The ocarina is an ancient folk instrument found in all parts of the world, in infinite shapes and tunings. It originated in Central and South America where it was used by native tribes. Each tribe had its own "tuning" and could be identified at a distance from the music played.

The tone of an ocarina is haunting, rich, and unique.

The word "ocarina" means "little goose egg" in Italian, referring to the shape that was developed there. Later, in America, it became known as the "sweet potato". Because the ocarinas are made in relatively small, globular shapes, they are quite strong.

They sound magical (if properly tuned).
The ocarina is a roundish egg-shaped instrument with fingerholes on its sides. It can be found in Central and South America, but it is not unique to those cultures alone. The ancient Chinese had an equivalent musical instrument which they called 埙 (xun1*).

The xun* was originally used in ancient China as a tool for hunting birds. The first ones were made out of stone or bone, and later of ceramic. Like those found in Latin America, some were fashioned into shapes of various animals, like fish, birds or turtles. The oldest xun was found in Zhejiang province; it was about 7000 years old, oval in shape and had only one fingerhole.
                       
                     --------- {------sound hole
                    /         \
                   /  o     o  \
                  /             \
                  |  o       o  |
                  |             |
                  |  o       o {------ fingerhole
                  \             /
                   \           /
                    \         /
                     \-------/  {----- mouth fitted here.

             
      Top view of an ocarina/xun. Shape of instrument, the number and 
positions of fingerholes may vary.


The development of the xun took place around the time of the Xia dynasty. This was discovered when archaeologists found these instruments in common graves of that period. They had three fingerholes and could produce the notes do, mi, so, la and fa. The shape of the instrument and number of fingerholes of the xun were roughly standardised in the Shang dynasty. Most xun of that dynasty had 5 fingerholes and produced sound of much better quality. They were able to produce all the tones and half-tones in a single octave.

By the Chou dynasty, it was a common instrument and was played in the imperial courts. A book classifying instruments in this period listed the xun as an "instrument of the soil" (土类乐器), meaning that it was made from clay. The design of the xun varied according to whether it was played for enjoyment or for celebrations. The xun made for enjoyment purposes were as large as a goose egg and produced a lower pitch, while the xun made for celebration purposes were about the size of a chicken egg and had a higher pitch.



* xun1 refers to the pronounciation of the word in Hanyu Pinyin. The "1" behind refers to the tone assigned to the character 埙. However, throughout the rest of the article, I dropped the "1" and simply called the instrument "xun".

Sources:
http://www.chinamedley.com/langyuan/xun/
They also have pictures of xun taken from archaeological digs.



Oc`a*ri"na (?), n. [Cf. It. carino pretty.] (Mus.)

A kind of small simple wind instrument.

 

© Webster 1913.

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