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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A tenor and an alto ten-hole ocarina.
A tenor and an alto ten-hole ocarina.

The ocarina, and the popular variation sometimes called the sweet potato ocarina, is an ancient flute-like wind instrument. It is one of the oldest musical instruments on Earth[citation needed]. It usually is made up of an oval-shaped enclosed space and four to thirteen finger holes, though there are some variations on the standard design. A mouth tube projects from it. It is often ceramic, but many other materials may also be used, including plastic, wood, glass, and metal.


A gemshorn.
A gemshorn.

The ocarina is a very old family of instruments, believed to date back some 12,000 years[1]. Ocarina-type instruments have been of particular importance in Chinese and Mesoamerican cultures (where they are often shaped as animals, generally birds).

A blue and white pattern ocarina from the early 20th Century.
A blue and white pattern ocarina from the early 20th Century.

Its common use in the Western countries dates to the 19th century, when the modern form of the ocarina was invented by Italian Giuseppe Donati. The name is derived from Italian (ocarina "little goose"). An earlier form was known in Europe, made from animal horn, and known as a gemshorn.

Attractively painted porcelain ocarinas have been produced, such as the Meissen ocarinas.[2] The Meissen factory in Germany did not make the ocarina, but licensed local German ocarina-makers to use the Meissen blue and white onion pattern as the exterior design.


How an ocarina works:1. Air enters through windway2. Air strikes edge, causing a sound3. Air vibrates throughout inside of an ocarina4. Covering and uncovering holes lowers and raises the pitch
How an ocarina works:
1. Air enters through windway
2. Air strikes edge, causing a sound
3. Air vibrates throughout inside of an ocarina
4. Covering and uncovering holes lowers and raises the pitch

The ocarina is a vessel flute. Unlike the perforated wind instruments, such as the orchestral flute and the recorder, the sound is created by resonance of the entire cavity. This has different acoustical physics from a pipe. Technically, the cavity acts as a Helmholtz resonator (see below).

Other vessel flutes include the Chinese xun and African globe flutes. These examples differ from ocarinas in that they do not have a fipple mouthpiece (or beak).

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

  • Ocarina Room - Principles, Mp3, & Making


Musical performance

Front and back view of classical ocarinas. The double holes on front indicate a fingering system developed in 20th Century Japan.
Front and back view of classical ocarinas. The double holes on front indicate a fingering system developed in 20th Century Japan.

The ocarina, like other vessel flutes, has the unusual quality of not relying on the pipe length to produce a particular tone. Instead the tone is dependent on ratio of the total surface area of opened holes to the total volume enclosed by the instrument. This means that, unlike a flute or recorder, the placement of the holes on an ocarina is largely irrelevant—their size is the most important factor.

The resonator in the ocarina creates a sine-shaped sound wave and is thus incapable of creating harmonic overtones. This means that the technique of overblowing to get a range of higher pitched notes is not possible with the ocarina, so the range of pitches available is limited.

Different notes are produced by covering the holes, opening and closing more or less of the total hole area. The tone is then produced through the sound hole. The tone can also be varied by changing the strength with which one blows through the instrument.

Types of ocarina

Multi-chambered ocarinas

Since the 19th century, many makers have produced double ocarinas able to play polyphonic pieces.

Ocarinas with keys

Keyed ocarina.
Keyed ocarina.

Ocarinas with keys have been produced by several makers, mostly experimentally, beginning in the late 19th century. Keys may be added in hopes of expanding the instrument's range, or to enable the fingers to reach holes that are widely spaced.

The modern ocarina

The English pendant ocarina, invented in the 1960s by John Taylor, produces an entire octave using just four finger holes.
The English pendant ocarina, invented in the 1960s by John Taylor, produces an entire octave using just four finger holes.

One of the most popular ocarina manufacturers in the United Kingdom is the Ocarina Workshop. The workshop produces circular ocarinas made from plastic and ceramics, and which use the four and six hole fingering system developed by John Taylor. They also produce two-chambered ocarinas the same number of notes as their standard ocarina, doubled. There are also a variety of ranges available, from "Mini D" to "Mega-bass G". Other popular Ocarina Makers include Clayzeness Whistleworks, Johann Rotter, Sixth Street Pottery and Songbird Ocarinas.

The ocarina makes use of a special form of tablature which represents the holes on the top of the ocarina, and, where necessary, the holes on the underside. This enables easy playing, particularly for beginners. It is similar to the tablature used for recorder and other woodwind instruments.

Ocarina in Budrio

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

Budrio, a town near Bologna, Italy, is the home of the first classical ocarinas. It keeps up its tradition in the form of the Fabio Menaglio ocarina workshops which produces a full range of professional instruments. Also Budrio has the best known classical ocarina group, known as the "Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese" who record and perform (since 1865). Examples of their music and the story of the Group are available on the website above.

Appearance in works

  • In the late 1930s a group of older boys began building wooden ocarinas. They formed a popular ocarina ensemble called the Potato Bugs, performing on Broadway, radio, and later television, into the 1950s. Irving Berlin wrote a popular song, inspired by them, entitled Dance to the Music of the Ocarina for the musical Call Me Madam. [3]
  • The Sweet Potato Pipers, a 1930s-1940s ocarina group that toured with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, featured the ocarina, prominently on screen, in Hollywood musicals such as Girl Crazy (1943).
  • A memorable part in the Bernardo Bertolucci movie 1900, set in the Emilia region of northern Italy during the early 20th century, features a scene in which a group of farmers in a forest play a tune in harmony on ocarinas of various sizes.
  • An ocarina part also features prominently in the theme from the 1966 spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The ocarina, along with the Jew's harp and the electric guitar, was used widely in the soundtracks of 1960s European-made westerns, to develop a distinctive style.
  • The instrumental break in The Troggs's 1966 hit song "Wild Thing" contains a lively ocarina solo played by group leader Reg Presley.

Ocarinas in popular culture

  • The 1988 Japanese animated cartoon My Neighbor Totoro featured the ocarina prominently, and this film retains an association with the instrument in modern popular culture. In the final Dragon Ball Z film Wrath of the Dragon, the character Tapion plays an ocarina.
  • Reinventor of the Ocarina is one of the many titles of Hugo Rune in Robert Rankin's Brentford Trilogy.
  • An ocarina is seen briefly in the 1983 film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, when the sex educator confiscates a student's ocarina.
  • The classic Troggs song "Wild Thing" features an ocarina solo.
  • Ocarinas experienced a slight surge in popularity in the last years of the 20th century due to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in 1998. One of the most popular games for the Nintendo 64, it involved the hero Link (The Legend of Zelda)|Link]] using a magical ocarina to change day to night and night to day, teleport all over the land of Hyrule, summon his horse, and other magical tasks. The ocarina has also appeared in several other The Legend of Zelda games.

Ocarina Music

Written music for the ocarina usually consists of a system of holes similar to the ocarina's pattern with blackened holes representing which holes should be recovered. Depending on the artist, some may write a number or figure over the picture to depict how long to hold the note for.

Similar instruments

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. Similar instruments exist in Korea (the hun) and Japan (the tsuchibue).

The old fashioned jugband jug has similar properties.

A recent instrument, a derivative of the ocarina called a huaca, was invented by Sharon Rowell. The huaca has three separate chambers and can therefore create a polyphonic sound.

See also

  • Flute
  • Native American flute
  • Oliphant Chuckerbutty
  • Pan flute

External links

  • The Chuckerbutty Ocarina Quartet - British ocarina quartet, with sound samples.
  • Ocarina Room - Information on making and playing, and mp3.
  • Anita's Ocarinas
  • Clayzeness Whistleworks
  • Free Ocarina Sample Library
  • Mountain Ocarinas
  • Ocarinas by Charlie Hind
  • Ocarina Festivals - Mp3 of several groups.
  • Oc-Land - Fingering charts and information on ocarinas.
  • Sharon Rowell's huaca
  • Songbird Ocarinas
  • STL Ocarina - Many different styles of ocarinas
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