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Brief History of the Ocarina

The ocarina is a wind instrument, a type of flute which has existed since ancient times and is one of the oldest of instruments in existence today. The ocarina could be very simply described as a vessel (jar or container) with holes in it. You blow into one hole, and musical notes magically come out the other hole(s). As such the ocarina is sometimes referred to as a "vessel" or "chamber" flute. In technical terms it is sometimes called a "Helmholtz resonator" due to the way that it makes its sound.

The ocarina is different from other open-ended flutes like the:

  • Standard Boehm Flute
  • Recorder
  • Tin Whistle
  • Native American Flute
  • Piccolo
because the ocarina is vessel and not a pipe. The above flutes are tubes which open on the end. The way that vessel flutes (ocarinas) make sound is quite different than their open-ended relatives (tube flutes) do. I will go into more detail as far as how ocarinas make sound in the next lesson.

Some believe that versions of the ocarina date back over 10,000 years to ancient Asian and South American cultures. Many of the ancient ocarinas were made in decorative shapes including birds, turtles, and other animals.

The use of the ocarina in Western culture is more recent, perhaps dating to the 19th century. The actual word "ocarina" is an Italian word that means "little goose" which most likely is in reference to the shape of ocarinas when the word was coined.

You can see where "little goose" comes from...

In Western ocarina tradition, the modern ocarina is generally attributed to Guiseppe Donati who made a 10-holed ceramic ocarina. Donati was a baker and a musician.

Ocarinas come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They come with a varying number of holes. They are made out of a surprising variety of materials like:

  • ceramic
  • wood
  • bone
  • metal
  • ivory
  • jade
  • quartz
During both world wars ocarinas were used as morale boosters for some of the troops. The flutes gave soldiers a pleasant distraction from the horrors of war, a productive way to pass idle time. After WW1, ocarinas were sold mail order from the Sears catalog. During WW2 the U.S. government issued ocarinas to some of their troops.

Ocarinas are very popular in a number of Asian countries. They have had varied popularity in the United States in modern times. At times they have been quite popular in the entertainment industry. Bing Crosby even had a song "The Little Ocarina Song" in "The Road to Bali." In more recent times the ocarina has gained attention as being an integral part of one of the most popular video games of all time, "Zelda, The Ocarina of Time." In the video game, when the main character Link plays his ocarina, magical things happen.

Next lesson: How Ocarinas Work

Learn To Play The Ocarina In 5 Lessons

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