AskDefine | Define ocarina

Dictionary Definition

ocarina n : egg-shaped terra-cotta wind instrument with a mouthpiece and finger holes [syn: sweet potato]

User Contributed Dictionary



Borrowed from Italian ocarina, literally "little goose", due to the musical instrument's resemblance to the animal.


  • italbrac RP /ɒkəˈriːnə/
  • italbrac US /ɑːkəˈriːnə/


  1. A woodwind musical instrument that is closed at both sides to produce an enclosed space, and punctured with finger holes.


a musical instrument
  • Finnish: okariina
  • German: Okarina
  • Icelandic: okkarína
  • Japanese: オカリナ
  • Slovene: okarina

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

The ocarina () is an ancient flute-like wind instrument. While several variations exist, an ocarina is typified by an oval-shaped enclosed space with four to twelve finger holes and a mouth tube projecting out from the body. It is often ceramic, but many other materials, such as plastic, wood, glass, and metal, may also be used.


Ancient history

The ocarina is a very old family of instruments, believed to date back some 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. 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 had produced versions of the ocarina, but it was the Aztecs who brought the song and dance that accompanied the ocarina to Europe. The ocarina went on to become popular in European communities as a toy instrument.

Budrio, Italy

Its common use in Western countries dates back to the 19th century in Budrio, a town near Bologna, Italy, where Giuseppe Donati 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 is derived from Italian meaning "little goose." The earlier form was known in Europe as a gemshorn; which was made from animal horns.
Budrio continues its tradition in the form of the Fabio Menaglio ocarina workshops, which produce a full range of professional instruments. Also, Budrio is home of a well-known classical ocarina group, "Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese" (since 1865).

Recent history

In 1900 Sears, Roebuck and Company began selling ocarinas through their mail-order catalog. It soon developed its American name, the "Sweet Potato", because of its round shape and sweet sound. During World War II, American soldiers were issued plastic ocarinas by the U.S. Army as a morale booster. 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 not possible with the ocarina because of its vessel shape, so the range of pitches available is limited to a 12th. Some Ocarina makers increase the range by designing double- or triple-chambered ocarinas tuned 1 octave apart.
Different notes are produced by covering the holes, and by opening and closing more or less of the total hole area. The tone is then produced through the sound hole/embouchure. The tone can also be varied by changing the strength with which one blows through the instrument (pitch bending).

Musical notation/tabulature

There are three main ways that music is written for the ocarina.
The most apparent, and recommended form of notation is the use of sheet music. There are archives of sheet music, which are either specifically written for ocarinas, or have been adapted from piano sheet music and transposed or arranged to fit within the ocarina's range. Since the ocarina is a fully chromatic instrument that can be played at the professional level in many musical backgrounds, including classical and folk, sheet music is the ideal notation to use for ocarinas.
Secondly 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 often used by beginners who have not learned to read sheet music.
Thirdly, some beginners makes use of a pictorial tablature similar to the ocarina's finger hole pattern with blackened holes representing which holes should be covered. 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 most popular tabulature systems are 1) The John Taylor 4 hole system (Invented in 1964 by British mathematician John Taylor) and 2) The 10 hole sweet potato system (credited to inventor Giuseppe Donati of Budrio Italy). Depending on the artist, some may write a number or figure over the picture to depict how many beats to hold the note.

Types of ocarina

There are many different styles of ocarinas varying in shape and the number of holes.
  • Transverse (Sweet potato) - This is the most well known style of ocarina. It has a rounded shape and is held with two hands horizontally. Depending on the number of holes, one just needs to open one more hole than the previous in order to ascend in pitch. The two most common Transverse ocarinas are the 10-holes (originated by Giuseppe Donati in Italy) and the 12-holes.
  • Pendant - These are usually very small and very portable. Two kinds exist. One being the "English" Pendant, which uses an English fingering system (4-6 holes). The other being the "Peruvian" Pendant, which uses a Peruvian fingering system (8-10 holes). English Pendants are more common, while Peruvian Pendants are sometimes considered a collectors ocarina.
  • Inline - These are often called a "fusion" of the Pendant and the Transverse. This style is known for being very small and compact, yet there are more holes than the pendant. This allows one to ascend in pitch with the linear finger pattern rather than finger combinations
  • Multi chambered ocarinas - Better known as "Double" and "Triple" ocarinas, this type exists within the three broad categories of ocarina. These ocarinas overcome the disadvantage of ocarinas of having a limited range of notes. A Transverse Double ocarina typically plays 2 octaves + 2 notes, and a Transverse Triple ocarina plays with a range about 2 octaves + 7 notes. Double ocarinas for Pendant and Inline ocarinas also exist. Double Inline ocarinas are specially designed to be able to play chords, for harmonic playing.
Ocarinas with keys have been produced by several makers, mostly experimentally, beginning in the late 19th century. Keys and slides may be added with the intention of either expanding the instrument's range, or to enable the fingers to reach holes that are widely spaced.


"inline" style ocarina from America. Made of polycarbonate plastic.

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).
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.
The old fashioned jugband jug also has similar properties.


External links

ocarina in Breton: Okarina
ocarina in Catalan: Ocarina
ocarina in Czech: Okarína
ocarina in German: Okarina
ocarina in Spanish: Ocarina
ocarina in Esperanto: Okarino
ocarina in French: Ocarina
ocarina in Western Frisian: Okarina
ocarina in Icelandic: Okkarína
ocarina in Italian: Ocarina
ocarina in Hebrew: אוקרינה
ocarina in Dutch: Ocarina
ocarina in Japanese: オカリナ
ocarina in Norwegian: Okarina
ocarina in Polish: Okaryna
ocarina in Portuguese: Ocarina
ocarina in Russian: Окарина
ocarina in Scots: Ocarina
ocarina in Simple English: Ocarina
ocarina in Finnish: Okariina
ocarina in Swedish: Okarina
ocarina in Ukrainian: Окарина
ocarina in Chinese: 陶笛

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

English horn, Pandean pipe, aulos, basset horn, basset oboe, bassoon, bombard, clarinet, contrabassoon, contrafagotto, cromorne, double bassoon, double reed, fife, fipple flute, flageolet, flute, hautboy, heckelphone, hornpipe, licorice stick, musette, oaten reed, oboe, oboe da caccia, panpipe, penny-whistle, piccolo, pipe, pommer, recorder, reed, reed instrument, sax, saxophone, shawm, single reed, single-reed instrument, sonorophone, sweet potato, syrinx, tabor pipe, tenoroon, tin-whistle, whistle, woods, woodwind, woodwind choir, woodwind instrument
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