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What is an Ocarina?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2014
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The name "ocarina" is used for two types of vessel flute. The word "vessel" is used to indicate that the instrument is not based on an elongated tube. One type of ocarina is a hollow instrument that is played through an extended mouthpiece and was invented by Guiseppe Luigi Donati in the early 1850s. But the name "ocarina" is also applied to any sort of vessel flute from around the world, including those played by breathing over a hole rather than through a mouthpiece.

Early vessel flutes have been found in China, Latin America, Africa, and Papua New Guinea. These instruments are considered predecessors of the ocarina. They were variously made of stone, clay, wood, bone, and with gourds or the shells of animals. In Latin America, shapes that imitated animals, people, and birds were popular.

Bird-shaped clay whistles became popular as toys for children in Europe, and it was from this instrument that Donati took his cue. Vessel flutes from around the world have different tunings and different numbers of holes, but Donati tuned it to give a complete Western-style scale, and included as many as 10 holes for the fingers and thumb. The Donati ocarina is described as “egg-shaped,” a “submarine” ocarina, and a “sweet potato.” Some of them have a very pointed end.

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Some of Donati’s ocarinas are in art museums, such as the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. But in Budrio, where Donati lived and work, one can find the Budrio Ocarina Museum, featuring examples of both Donati’s ocarinas, as well as those made by other famous makers. The museum also houses a collection of ocarina-making equipment.

Today, the ocarina continues to have a great deal of variety. It may have single or multiple chambers; be made of plastic, porcelain, clay, or metal; and have four to twelve holes, sometimes of similar and sometimes of varying sizes. The ocarina employs the use of techniques such as half hole (partially, rather than completely covering a hole to intentionally vary the pitch) and cross-fingering or forked fingering. The ocarina is classed by pitch, similarly to recorders, having for example, sopranino, soprano, tenor, bass, etc.

Several other makers created other ocarina innovations. John Taylor, an Englishman, created a four-hole (sometimes plus thumb hole), in which the holes are not of equal size. This model became very popular and is sometimes referred to as the “English ocarina.” David Hannauer, an American, added a second thumb hole to Taylor’s model.

The ocarina has even figured in modern musical recordings. Besides the performances available by ocarina ensembles, the ocarina has been features in popular songs, such as “Wild Thing” by the Troggs and in movie soundtracks, such as for the Road to... series featuring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, composed by Ennio Morricone.

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