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The History Of The Ocarina

The History Of The Ocarina

Introduction To The History Of The Ocarina

The history of the ocarina, a vessel flute with a hollow body and a globular shape like sweet potatoes, goes far back to the prehistoric period.

Several questions can come to our mind when we hear the sweet sound of this ancient instrument. 

We can ask questions like “Where the ocarina came from?”, “What is the origin of the ocarina?”, “Where did the ocarina originate?”, “When was the ocarina invented?”, and many more. 

The answers to all these questions can be found in this post. But the simple truth is that the story behind the “ocarina origin” cuts across different cultures around the world.

To achieve our aim for this post about ocarina origins and history, we will delve into where it all started. We will also follow the trail of this globular instrument from its past to its current period.

The Ocarina

An ocarina is a globular and hollow body that works like a Helmholtz resonator. This wind instrument has a very long history dating far back in time. 

Several researchers have conducted a lot of research on the history of ocarinas to reveal its longtime history. However, different archaeological findings have revealed that the instruments are over 12,000 years old. 

The Ocarinas have pervaded different places and cultures around the world. It travelled from one continent to another through various means. 

However, the ocarina movement around the world contributed greatly to its development. Over thousands of years, the instrument has changed in design, size, shape, range, and popularity. 

The Ocarinas are becoming more popular every day since they have been redesigned and can play a full chromatic scale.

The History of Ocarinas in the Prehistoric Period 

The History of The Ocarina - Ocarina from the El Bosque Phase of the Central Atlantic
Ocarina from the El Bosque Phase of the Central Atlantic: Source

The ocarinas are considered one of the oldest musical instruments invented by mankind. They belong to the family of instruments called the vessel flutes. 

The early history of the ocarina is not well-known. However, this ancient instrument has records of its existence from the prehistoric period and its origins from different parts of the world. 

The picture is an ocarina from the prehistoric period. Specifically, it’s the ocarina from the El Bosque Phase of the Central Atlantic Watershed, dating back to 100 BC–500 AD.

The first image in the picture above shows an ocarina from Tairona, Colombia, which is dated back to 1000–1500 AD. The ocarina is in the form of an image carved and used to depict a feathered headdress deity. 

The second image is a ceremonial ocarina from Veracruz, Mexico, dating back to 200 to 700 AD. The ceremonial ocarina represents the dwarf king of the Maya Xumal city, and it was made of beige terracotta. 

Evidence for ocarinas goes back several millennia, especially in ancient China and pre-Classic Mesoamerica

Furthermore, several vessel flutes have been discovered in Africa, including Egypt and Central Africa. In Central Africa, the oldest whistle found was made of clay, and it dates back over 30,000 years.

All of these artefacts, and many more, contribute to the discovery of facts about the history of the ocarina.

Mesoamerican ocarina 

Mesoamerican Ocarina

The early civilizations of Mesoamerican cultures, like the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas, also had clay vessel flutes shaped like birds and animals. 

The ancient people of this ethnic group and culture used different materials (notably clay) to make different “vessel flutes” and whistles. 

For thousands of years, they made single or multi-chambered vessel flutes that were shaped like birds and animals.

The Ocarina in Ancient China and India 

Ocarinas from the Shang Dynasty and Ancient Wari Indian Whistle

Specifically, different archaeological findings have shown us that musical instruments like the ocarina have been used for a very long time in Chinese and Mesoamerican cultures. 

For instance, a very ancient musical instrument belonging to the vessel flute family is found in Asian countries like China, India, and Japan. 

In ancient China, the clay ocarinas from the Shang Dynasty date back to 1100 BCE. In China, about 5000 years ago, there was an instrument called the Chinese xun, which was an egg-shaped vessel flute. 

The xun is an egg-shaped musical instrument made of clay or ceramics and structurally identical to the ocarina. 

But the xun is blown through the outer edge, while the ocarina, as we know, has a fipple mouthpiece that uses a duct for blowing. 

Also, about 6000 years ago, there were whistles and clay flutes made from terracotta in the shapes of birds and other animals in India. 

The history of all these globular flutes is not well documented, but their origin can be dated back to ancient times. Also, they were called different names according to their ethical background.

Runik Ocarina 

The History of The Ocarinas - Runik Ocarina
Runik Ocarina: Source

The Runik Ocarina is one of the oldest ocarinas found in Europe. They called it the “Runik Ocarina” because it was found in the Runik village, Skenderaj municipality (Drenica region), of Kosovo. 

The Runik ocarina is a prehistoric musical instrument dating back to at least 8000 years ago. This ocarina remains the first prehistoric musical instrument ever recorded in the Kosovo area. 

This ancient (Runik) ocarina is a wind instrument made of fine-cleaned baked clay. It has a mouthpiece or blowhole at the top of its body, a few finger holes around its body, and it is 8 centimetres tall. Surprisingly, this ancient wind instrument is still playable. 

The Runik ocarina is an invaluable archaeological artifact. That proves the knowledge and musical creativity of people in prehistory. 

Another ocarina was found in Romania at the archaeological Neolithic site of Liubcova-Orniţa. This ocarina is an ellipsoidal clay wind instrument with five holes around its body. 

The ocarina has one top and bottom hole and three body holes that can be used to play instruments. 

According to the archaeological findings, the instrument dates to the Early Vinča Culture, which is around 5700 BC to 4800 BC. 

Moreover, several other archaeological findings have confirmed the existence of ocarina-like items in prehistoric times.

The History of the Ocarina in Europe 


The earliest form of ocarina known in Europe around the 15th to 16th century was the Gemshorn

This type of vessel flute was made from the horn of an animal like a goat, chamois, or another appropriate animal horn. 

But the Gemshorn is not globular like the ocarina and other vessel flutes that we know. It has a long body and a fipple mouthpiece like an ocarina. 

Just like other vessel flutes, Gemshorn doesn’t produce harmonic overtones, and this makes it a member of the family. 

This instrument lacked further development and faded out in the 16th century. It appears that apart from the Gemshorn, most of the vessel flutes, like the ocarina, were unknown in early Europe. 

As a result, no music was particularly composed for ocarinas during the Renaissance, Baroque, and classical periods.

The Ocarina in Modern Europe 

The existence of ocarina-like instruments in Asia contributes to its development in that region. This globular instrument found its way to Europe through different expeditions to Mesoamerica and the Inca empire. 

Specifically, the expeditions conducted by the Conquistadores, including the one led by Hernán Cortés, brought about the use of the ocarina in European courts. 

The people of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas had their own “vessel flutes” before they were conquered by conquistadors. 

But the people of the Aztecs exported the song and dance using the ocarina to Europe around the 16th century. 

There’s speculation that in 1527, the conquered Aztec musicians and dancers used their instruments along with various shaped vessel flutes to perform at the court of King Charles V

The Aztecs’ performers gave very superb performances at the court. Consequently, they became popular musicians across Europe overnight. 

Consequently, they were sent to perform in every nook and cranny of Europe. In the course of time, they performed for Clement VII of Rome and became more popular. 

Nevertheless, during this entire period, the ocarina was not really considered a real or proper musical instrument yet. 

The reason was that it does not look professional like other instruments used for serious music. It also had limitations in the range of notes it could play.

Intervention by Unnamed Roman Baker 

According to legend, the music of the Aztecan vessel flutes captivated an unnamed Roman baker. As a result, he started making simple and basic copies of them in his oven. 

Although the new flutes were inferior to the Aztec originals, they gained popularity and were eventually produced by other bakers and artisans across Europe. 

They were mostly marketed as souvenirs or children’s toys rather than as real musical instruments. Ocarinas were popular in this manner for approximately 340 years.

The History of the Ocarina’s Invention by Giuseppe Donati 

This instrument maintained its contemporary shape and musical capability of playing just a few notes till the 19th century. And during this entire time, the ocarina was not even really considered a real or proper instrument yet.

Giuseppe Donati’s Ocarinas 

 Giuseppe_Donati - Modern Ocarina Inventor
The History of the Ocarina’s Invention by Giuseppe Donati 

This changed in the late 19th century (around 1852) when the modern ocarina was created in Italy by Giuseppe Donati, a 17-year-old boy from Budrio

Giuseppe Donati fashioned his ocarinas from clay into an egg shape, and they resemble headless geese. 

In addition, his ocarinas have 10 (standard) finger holes, a protruding mouthpiece, and look like a headless goose. 

As a result, he created a well-functional and effective ocarina, the first wind instrument to be called a “classical ocarina”. 

The vessel flute developed by Giuseppe Donati has a fingering system that can play the full chromatic scale. This makes the instrument practically versatile, like a concert instrument, and it later became popular.

Giuseppe Donati called his instrument the “ocarina,” which is named after a sculptural ceramic vessel flute, he invented that was shaped like a goose. 

In particular, the word “ocarina” is derived from “ucarèina/ucarènna”, which is a historic Bolognese (Emiliano-Romagnolo) dialect, and it means “little goose”. 

However, the ocarina made by Donati lacks the capability to play a range of notes like other concert instruments. It can only play one chromatic scale range. 

He quickly went on to design more ocarinas in a variety of sizes, allowing them to play higher and lower scales. 

Donati made his ocarinas with terra cotta and made some of his ocarinas with ebony wood and aluminium. He signed his ocarina in gold. 

For the first time, this instrument became versatile enough for ensemble performance and so joined the world of professional musical instruments. 

In short, the Donati invention gave birth to the modern ocarina that we have today.

The Budrio Ocarina Group (GOB): 

Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese - GOB
The Budrio Ocarina Group – Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese (GOB)

Giuseppe Donati not only invented the modern ocarina but also popularised it and secured its reputation among musicians. 

After Donati had started his ocarina making, he went further to gather players who could play the instrument very well. 

Afterwards, he established the “Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese” (GOB), which means The Budrio Ocarina Group, in 1863. The Budrio Ocarina Group (Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese, GOB) is the world’s first ocarina ensemble. 

This group, “Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese”, started performing in Budrio, then all over Italy and later across Europe. 

The group was divided at some point, but Donati later rebuilt the group. From that period up till now, the “Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese” has continued to exist. 

As a result, Budrio has been the proud home of a long line of ocarina makers and ensembles. 

Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese ” remained the official ensemble that continued the tradition of playing ocarina music in Budrio and Europe. 

Specifically, every couple of years they have a big festival and aficionados and ocarina players from all over the world gather to play music together. This event is always an awesome and wonderful occasion for the ocarina.

Donati Ocarina’s Popularity 

Giuseppe Donati not only invented the modern ocarina but also popularised it with “Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese”. This also secured its reputation among musicians. 

More craftsmen began to create ocarinas as people became more aware of them. Subsequently, the ocarina emerged with a reputation as a concert instrument. 

To differentiate the ocarinas made by Donati from others, Donati’s ocarinas were named “Budrio ocarinas,” after the hometown of Donati. 

But because it was much cheaper and easier to play the ocarina than a typical concert instrument, it began to get more and more popular. 

Subsequently, the news of the instrument began to travel beyond Italy’s borders, to the rest of Europe, and then to America.

The History of the Ocarina in Modern America 


After so much popularity in Europe, the modern ocarina found its way back to America, which was the continent from which it originated. 

This happened around 1900, when the ocarina developed a great deal into a concert pitch and a modern instrument. 

It was marketed through the Sears & Roebuck Company mail order catalogue and quickly became popular among the old and young. 

The popularity of the ocarina in America gave the globular wind instrument an American nickname. The ocarina is called a “sweet potato” in America because of its unusual shape and its sweet tone. 

The ocarina was indeed popular in America throughout the twentieth century. This was due to its ease of play, beautiful tone, and mobility. 

During World War I, American soldiers brought plastic and metal ocarinas with them to play with whenever they could. 

The army had discovered this practice by the time World War II arrived. Consequently, they provided plastic sweet potato ocarinas to combatants throughout World War II. 

During the 1950s, Americans exploited ocarinas as a musical instrument to teach music to students in public schools.

The Music of the Ocarinas in Hollywood 

Hollywood also took advantage of the ocarina with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. 

They all played the ocarinas and sang “When the Sweet Potato Piper Plays.” in the 1940 American semi-musical comedy “Road to Singapore,”

Crosby also sang and played “The Little Ocarina Song” in the 1952 American comedy film “The Road to Bali.” 

The ocarina gained more popularity in America with the release of the 1953 American war film “Stalag 17.” The reason was that one of the characters in the movie “Joey” (actor Robinson Stone) plays the ocarina.

The History of the Ocarina in Modern World 

The ocarina declined in popularity during the second half of the twentieth century. During that period, people chose recorders over ocarinas because recorders could play a wider range of notes. 

This later changed with some new developments made to the instrument by a former student of the Royal Academy of Music and an English mathematician called John Taylor in 1964.

The History of the Ocarina: Invention by John Taylor 


John Taylor, a British mathematician, further developed his own version of the ocarina. Specifically, John Taylor invented four tiny finger-hole ocarinas that can play the whole thirteen notes on a chromatic scale. 

He also invented cross-finger tuning. This strengthened the player’s capability to incorporate virtuosic components into music. 

Even having only four finger holes, a musician could achieve an octave’s length of the chromatic scale. The addition of a thumb hole extended the range to one note above the octave. 

However, in the 1990s, an American named David Hannauer further maximised the cross-finger range by adding a second thumb hole. This addition is to raise the four-hole ocarina’s range to the eleventh (one octave plus a fourth). 

Therefore, it is possible to play this small but versatile instrument known as the modern English ocarina in any key.

In addition, the fingering system used to play John Taylor ocarinas is called the English fingering system. 

Originally, the John Taylor ocarinas were made of clay and were very small in size. They were the size of walnuts but smooth, with a mouthpiece and four tiny finger holes. 

They were known as pendant ocarinas because people could put a cord or leather strip through a hole in one end and hang it around their neck.

The ocarina development in Japan 

The popularity of Donati’s ocarinas goes far, and people on the other side of Asia are quite fond of it as well. Specifically, in 1928, Japanese craftsman Takashi Aketagawa further improved Donati’s ocarinas. He reinvented the ocarina from 10 to 12 finger holes. 

This development empowered the ocarina to be capable of playing three additional semitones. This improves the ocarina’s musical versatility even more. 

Notwithstanding, people did not actually know about this improvement in ocarina until 1985.  This was the year that Nomura Sojiro, one of Japan’s greatest ocarina players, performed amazing ocarina music for the documentary “The Great Yellow River.”

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The history of the ocarina has some significant linkage with “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time“.

This has to do with the use of the ocarina in the game and how the game affects the instrument’s popularity.

Specifically, the ocarina became more popular with the release of the Nintendo (computer) game “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” in November 1998.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the most popular video games ever created. This was due to the large market share of Nintendo in the video game market at the time. 

The game utilised an ocarina as an essential component of the game by featuring a boy playing the ocarina. Basically, the player needs to learn to play many songs on an ocarina to advance in the game. 

The Legend of Zelda (Ocarina of Time) game got 500,000 pre-orders and sold 7.6 million copies globally. 

As a result, millions of people are aware of the ocarina and thousands of people are ready to play one. 

The popularity of ocarinas led to the creation of double and triple ocarinas that have a greater range in the middle of the 20th century. 

Today, the ocarina has found its way to the concert hall, where it plays with orchestras.

Ocarina Music 

How To Play Ocarina

The history of the ocarina will not be well told without saying something about its music.

But, in actual fact, there is no serious composition for this instrument. This was due to its limitations mentioned earlier in the post.

During the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods, there was not a lot of music composed for the ocarina. Most of the music that ocarina players like to play is music that was written for other instruments that they adapt to the ocarina. 

In fact, there is a lot of beautiful music written during the Renaissance that I think works well for the ocarina.

GOB performing “Barbiere di Siviglia” – The Magnificent Seven Ocarina Player

The History of the Ocarina: Final Notes

The ocarina is a globular wind instrument with a duct and finger holes. It is commonly made with clay, plastic, or wood, and belongs to the vessel flute family. 

The ocarina is one of the oldest instruments known to mankind. The history of the ocarina spans thousands of years. The earliest known example is believed to be over 12,000 years old. 

Donati first constructed the modern version of this instrument around 1853. Donati’s ocarina was further developed by Takashi Aketagawa from a 10-hole to a 12-hole instrument. 

The ocarina became popular across Europe, and its popularity continues globally in Italy, England, Germany, America, Japan, China, and other parts of the world. 

Today, ocarinas are made from wood and clay by artisans in the Americas, Asia, and Eastern Europe. 

Handmade ocarinas are regularly sold at Renaissance festivals, arts and crafts fairs, and some musical gatherings.

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