What is an Ocarina?

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX



History of instrument

Perhaps the oldest version of the ocarina, and one of the oldest known Chinese instruments, is the xun, a vessel flute found as early as 5000 BC in Zhejiang (Britannica). According to J. Kenneth Moore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the small clay instruments were generally egg-shaped and assigned to the Earth category in the bayin system of classification. While the contemporary design includes eight or nine playing holes, the ancient xun had only five holes and was “mainly used to perform court music” (Easton Music School, Singapore). Its hollow timbre, “similar to that of a human voice,” made it ideal for performing a “lamenting aria” and paired well with the voices of other wind instruments like the Chi (Top China Travel). Currently, ornate versions of the xun are most commonly produced as souvenirs for tourists in China; few musicians remain who are trained to properly play the instrument (Top China Travel).

According to Suzanne Staubach, author of “Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element,” contemporary ocarinas were developed by Italian inventor Giuseppe Donati in the late 1800’s. The word “ocarina” comes from the Italian term for “little goose” due to its bird-like shape and nasal sound; it is also sometimes referred to as a globular flute (Britannica). The handmade instruments were available in a variety of keys and quickly “became popular at carnivals” (Staubach). In the 1930’s, the ocarina had made its way to the United States where it was affectionately referred to as the “sweet potato” and produced in plastic instead of clay (Staubach).  

The ocarina reached a new level of popularity in 1986 when it was used as the main instrument for the soundtrack to “The Legend of Zelda.” Japanese composer Koji Kondo (b.1961) is best known for writing the soundtracks to all editions of “The Legend of Zelda” and “Super Mario;” two of Nintendo’s most successful videogames (Famous Composers). The original versions of these two works “sold over sixty million copies worldwide,” making Kondo arguably the most successful videogame composer in history (Famous Composers). Currently, he works as a supervisor, arranger, consultant, and part-time composer for the Nintendo Sound Team (Famous Composers).

          Purchase “The Legend of Zelda” soundtrack Here 

Currently there are numerous online music stores that sell plastic, wooden, ceramic, and clay ocarinas for entertainment-purposes. The instruments are sold for anywhere between fifteen and one hundred and fifty dollars and come with a variety of options as far as color and texture. The most popular variation of the ocarina has twelve playing holes and is slightly more “J-shaped” than the traditional egg-shape. Although the globular flutes are not yet accepted in formal wind or string ensembles, they have become one of the most popular amateur instruments worldwide.


FUN FACT: The Guinness World Record for Largest Ocarina Ensemble was set at the Royal Albert Hall in London on November 5, 2013. The 3,081 musicians performed Ode to a Joyful Star.


Music books for the ocarina

Hal Leonard Ocarina Method (Beginners) 

Hal Leonard Folk Songs for Ocarina (Beginners) 




Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017). Ocarina. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

          Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Web. 15 July, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/art/ocarina>


Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2013). Xun. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia

          Britannica, Inc. Web. 15 July, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/art/xun>


Eason Music School. (2018). Xun. Eason School. Eason Music School. Singapore. Web. 16 July,

          2018. <http://www.easonmusicschool.com/chinese-orchestra-instruments/chinese-



Editors. (2018). "Music: Music and Religion in China, Korea, and Tibet." Encyclopedia of

          Religion. Encyclopedia.com. Web. 15 July, 2018.




Moore, J. Kenneth. (2000). Music and Art of China. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New

          York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 16 July, 2018.



Staubach, Suzanne. (2005). Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with

         Earth’s Most Primal Element. University Press of New England. New Hampshire. P.212.

          Google Books. Web. 16 July, 2018. <https://books.google.com/books?






Editors. (2018). Xun. Top China Travel. Guangxi, China. Web. 17 July, 2018.



Editors. (2018). Koji Kondo. Famous Composers. N.p. Web. 17 July, 2018.