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What is a sweet potato ocarina?

Updated on July 14, 2017

What is a sweet potato ocarina?

The article provides a review of what is a Sweet Potato Ocarina, provides key musical tips and gives some market detail.

The ocarina is an egg-shaped musical instrument resembling the vessel flute to some extent. This, usually ceramic (although can be made of wood, glass or plastic) wind instrument has an oval shape of enclosed space with a mouthpiece and 4-12 holes for finger manipulations.

Sweet Potato Ocarina


Giuseppe Donati and one of his ocarinas



The first findings of ocarina date back to twelve thousand years. It was a common musical instrument of Mesoamerican and Chinese civilizations as well as that of Aztecs and Mayans – although with slight modifications. Alike Xun, it has deep roots in the Chinese cultural and religious tradition. Ocarina was introduced to European royalties by Cortes in early 16th century and became their favorite toy instrument. The word “ocarina” is derived from the Bolognese dialect and is pronounced “oka-ri:-na” meaning “little goose” - as the first ocarina (this design is now known as the sweet potato ocarina) was produced by Giuseppe Donati in the 1800s from a toy-body.

The first European ocarinas had rather simple sounding but, those days Europeans already had their own traditional wind instruments: “gemshorn” - made of cattle horns, and “tonette” – made of wood. In the modern times the popularity of the ocarina jumped once it has been mentioned in the Legend of Zelda and Nintendo computer games.

As an Instrument

So, let’s have a look what is a sweet potato ocarina from the musical point of view. Typical of wind instruments here the sound is produced by the air streaming through the windway. The inside of the instrument vibrates and resonances the air whereas manipulation with the holes and the blowing strength either raises, lowers or bends the pitch. The wide range of the ocarina’s sounding does not depend on its length - unlike in other wind instruments, but rather on the extent the holes are open. An important detail is that it is not the amount but the size of the holes matters. Special resonator can be adjusted to achieve overtones – which will reproduce the above-keynote-scale octaves.

Due to the sweet potato ocarina’s shape, the number of pitches can not go beyond the 12th. Those ocarinas that have a double or a triple chamber can produce chords. The ocarina music can be written in sheet, numerical or pictorial tablature. It has a central voicing in folk music and at the same time is widely used in orchestras for performing classics.

Ocarinas vary in shape, number of holes, color and decorative elements. The sweet potato ocarina (Transverse) is the most orbicular, has 10 holes and has found a better acknowledgement of the music aficionados. The small and portable ocarinas are called Pendant and are of two types - either with 4-6 or 8-10 holes. The synthesis of the Traverse and Pendant makes the Inline ocarina – which is tiny and still with a considerable amount of holes. Ocarinas with multi-chamber body are called simply the “Double” or the “Triple”. There also exist experimental ocarinas that have the keys and slides.

A Musician's Collection of Ocarinas


Purchasing an Ocarina

A great variety of ocarinas can be found on the market. Some stores may offer a Sweet Potato Ocarina Songbook along with the instrument priced at some $40 US. The 12-hole Plastic Sweet Potato Soprano C may be purchased at $13, whereas the Fairy Sweet Potato Ocarina at $40, and the 12-hole Sweet Potato Alto C at $67. The price for the quality instrument can be as high as $500.

Cosmo Canyon On Ocarina


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    • shai77 profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      no body, thanks for your comment. I agree, that the most charming ocarinas retain the simplicity and beauty of the old-fashioned design, but it's interesting to see the new and interesting designs. Thanks for all the interesting info and sharing about your ocarinas. I appreciate your comments!

    • no body profile image

      Robert E Smith 

      4 years ago from Rochester, New York

      The thing about the ocarina is that the design has not really changed all that much from the original invention. The principles that create the sound will not allow much altering. It is a marvel in its original form. And as people try to change it, the sound is definitely altered, and not necessarily for the better. The specifications of an ocarina allows for only so many holes before the pressure begins to thin out and not resound in the proper manner to make that full sound. The 12-hole sweet potato is a prime example. The original design had 10-holes as created by Donati in Budrio, Italy. The air pressure was ideal at that number of holes. As time went on they realized that the difference between the 10 hole and as many as twelve holes was minimal to them and they made two extra holes for range. But there was a cost. The method of play has to include some radical breath adjustments and something called the "acute bend" where the head is lowered to the body on the highest two notes where the inside air resonance thins out. The sound hole on the bottom of the instrument then uses the player's body and that extra presence aids the air pressure inside the instrument to stay a bit more consistent. The most expert players in the world are not afraid of the techniques that are needed in exchange for the range. They handle it marvelously, but the beginner and average musician sees the squeaky problem a bit differently. They play less, love the instrument less. Or they do what I did and followed the advice of one ocarina maker's online article, and have one less hole made into the 12 holes instrument to bring the sound quality up.

      The Fairy Ring alto that I had made for me out of exotic woods has 11-holes (not 12) and I have never been sorry I listened to that wise advice. I know that a slight amount of pressure is lost, but frankly, I can't hear it. I love my 11-hole. But I do have a triple and it has the max holes in each chamber and it is pretty consistent in it's playing.

    • shai77 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank you sanjeeta; having a small instrument on hand is a fun way to spend a few minutes relaxing, or you can entertain children and small crowds to liven up a party.

    • sanjeeta kk profile image

      sanjeeta kk 

      8 years ago from India

      This is quite informative, thanks for sharing.

    • shai77 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks BK :-)

      Good luck with your new hobby :-)

    • BkCreative profile image


      8 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      What a great hub on such a unique instrument. And I appreciate all the history you included. I'm looking for a calm hobby and this may be it. Thanks for the video too!

      Rated up!


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