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Woodwind Instruments - An Overview | Unusual Musical Instruments

Ocarinas are musical instruments made of baked clay. They are sometimes known as globular flutes, because they are generally round in shape.

They operate on the same principle as a recorder or flageolet: the player blows into a hole and a jet of air is directed against a sharp edge, making a sound which resonates within the instrument as a musical note. Finger holes on the instrument can be covered or uncovered to change the pitch of the note produced. Ocarinas have a quiet, breathy sound which can be very sweet sounding.

The chamber inside the ocarina is technically a Helmholtz resonator. It works slightly differently from the air column in most other woodwind instruments. The pitch is determined by the volume of the chamber rather than the length and by the area of finger holes uncovered, rather than their exact position. This means that ocarina fingerings are much vaguer than for other instruments. It doesn't matter very much which hole you uncover. This fact combined with the variation from one instrument to another means that a fingering chart is usually not worth having, as the fingering has to be worked out for the individual instrument. Another feature of the resonating chamber is that it can't be overblown into higher harmonic modes, so the instrument has a limited range.

Ocarinas have been invented independently by a few different cultures:

  • The Chinese have used ocarinas to make music since 5000 BC. The Chinese ocarina is called a hsun.

  • South American and Central American cultures used ocarinas before Columbus discovered America. These were often made in the shape of people or animals, but are now usually round.

  • In Italy in the 19th Century, small earthenware whistles which could produce one or two notes were popular. They were used for imitating birds during festivals and were called 'ocarina', meaning literally 'little goose'. Seventeen-year-old Giuseppe Donati of Budrio thought up the idea of making a proper musical instrument based on the ocarina and eventually came up with the present ten-hole instrument.

    Italian ocarinas became popular for a while in the USA in the first half of the 20th Century, acquiring the nickname 'sweet potato' because of their shape, and are still sometimes called this.

  • The principle of having finger holes of widely differing sizes was invented by English musician John Taylor, in 1963. This allows a big range with only a small number of holes.

Modern Ocarinas

There are three main types of ocarina available today:

Italian Ocarina

The Italian Ocarina, or Sweet Potato, is teardrop-shaped, with a pipe sticking out at one side into which the player blows. There are usually 10 finger holes. Some more elaborate models have 12 finger holes, with some fingers covering more than one hole. The instrument has a range of about an octave and a half. The Italian Ocarina is the most flexible ocarina as a musical instrument, with the biggest range and the ability to play sequences of notes smoothly.

Peruvian Ocarina

These are round and flat. They usually have two finger holes on the back and from four to six on the front. The holes are all more or less the same size, giving a range of about an octave. Peruvian ocarinas are usually painted in bright colours and often have the back styled to look like a person's face. Many have a loop to which a string can be attached so that the player can wear the ocarina around his or her neck, making the instrument very portable.

Four-hole Ocarina

Invented as recently as 1963 by John Taylor, this instrument has only four holes, but it can play a full octave. This is achieved by having the four holes all different sizes. These can be combined in all possible combinations, to make eight different pitches. In this type of ocarina, it is very important which finger hole you uncover. Such an instrument is an interesting oddity, but is hard to use for good music, because it is very difficult to change from one note to another smoothly, since four fingers have to be moved independently. This makes legato playing and trills very unwieldy.

Uses of Ocarinas

Ocarinas are too quiet and limited in range to be used in any sort of band or orchestra, so they are best used for playing to yourself quietly. On the other hand, you can buy a decent one from a folk music shop for a few pounds, so it certainly won't break the bank.

Ocarinas in Modern Culture

For many younger people, the term 'ocarina' was completely unknown until Nintendo released 'The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time'. This role-playing game, for the Nintendo series of games consoles, features the young elf Link, who must rescue the princess Zelda and save the Kingdom. He is equipped with a magic ocarina with which he, and you the player, can control the game by playing tunes. The ocarina in question appears to be a left-handed Italian model with a slightly non-standard arrangement of finger holes.

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