Life is full of many curiosities, and it is quite curious in itself that this instrument is making a comeback into the mainstream musical consciousness. A lot of people have recently been asking “What instrument is making that sound? It’s a what? How do you spell it? Didn’t that Zelda guy play one of those?”
We’re going to explore all of these questions below and much more, but before we start, I feel obliged to mention for the 10,000th time that Zelda’s the girl! Link is the guy and yes he played the ocarina… Now that that’s out of the way…
There are very few groups of people alive today that could answer this question for you. They consist mainly of music majors, fantasy lovers, and really young people playing the newest iterations of the Legend of Zelda video games. But even they will gloss over the details. That’s okay because this is just the start of the "oc" revolution and we’re all learning together.
Our friend the "oc" is a wind instrument, kind of like a flute or oboe, but instead of being long and thin like a stick, it’s short and round like a sweet potato. They are hollow with a varying number of holes on the top surface that are closed off by your fingers to produce different notes when you blow air into it. You’ll see all kinds of shapes and colors these days made from various materials such as stone, ceramics, plastic, wood, and even bones and horns.
This quite possibly goes beyond the level of caring you may have to give, but I like to be thorough. Although some contemporary systems will classify this instrument as a Wind, Woodwind, or even an Aerophone, the Hornbostel-Sachs classification files it as an edge-blown aerophone with fingerholes (421.221.42). And now you know!
Currently considered one of the oldest instruments invented, this unique instrument has been dated as far back as 10,000 B.C. This is thousands of years before humans even settled Sumer and Babylon, some of our earliest cities. It’s not surprising because it's the perfect traveling instrument. Those musicians (and everyone else) back then were nomads having to hunt and gather their food and move around after depleting an area. I can imagine them, just like we do today, sitting around an evening campfire tooting away on this unique little instrument.
This dating also explains why it's found in cultures as vastly spread apart geographically as those of the Chinese and the Mesoamericans. It’s been found to have existed in ancient Japan, Europe, and Mayan and Aztec establishments. The early conquistador Hernan Cortes from Spain is said to have brought one back from his encounters with the Aztec, which resulted in this time-honored instrument becoming a popular toy throughout Europe.
The first modern versions intended to be respected as classical instruments were created by Giuseppe Donati in Italy in the year 1853. He lived in a town called Budrio near Bologna. The word itself comes from this Bolognese dialect spoken in the area, meaning, funnily, “little goose.” One could deduce that it might have referred to the shape that resembled a goose egg.
We very well could be calling this instrument a gemshorn, a competing instrument of the same functionality and inspiration. It is called a gemshorn because they were constructed from the horns of the chamois, a goat-like animal called gems in the Dutch language. But alas, our familiar potato shaped friend won out.
Two events have pushed this prototypal instrument back into the world’s view recently. In 1998, Nintendo produced a video game for their Nintendo 64 system as a part of their Legend of Zelda series. The subtitle of this game was none other than Ocarina of Time, in which the hero Link learns 12 different melodies that must be learned and played through the game controller in order to complete certain objectives.
The other event that resurrected the "little goose" for a completely different age group was the Violin Concerto written by the eastern-European composer Gyorgy Ligeti. In this concerto, he featured not just one, but four of these rare yet fascinating instruments. This caught classical music listener’s attention and the rest is history.
Talking about ocarina types can be kind of confusing without seeing them visually laid out. Fear not, I’m about to take you to school. There are four main types which have sub-types as well. The categories are based on the shape, orientation to the mouth, and number of finger holes. Let’s take a look.
The archetypal version is the transverse, or sweet potato. These are the rounded ones that look like their namesake. The transverse "oc" is generally what everyone visualizes when they think of one, mentally imagining Link (the video game character) or some satyr dancing around on one foot playing one (before he betrays Lucy to the White Witch of Winter. Obviously I’m in the fantasy lovers group mentioned above. Darn you, Mr. Tumnus!). Of the transverse type there are 10-hole and 12-hole versions, the difference being the 12-hole provides access to more notes and thus a wider range. It is mainly in this type that you find the big bass versions, as well.
If oc's are the ultimate travel instrument, then the pendant style is the one to end all. They are much smaller than sweet potatoes that feature a mouthpiece that points inline with the instrument versus off to the side as seen in the sweet potato style. Of this type, there are the English pendants that feature 4 or 6 holes and the Peruvian pendants used in ritual ceremonies in the time of the Incas. These are often highly decorated by the colored carvings of spirit animals and gods. They generally came in 8 or 9-hole options.
As mentioned above, the term inline refers to the mouthpiece and direction of the air blown being in alignment with the length of the instrument. They are seen as a combination of the transverse and pendant types, being a medium size and inline. They feature the number of holes and are played like the sweet potatoes, where pitch increases in a linear fashion. This is in comparison to pendants, which require a complicated set of finger pattern combinations to be learned to play the notes of a scale in ascending and descending order.
The final and most complex type is the multi-chambered style, which consists of double and triple oc's crammed into one! There are two main types that both set out to achieve the same goal, which is to greatly extend the range of notes to as much as two octaves and a fifth. You’ll find double and triple transverses and double pendants and inlines. Double inline styles are designed for harmonic notes to be played, in which it can move from a lead instrument to a chordal supporting instrument.
You'll notice on some of the images above that the creators have created a convention of stamping the range and the key near the mouthpieces for easy identification.
Interestingly, since the late 1800's, some makers have begun adding keys to the instruments that function much like those on a flute. They are intended to fulfill at least one of the following purposes: extending the native range into higher octaves, help the player reach fingering holes not aligned for the human hand, or to help play notes not in the key by covering half of a hole (and removing human error from this challenge).
Here's a summarized type chart:
There are some other types that don't neatly fall into the classification system above and are more of a novelty, although they are fully functional. Here's a couple of examples:
Above is an example of one you can literally drink out of and play a melody with, while below is a double chambered version that is built for the purpose of harmonizing your melodies.
And now the question you’ve all been waiting for…
You’ll occasionally find ocarinas for sale in some of the large brand stores like Musicians Friend, but mainly you’ll only encounter cheap $2.00 plastic-injection molded ones. They are fully functional, but they are basically toys. Besides, it’s important to support the community and go straight to the makers and sellers who give each instrument a personal touch and look over. Always support the real people in the community, not the impersonal giants pumping out sub-par quality knock-offs.
Now that I’m off my soap-box, below is a list of the best places to find the perfectly shaped and colored sweet potato or any other style made of the material of your choice.
This is a list of trusted and personalized ocarina sellers:
Buy with confidence from one of the stores above, and tell’em Ledger Note sent you.
Remember, when you purchase one of these vintage instruments you have to choose the key and the range you're playing in. Make sure you know what you're getting, such as alto, tenor, or bass, etc.
Reading and playing along with sheet music is a unique experience. Much like guitar tabs, they are laid out visually for the fingering orientations specific to the instrument. Professionals will read normal ledger lines and staff sheet music, but these pictorial ones are a great aid to anyone still learning the fingering. Finding ocarina tabs is the true challenge, as many are produced by amateurs and beginners and contain errors, and eventually go offline.
My personal recommendation is to purchase sheet music books from one of the sellers listed above. When I ordered my sweet potatoes and pendants from Songbird, I also snagged a couple of their books (and received some freebies as well!) that were great. I’m not sure what the other sellers offer, but Songbird has various collections, including video game music, Christmas songs, and good ole classic folk tunes.
While the number of songs that have been transcribed into tabs is low and limited in genre and style, don’t let that stop you. Songbird has built a browser-based composer that will help you convert any song into this visual tab style. Check that out on their site. Tabbing your favorite songs out will help you learn them as well.
Reading this style of sheet music is a breeze thanks to the clever visualization methods. Looking at one of the images above, you’ll notice that each note is a full-on bird’s eye view of the instrument, showing you each of the holes. They are either filled in white or black. Black means you should cover that hole, while white means you should leave it uncovered. That’s literally it!
Give this one a spin. It's one of my personal favorites, and also shows the typical quality of the sheet music going around on the internet right now. The makers might not be photoshop wizards, but at least they have good taste in music.
The one problem I’ve found with these tabs, though, is that there’s been no development of a good way to show note length. This requires you to have familiarity of the melodies and songs you’re playing. And if the author of the tablature decides to add in grace notes, it becomes extra confusing. It’s an annoyance but not a real hurdle. I’d rather have the tabs with this one problem than none at all. Some tabs will add a number above the note to tell how many beats to hold it for, but you can already imagine just how confusing that could become playing 1/8th notes in common time.
This numbered diagram helps explain exactly how this crazy little instrument functions:
Following the numbers:
My mind is blown every time I think about how cleverly designed this is, considering it is older than our first civilizations. To reiterate, you blow an airstream into the mouthpiece that passes up the windway and across the labium. The labium narrows the volume of air, thereby increasing the pressure so more force is created as the air moves into the hollow resonating chamber.
Here’s the crazy part. When the air passes the labium, it moves into the resonating chamber as a full-spectrum set of “pink noise.” Then, those frequencies that resonate get amplified due to matching the fundamental frequency of the chamber. However, by uncovering or covering the holes, you change the amount of surface area inside the chamber. This alters the surface-area-to-cubic volume ratio and changes the note that’s being played! You can even overblow just right and produce overtones. When I do it it sounds like a family of squirrels being massacred and my dog’s ears start bleeding. Your mileage may vary.
I had plans on telling you how to make an ocarina, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms that I wouldn't recommend you open unless you just wanted to for fun. You can do it with ceramics, wood, plastic, etc. If you're interested, here's a killer clay tutorial by Green Verdugo Pottery. In the least, you'll learn a lot more about how they work.
"If you play the Ocarina here, you can talk with the spirits in the forest. Would you like to play it with me? Okay. try to follow along with the melody I will play. Are you ready?" - The Legend of Zelda
Below are a couple of videos to show you the kind of styles that are possible. First up is one of the guys at the forefront of the revolution, David Erick Ramos (aka docjazz4), with one of his new original songs called "Together."
While David is playing a folk-pop style, the instrument most certainly isn't limited to any specific genre. Watch Minsoo Kim below slay a triple-chamber to a modernized version of the Hungarian Dance:
And what collection of ocarina videos would be complete without at least one video game theme song. Here's Lena Leclaire piping out a Legend of Zelda Medley in association with STL:
Very cool. If you enjoyed those, just hit up Youtube and do a search. There are lots of videos out there now on all types. Check out some pendants and see how versatile they are as well. It's amazing to watch someone fly through the fingering combinations.
Our favorite instrument here has been popping up around the world for some time now, largely in Japan. The Japanese could even be considered responsible for the resurgence. In 1990, a Nintendo role-playing game was released called Crystalis, which featured one of my favorite little instruments as a random item you could find. It didn't do much, but I do remember thinking "What the heck is that?" and learning about it back then.
Of course, the biggest contributor was The Legend of Zelda game on the N64 console that really pushed it to the forefront. Oc's were featured in Zelda games before that and after, but it was of paramount importance in that specific game. Other games have begun including it now as well, as a way of summoning creatures and casting spells.
The Japanese continue to promote this instrument in their anime shows, such as Pokemon, Bleach, and Naruto. But it has also crept into other television shows and movies over the years, such as in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life in which a teacher chastises a student for playing around with one in class. In the amazing Jim Henson movie The Dark Crystal, it was the instrument of choice for the Gelfing race (you could argue that's it's not one but come on).
Bonus fun for you folks with iPhones out there: The Smule Ocarina App.
It's a fun on-the-go app to mess around with based around the 4-hole pendants. You hold your phone just like you would a pendant and blow over the only button there is on the iPhone, which actually hides a mic beneath it. It registers the wind and converts to your screen. You can get a full idea of how it works just by looking at the image above. You can even name your virtual pendant and share your performances, look at some sheet music, and more. It's nifty if you're bored, but most certainly doesn't replace the real thing.
And that's all she wrote. You now have your doctorate in Ocarinology. I may have just invented a new word. Here's my advice to you. Before you break the bank on a top quality clay or crystal one from one of the respected vendors above, hit up Amazon or somewhere and find a cheap little plastic ocarina first. Play around with it and see if it's just a passing whim that got you excited for a week or two. If you're still passionate about mastering this beast of an instrument, then by all means order a nice one (just don't drop it)! Regardless, the main point is to have fun, enjoy the culture and history of it all, and look cool in front of your friends.
You have to strike early before everyone knows what an ocarina is though, or you'll eventually just look like a nerd... I can hear it now... "What are you going to learn to play next, the accordion!?!?"