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Ocarinas: The Magic Flute of the East

There's more to it than Legend of Zelda


Walking around Beijing recently, I suddenly realized quite a few stores selling a small ceramic instrument—something seen in video games and fantasy novels but not in shop windows.

You’d know the ocarina if you were to see it: a small, ceramic instrument with a few carefully placed holes. Even if you are one of the few who can consistently remember the name of this unique instrument than there’s a good possibility that you know it from Legend of Zelda, where the main character plays his very own ocarina to use special abilities including turning back time. While unfortunately the ocarinas you buy off the street corner do not allow you to be a Time Lord, they are still very interesting instruments with an interesting Chinese history.

Archaeological remains of “globular flutes” have shown versions of these instruments dating back at least 12,000 years old. While ocarinas are the descendant of these globular flutes they differ by having a fipple mouthpiece, it can be traced back to cultures ranging from the Aztecs to India and central Africa.

The ocarinas’ history in China is also a long; it is believed that the instrument originated from an ancient Chinese version called the xun, which dates back 7,000 years, was shaped like an egg, and was used as an instrument in the imperial courts, known for being made out of stone, bone, clay, and ceramic. The only difference between the xun and the ocarina is the the lack of a mouthpiece on a xun; instead air is blown horizontally over an opening in order to produce the sound. While the xun has decreased in popularity over the years and is largely unknown outside of China. The current form of the ocarina is known many places having varied in shape and form throughout Europe and Asia.

The science of the all globular flutes of this nature is pretty simple. Part of the air stream goes into the bottle and part of it goes over the top; the air going into the bottle increases the air-pressure until it is greater than that outside the bottle, at which point it escapes, causing the mouth of the bottle to vibrate creating sound. This is basically the same way that an ocarina works except for some notable factors, specifically, ocarinas typically have a smaller volume than glass bottles which results in a higher air pressure and therefore a higher pitch instrument. There are finger holes on the ocarina allowing you to change the internal-pressure and therefore adjust the tone and play different notes. The mouthpiece of the ocarina makes it easier to blow into by creating an airway, at the end of which is the fipple edge, which is an additional opening that has a sharp edge. It is this edge that diverts part of the air blown into the ocarina into two and parts the “vibrating air” which creates the sound.

As to the modern popularity of the instrument, Nomura Sojiros’s famous ocarina music in the documentary  “The Great Yellow River” would have certainly helped. Given its historical and cultural significance, the ocarina will be around in China for a very long time, despite, and I can’t stress this enough, not allowing ocarina flutists to travel back in time.


Not interested in old flutes? Maybe these ancient percussion instruments are more to your taste.

Cover image from huangye88.com

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