch of the vibration is determined by the length of the tube and by manual modifications of the effective length of the vibrating column of air. In the case of some wind instruments, sound is produced by blowing through a reed; others require buzzing into a metal mouthpiece, while yet others require the player to blow into a hole at an edge, which splits the air column and creates the sound.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hand flute</span>

The hand flute, or handflute, is a musical instrument made out of the player's hands. It is also called a 'Hand ocarina' or 'Hand whistle'. To produce sound, the player creates a chamber of air with their hands, into which they blow air via an opening at the thumbs. There are two common techniques involving the shape of the hand chamber: the "cupped hand" technique and the "interlock" technique.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vessel flute</span> Vessel-shaped flute

A vessel flute is a type of flute with a body which acts as a Helmholtz resonator. The body is vessel-shaped, not tube- or cone-shaped; that is, the far end is closed.


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Further reading

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