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How Ocarinas Work

As children, many of us have blown over the lip of a bottle to make it whistle. The ocarina makes sound in a very similar manner. Look at the diagram below:

When you blow over the lip of an empty glass bottle, here's roughly what happens:

  1. Part of the air is diverted into the bottle, and part of it goes over the top
  2. The diverted air increases the air pressure inside the bottle
  3. When the pressure inside the bottle is greater than the pressure outside the bottle, the air escapes and decreases the internal pressure
  4. Air then starts to increase the pressure inside the bottle again until the pressure inside the bottle is greater than outside
  5. The previous two steps are repeated very rapidly, and this causes an oscillation or vibration of air at the mouth of the bottle.
  6. It is the oscillating air that makes the whistle sound (equivalent to a tone or note in a musical instrument)
If your childhood science experiments went into a little more depth, you may have filled the bottle with various amounts of water. And what you would have noticed is that doing so changed the pitch or frequency of the whistling sound. The reason why this happens is because adding water changed the volume (space) in the inside of the bottle which changed the internal pressure which changed the frequency that the air was vibrating at.

The basic way this works is:

smaller volume = higher pressure = higher pitch

The modern ocarina works in a similar manner. The difference between the "bottle flute" and the "ocarina flute" is that the ocarina has holes and a sharp edge (fipple) to help split the airstream. See the diagram below:

In an ocarina, you are blowing down a tube (airway/windway) instead of blowing over the top of a hole (as in the bottle). It is quite a bit easier to blow down a tube than to have to blow over a hole. The sharp edge (fipple edge) splits the airstream in two such that part of the air exits the ocarina and part is diverted into the chamber. This splitting mechanism is sometimes referred to as a fipple. You've probably also seen the fipple in recorders, tin whistles and similar flutes. The air vibrations/oscillations are created at the fipple.

In the same way that filling a bottle changes the internal pressure and tone of a bottle, the finger holes change the internal pressure in the chamber of an ocarina. By covering/uncovering various combinations of the finger holes, the internal pressure in the ocarina is changed, and that changes the frequency of the air vibrations (tones) at the fipple. Musical notes/tones are changed by uncovering various finger holes in the ocarina.

Below is an illustration on an actual ocarina:

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