A mono-chamber 12-hole ocarina
Classification Wind, woodwind, aerophone
Hornbostel–Sachs classification421.221.42
(Vessel flute with duct and fingerholes)
Related instruments
Xun, slide whistle, tin whistle, molinukai
Sound sample
Carnival of Venice - ocarina played by Mosé Tapiero

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

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 Korea, the traditional ocarina is known as the hun (hanja: 壎). 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 Maya 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 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 in the NES game EarthBound Beginnings and prominently throughout the Nintendo 64 games The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The games have been credited for increasing the popularity and sales of ocarinas.[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

See also: Vessel flute § 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]


See also: Tin Whistle § Ornamentation

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.

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


  1. ^ a b c d "History of the Ocarina". ocarinaforest.com. 2012-12-09. Archived from the original on 2013-03-13. Retrieved 2012-12-30.
  2. ^ "Ocarina". Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2007-04-20. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  3. ^ "The Chinese Xun". ocarinaforest.com. 2012-12-31. Archived from the original on 2013-03-14. Retrieved 2012-12-30.
  4. ^ "Runik Ocarina". Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, Republic of Kosovo. Archived from the original on 2017-02-23. Retrieved 2017-02-23.
  5. ^ Perono Cacciafoco, Francesco (December 2019). "A Prehistoric 'Little Goose': A New Etymology for the Word 'Ocarina'". Seria Stiinte Filologice. Analele Universitatii din Craiova. 41 (1–2): 456–469.
  6. ^ King, Sharon R. (February 15, 1999). "Compressed Data; Can You Play 'Feelings' On the Ocarina?". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 7, 2009. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
  7. ^ "The magic box: childhood revisited". Booksfromfinland.fi. 25 December 2014. Retrieved 21 April 2021.
  8. ^ "Transverse / Sweet Potato". OcarinaKing. Retrieved 2022-06-05.
  9. ^ "The Ocarina Almanac". Ledger Note. 3 April 2015. Archived from the original on 24 September 2016. Retrieved 8 March 2021.
  10. ^ "Playing the ocarina in tune – ocarina intonation". Pure Ocarinas. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  11. ^ Hickman, Robert. "How air temperature affects an ocarina's pitch". Pureocarinas.com. Retrieved 8 March 2021.
  12. ^ a b Benade, Arthur H. (1990). Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics. Dover Publications. pp. 473–476. ISBN 9780486264844.
  13. ^ "Ocarina Physics". ocarinaforest.com. 2012-12-24. Archived from the original on 2013-03-14. Retrieved 2012-12-30.
  14. ^ Hickman, Robert. "Multichamber ocarinas and their tuning systems". Pure Ocarinas. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  15. ^ "Ocarina Fingering Charts". www.hindocarina.com. Archived from the original on 2008-01-29. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  16. ^ Hickman, Robert. "Articulating notes on the ocarina". Pure Ocarinas. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  17. ^ Hickman, Robert. "Ornamentation on the ocarina". Pure Ocarinas. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  18. ^ a b "Ocarina". Seocarinas.com. Archived from the original on 2018-03-27. Retrieved 2018-03-30.

Further reading