The ocarina is an ancient wind musical instrument—a type of vessel flute.
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.
The ocarina belongs to a very old family of instruments, believed to date back over 12,000 years.
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, another important Chinese instrument (but is different in that Ocarina uses an internal duct, whereas Xun is blown across the outer edge).
In Japan, the traditional ocarina is known as the tsuchibue (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 Europe the song and dance that accompanied the ocarina. The ocarina went on to become popular in European communities as a toy instrument.
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.
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 only played a few notes, into a more comprehensive instrument (known as the first “classical” ocarinas).
The word ocarina in the Bolognese dialect of the Emiliano-Romagnolo language means “little goose.” The earlier form was known in Europe as a gemshorn, which was made from animal horns of the chamois (Dutch: gems).
In 1964, John Taylor, an English Mathematician John Taylor developed a fingering system that allowed an ocarina to play a full chromatic octave using only four holes.
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.
There are many different styles of ocarinas varying in shape and the number of holes:
- Transverse (Sweet potato) – This is the best-known style of ocarina. It has a rounded shape and is held with two hands horizontally. Depending on the number of holes, the player opens one more hole than the previous note to ascend in pitch. The two most common transverse ocarinas are 10-hole (invented by Giuseppe Donati in Italy) and 12-hole. They have a range of between an octave plus a fourth and an octave plus a minor sixth.
- English Pendant – These are usually very small and portable, and use the English fingering system devised by John Taylor (4–6 holes). This fingering system allows them to achieve a range of between an octave and an octave plus a major second.
- Peruvian Pendant – Dating from the time of the Incas, used as instruments for festivals, rituals, and ceremonies. They are often seen with designs of animals. They usually have 8–9 holes.
- Inline – These ocarinas are usually rectangular or oval-shaped and are constructed so that the instrument points away from the musician when played. Most inline ocarinas have a similar or identical fingering system to transverse ocarinas.
- Multi-chambered ocarinas (better known as “double” and “triple” ocarinas) – These ocarinas are essentially two ocarinas molded into one body, with two separate mouthpieces and two separate sets of finger holes. This construction usually either expands the range of the instrument or allows multiple notes to be played at once. Although multi-chamber ocarinas can be made in transverse, inline, or pendant style, the transverse style is the most common. A typical transverse double ocarina plays two octaves plus a minor third, and a transverse triple ocarina usually plays with a range of about two octaves plus a minor seventh.
Beginning in the late 19th century, several makers have also produced ocarinas with keys and slides. These mechanisms either expand the instrument’s range, help fingers reach holes that are widely spaced, or make it easier to play notes that are not in the native key of the instrument.
Other vessel flutes include the Chinese xun and African globe flutes. The xun 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).
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. The old fashioned jug band jug also has similar properties.
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 another suitable animal.
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. 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.
The sound notes are produced by blowing somewhat horizontally into the larger hole. Fingertips are placed on smaller holes to regulate the notes. Its ease of play makes it popular among children and the youth.