Ocarina Facts

by Stephen Lloyd

"The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time" video game might have given the ocarina -- meaning "little goose" in Italian -- a bump in notoriety, but the origins of the instrument go back centuries. It is known as a wind instrument that's easy to play for beginners and that has varied tones even for the simplest versions. Advanced ocarinas have even been featured in orchestras.

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Ocarina Origins

The origins of the clay flute ocarina go back 12,000 years. An ocarina-like instrument called the xun accompanied dance in ancient China. Cortez brought the instrument that became the ocarina to Europe from Mesoamerica. The Aztec version and playing style influenced Europe. Legend has it that, in the 1500s, a Roman baker made the first European ocarina after being impressed with the Aztec instruments he'd seen in a performance. But it wasn't until the late 19th century that the ocarina was elevated from a mere novelty toy. Giuseppe Donati invented the submarine/sweet potato/ray gun design seen today. His instruments came in several sizes, had up to ten holes and were tuned to a Western scale. In 1863 Donati started an ocarina performance group that toured the concert halls of Europe.

Ocarina Modern History

In 1928 Japanese sculptor Takashi Aketagawa invented a 12-hole ocarina, which soon gained as much popularity as the original Italian design. Bing Crosby played the ocarina as a novelty instrument during the swinging big band era. During World War II servicemen were often given pocket-sized ocarinas to help boost their morale. Plastic, porcelain and metal became materials used to make ocarinas alongside clay. A new style of ocarina was developed by John Taylor in England in the 1960s that had four holes of different sizes. The recorder began to usurp the ocarina in popularity, but it has since started to make a comeback. Japanese ocarina virtuoso Sojiro has been recording and touring internationally since 1975. An ocarina solo is prominent in The Troggs' hit "Wild Thing."

Ocarina Body and Sound

Ocarinas are unique in that the placement of the holes has no bearing on the tone, unlike with the flute or recorder. Sound is made by resonance over the entire body cavity, which allows the ocarina to come in a practically endless array of designs and hole forms since the volume of the body and the size of the holes are what are most important. The bigger the body, the deeper the tone will be. The hole size determines the tuning. The most common type, the transverse or sweet potato ocarina, has a spherical body with a mouthpiece sticking out the side. Opening a hole will make the pitch of the sound ascend.

Ocarina Playing Techniques

If the particular ocarina has thumb holes, they should always be closed unless the player wants a very high-pitched note. To achieve a clear sound, the holes need to be covered completely. Leakage is not proper technique. Blowing softly or strongly can give different feeling to the tone. Lifting one or more fingers and then replacing them quickly and repeatedly creates what is known as a trill, an interesting warbling or yodeling sound. If the player wants to sound like a bird, rolling the letter "R" while blowing creates this effect.

About the Author

Stephen Lloyd has been a freelance writer since 2008. He writes for Made Man, Screen Junkies and various other websites, specializing in music, film, literature, history, food, camping and politics. Lloyd holds a Bachelor of Arts in print journalism from Texas State University-San Marcos with a minor in creative writing.