Title: Tengir-Too, Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan--Fantasy on the Chopo Choor; Nurlanbek Nyshanov, chopo choor (ocarina). Label: Smithsonian Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SFWCD 40520. Track: 10.

Contextual Associations

The ocarina (generically) is a vessel duct-flute aerophone found worldwide; the first instrument pictured in the gallery will be the primary focus of this entry, with the other four instruments being used to illustrate points about the ocarina in a generic sense. The first ocarina pictured at left was made in France and is typical of modern-day European ocarinas (the other ocarinas originate from the U.S.A., Russia, Colombia, and Costa Rica). Often but not only played by children (the audio example is performed by an adult Kyrgyzstan musician), the ocarina is basically a novelty instrument played for ones own entertainment. Ocarinas are often zoomorphic, displaying the form of an animal, real or mythological, that is important to a culture’s identity (see the final three images in the gallery). This in part is why it is common to find ocarinas for sale to tourists at crafts markets around the world (which is where the final three instruments were purchased). That said, in some cultural settings around the world ocarinas are taken more seriously and are incorporated into community music making.


The primary ocarina is made from terracotta (all the others are also made from ceramic material except for the second instrument, which is made of Bakelite) and is shaped like an elongated egg, has eight fingerholes (one of them a double hole) on the top side and two thumbholes on the reverse side; and has a mouthpiece extension with an internal duct that directs the airstream against a beveled edge (not visible in the picture, but a similarly designed edge mechanism on another of the ocarinas is seen in the first detail shot) to produce the sound. An additional feature of this ocarina is a sliding metal rod used to alter the instrument’s fundamental pitch (none of the other ocarinas have this feature). Acoustically, fingerholes operate somewhat differently on ocarinas as opposed to tubular aerophones. The position of the fingerholes is not significant, it is the sum total of their areas when open that determines the sounding pitch. Most but not all of the ocarinas pictured here have fingerholes of various sizes, so it is crucial for the player to know the impact the covering or uncovering of a given hole will have on shaping the resulting pitch--the larger the hole, the greater the interval size change.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The primary ocarina would be held horizontally by its performer so that the top eight fingerholes are facing upwards and operated with the player’s eight fingertips, the thumbs operate the two fingerholes on the bottom side, and the tip of the mouthpiece is between the player’s lips. With all the holes closed, this ocarina produces approximately a B3; its highest pitch is E5, so it has a range of an octave and a fourth. A diatonic scale starting on B3 can be produced, along with some chromatic notes. The second ocarina is similarly designed and laid out, but since it is slightly smaller it starts on C4 and runs diatonically to F5. The other pictured ocarinas vary in their number of holes, the sizes of the holes, and the resulting pitch vocabularies.


What has become the generalized form of the European ocarina (the first two instruments in the gallery) was invented in Italy in the nineteenth century. However, the basic idea of the ocarina as a vessel duct flute with fingerholes is much older and has been realized in a multitude of forms around the world. In Latin America alone archeologists have found ocarinas dating back thousands of years in some locations, revealing the time depth of this form of aerophone.

Bibliographic Citations

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

n.a. 1984. “Ocarina [It.: ‘little goose’]. NGDMI v.2: 809.

Olsen, Dale A., and Daniel E. Sheehy. 1998. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.2: South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. New York: Garland Publishing.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Italy

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.221.422 aerophone--vessel flute with duct: with two or more fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: globular vessel

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled edge in wall of instrument, indirectly blown against with aid of duct

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length/shape of standing wave within single cavity with fingerholes


7.2 in. length

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter