What is a transverse ocarina?

Transverse ocarinas are a type of musical instrument that belong to the family of ocarinas. The term "ocarina" refers to any hollow chamber instrument that produces sound. Ocarinas come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from sculptural whistles to concert-quality instruments. Understanding the different types of ocarinas can help you identify the most playable and suitable instrument for your needs.

Sculptural Whistles

Sculptural whistles are novelty items that can mimic the sound of bird calls and other animal sounds. They are often shaped like birds or animals and are highly decorated with colored glaze. While they make great novelty items, sculptural whistles were never intended to be serious musical instruments. They are more of a visual representation of sound rather than instruments designed for serious play.

Pre-Columbian, Peruvian, and Mexican Ocarinas

Various ancient South American cultures, including those in Peru and Mexico, used vessel flutes or ocarinas. These instruments, known as Pre-Columbian ocarinas, were influenced by the natural world and imitated sounds like birds, insects, thunder, wind, and rustling leaves. Today, reproductions of these ocarinas are often sold as tourist souvenirs. However, these reproductions are of poor quality and not tuned properly, making them unsuitable for serious musicians.

Transverse Ocarinas: Italian and Asian

Transverse ocarinas originated in Italy in the 19th century. They are held across the body, similar to a transverse flute, but are shorter and more globular in shape. These ocarinas were designed as serious instruments and feature a linear fingering system similar to that of the recorder or flute. They are fully chromatic and can have anywhere between 9 and 12 holes.

The 10-hole transverse ocarina, created by Guiseppi Donati, was the original design. It plays chromatically over a range of an octave and a fourth. Due to the physics of the instrument, 10-hole ocarinas have a strong, clean sound throughout the range. Some variations of the 10-hole ocarina may have more than 10 physical holes, including split holes for easier playability of sharp or flat notes.

In the 20th century, the 12-hole transverse ocarina was developed in Asia and has become the most commonly available type of transverse ocarina. It uses the same base fingering system as the 10-hole ocarina but adds two additional finger holes that are positioned next to other holes. These holes are played by covering one or both of them with the pad of your finger. The 12-hole ocarina extends the instrument's sounding range downwards by 3 semitones and allows for the playing of accidental notes.

Inline Ocarinas

Inline ocarinas are similar to transverse ocarinas in terms of fingering and hole count but have the mouthpiece placed on the end of the chamber. This design allows the body of the ocarina to be held straight out in front of you, similar to a recorder or whistle. Inline ocarinas may be more suitable for individuals with arthritis, RSI, or other disabilities that may require a different hand position. However, inline ocarinas are less standardized and made by fewer makers.

The inline design of ocarinas poses some unique challenges. They can feel less stable as all the instrument's weight is aligned on a single line between the player's thumbs and lips. Additionally, when scaling up to create bass or contrabass ocarinas, the center of mass moves further forward from the player, making the instrument harder to handle. Acoustically, placing the voicing at the end of the chamber can make inline ocarinas prone to screeching when blown at higher pressures.

Transverse Multichamber Ocarinas

Transverse multichamber ocarinas are single chamber ocarinas with additional small ocarinas attached. These additional chambers are tuned to play as a single instrument and provide a larger range of notes compared to single chamber ocarinas. Multichamber ocarinas can have two (double), three (triple), or even four (quad) chambers. Each chamber is entirely separate, with its own set of finger holes.

Multichamber ocarinas are classified by the number of chambers rather than the hole count. The fingering system of multichamber ocarinas is not fully standardized and varies between makers. Different tunings and fingering systems are used, each with its own pros and cons, and suitability for different types of music. It is important to consult the manufacturer's fingering chart to learn the exact fingerings for a specific multichamber ocarina.

In addition to providing a larger range, multichamber transverse ocarinas have a few other benefits. Splitting the range over multiple chambers can improve tone quality by reducing the range produced by each chamber. Most multichamber ocarinas have only one thumb hole, allowing the right thumb to solely support the instrument. Some multichamber ocarinas, such as those made by Giorgio Pacchioni, can produce harmonies between the chambers, allowing for unique musical possibilities.

Pendant Ocarinas

Pendant ocarinas were developed in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and are compact instruments that can be worn as pendants. They typically have 4 or 5 finger holes and use a binary-like fingering system to play an octave range. Pendant ocarinas can be used for skilled musical performance, but they have some disadvantages compared to transverse ocarinas.

The limited number of holes on pendant ocarinas makes it challenging to achieve accurate tuning compared to transverse ocarinas. The fingering system often requires simultaneous opening and closing of holes, leading to unintended "chirps" if not executed precisely. Some chromatic notes can only be played in tune with balanced volume by partially covering finger holes.

However, pendant ocarinas have unique advantages. They can be smaller in size, allowing for higher pitches and unique musical possibilities. Their compactness and wearable nature make them convenient for spontaneous musical performances. It is important to note that the production quality of pendant ocarinas can vary between makers, and some may not be properly tuned.

Sculptural Ocarinas

Sculptural ocarinas combine playable ocarinas with visual artistry. These ocarinas are typically based on transverse or pendant designs but incorporate sculptural elements. While visually stunning, sculptural ocarinas can be complicated as musical instruments. Achieving both ergonomic playability and good sound quality can be challenging due to the need to balance visual design with acoustic constraints.

Sculptural ocarinas can range from instruments primarily focused on playability to those primarily focused on visual aesthetics. Instruments designed with playability in mind take into account standard playing techniques and the player's comfort in holding the instrument. On the other hand, instruments primarily focused on visuals may sacrifice playability, especially in designs that imitate animals or birds.

The shape of an ocarina can also impact its acoustic characteristics. Irregular shapes can introduce pitch jumps, airy high notes, or screeching sounds. It is important to consider the balance between visual design and musical functionality when choosing a sculptural ocarina.

It is worth noting that there is a market for ocarinas inspired by popular media franchises such as "The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time." However, many of these ocarinas are poorly made and not tuned properly. The designs featured in these games may not prioritize playability, resulting in issues such as non-ergonomic finger hole placements, unstable grip due to the rounded shape, and poor sound quality.


The Xun is a Chinese ocarina-like instrument that features a flute-like blowhole instead of a ducted voicing system. Little information is available about Xuns in English, as they are traditional Chinese instruments with their own playing tradition. They may have different fingering systems, including linear systems similar to a 10-hole ocarina or cross fingerings with 6 holes. It is unclear whether Xuns are intended to play within the 12-tone Western system or Chinese microtonal scales.

The flute-like blowhole of Xuns allows for more control and expressive playing, but it also presents challenges in producing sound. Like all vessel flutes, achieving clean high notes requires precise control of the airstream, which takes practice.

Microtonal Ocarinas

Microtonal ocarinas are a specific design of ocarina with one or two large holes covered by the palm of your hand. These ocarinas are played by varying hand position and blowing pressure to produce different pitches. Wesley Hicks has refined the design of microtonal ocarinas in recent years.

Microtonal ocarinas offer a unique playing experience, allowing for the exploration of microtonal scales and intervals that fall outside the standard Western 12-tone system. They require a different approach to playing, as the hand positions and pressures must be carefully adjusted to achieve the desired pitches.

transverse ocarinas are versatile instruments that come in various types, each with its own unique characteristics and playing styles. From sculptural whistles to professional-grade concert instruments, there is an ocarina to suit every player's preferences and skill level. Whether you choose a transverse, pendant, multichamber, or microtonal ocarina, each type offers its own range of musical possibilities. So, explore the world of transverse ocarinas and find the perfect instrument to create beautiful melodies and express your musical creativity.

Up Next: How Are Peruvian Ocarinas Made?


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