All About Ocarinas, Recorders, Tin Whistles, and Native American Flutes
by Howard Fosdick ©
Today we'll look at four folk flutes: ocarinas, recorders, tin
whistles, and Native American flutes. We'll answer basic questions
about each. Which are easiest to learn? Appropriate for which kinds
of music? Least inexpensive? What are their benefits and drawbacks?
I'll provide some simple answers.
All these flutes are fipple
-- you blow into a mouthpiece that directs your
breath to make sound. That makes them much easier to get started
with than concert flutes or other kinds of transverse flutes. With those flutes
beginners spend days blowing into the mouthpiece just to learn how
to play notes.
Folk flutes are simple to learn, inexpensive, portable, and there
are tons of how-to videos and free sheet music on the web. They make
excellent teaching tools for kids. And they're ideal for adults new
Let's take a close look at these four kinds of flutes. I'll include sound samples and links to free
Ocarinas are vessel flutes
flutes that voice based on the resonance of sound waves within a
closed air chamber. They do not have open-ended bores as do
recorders, tin whistles, and Native American flutes. This gives them
their unique "full" or "rounded" sound.
Ocarinas date back thousands of years to the ancient Chinese and
Mesoamerican civilizations. Italian Giuseppe Donati invented the
modern "oc" in the 1850s. He standardized the instrument so that it
could play western scales with simple fingering.
Ocarinas are typically made of ceramic clay, plastic, or sometimes wood.
They come in many shapes but categorize into three: transverse,
The photo below shows two
transverse oc's on the left, two rectangular inlines in the middle,
and two round pendants on the right.
Yellow Plastic and White Ceramic Transverse
Oc's; Two Black Plastic Inlines; Two Ceramic Pendants
Because of their shape, transverse oc's are sometimes called sweet
You play them sideways, like a
metal concert flute. Put your mouth on the extended fipple and blow
while placing your fingers over the holes. The instruments typically
have 8 to 10 fingering holes on top, and two thumb holes underneath.
The more fingering holes, the more notes you can play. For example,
the smaller oc in the upper lefthand corner plays from A4 to F6 plus
all intervening sharps and flats. (Middle C on the piano is C4).
That's a range of 13 whole notes -- certainly enough to play any song you
The yellow plastic transverse in the photo is the most popular size
of ocarina -- most people call it the Alto C
. (Oc's are notoriously unstandardized
so you may hear it referred to as a C Major
ocarina.) Other sizes include the smaller
soprano, larger tenor, and the still larger bass.
The bigger the oc,
the lower it sounds. And the softer its voice. Small oc's can be
pretty loud, so sometimes people buy larger ones so as not to
disturb others. Bigger oc's cost more, of course.
transverse and inline oc's in the same way. The main difference with
inlines is their shape and that they extend straight out from your
mouth when you play them. (As folk instruments, different brands of
ocarinas sometimes have very minor fingering differences.)
The two pendants in the photo have only 4 holes on top plus two
thumb holes beneath. (Some pendants don't even have the two thumb
holes.) Pendants have an entirely different fingering system than
the transverse/inline system. They're called pendants because most
have attached necklaces so that you can wear them around your neck,
like the black oc in the photo. Pendants are also called seedpods
Beware of pendants that aren't playable. There's a whole universe of
decorative oc's -- many from Latin America -- that make dandy
keepsakes but are not playable instruments. You can spot them
because all their top holes are the same size. A playable oc has different-sized finger holes.
Which oc's are easiest to learn? Transverse/inline fingering is more
intuitive. You progressively raise your fingers
off the holes to ascend the scale, just
like you do with recorders, tin whistles, and Native American
flutes. These oc's can play all sharps and flats but that requires
Most players start with a transverse Alto C. Plastic oc's
have a better track record for quality control and are more durable,
though some favor the more subtle tones
of ceramic. Excellent plastic ocarinas are available for under $40,
while ceramic ones with good Amazon ratings cost a bit less than that.
Be sure to read reviews before you buy.
Listen to a sound sample, too. Some oc's are not well tuned:
remember, these are folk instruments.
My own recommendations appear
in the table
at the end of this article. A key point is that, if you buy a clay oc,
don't go for the cheapest available. They'll likely disappoint.
Let's listen to some ocarinas. To get you in the mood, here's an inspiring piece
by a professional
. (The musician plays a multichamber oc
an ocarina with more than one air chamber that enables a greater
pitch range than normal single-chamber oc's. It's tough for
beginners, unfortunately.) A better bet is the transverse Alto C I
Here's a demo
of the very popular plastic Focalink
that retails for about $35 USD. Focalink
generally boast excellent Amazon ratings. (But as with all clay ocarinas, always
avoid the low-end, cheapest offers.)
So why is the ocarina considered a folk rather than a concert
instrument? Its pitch range is limited compared to orchestral
instruments that span several octaves. And you can't tune the oc
to fit it in better when playing with others.
The good news is that ocarinas are incredibly easy to learn. Even
beginners can produce their captivating sound. You can get started
for only $25 to $40 USD. Everything beyond the oc itself -- lessons,
tutorials, sheet music, and more -- is free on the internet. If
you've never played an instrument before or just love their
exquisite voice, try an oc.
Ocarina - Free Resources:
Youtube channels: David
Erik Ramos, Kissing88,
Product reviews: The
Ocarina Network's online forum
reviews at Amazon, Ocarina
reviews on Youtube
Ocarina Network's Facebook group
, The Reddit ocarina
Free sheet music: 12HoleOcarina.com
Recorders are end-blown flutes that trace their ancestry
back to medieval Europe. When classical composers wrote for "flute"
before the 19th century, they were often referring to what we today
call the recorder. The modern metal concert flute wasn't perfected
until the mid-1800s.
Like ocarinas, recorders feature simple fingering for whole notes.
Among their several fingering systems, the most popular is called
or English fingering
Recorders come in standard sizes like sopranino, soprano, alto,
tenor, and bass. As with ocarinas, the bigger instruments are both
lower-pitched and quieter. So a soprano projects better if you play outside,
while a soft-spoken tenor might well suit for quieter play inside.
Bigger also means more expensive. The
tenor in a company's line will cost more than its alto and much more
than its soprano.
Top to Bottom: Two Pearwood Sopranos, Decorated Ceramic
Soprano, Maple Alto, Maple Tenor, and Plastic Tenor
New players typically start with the ubiquitous soprano. Its pitch
ranges over two octaves, from C5 to D7. ABS resin plastic is an
excellent choice for a first instrument. It's inexpensive and sounds
great, yet it's durable and easy to take care of. I recommend
quality plastic sopranos
like those from Yamaha
They check in at only $20 to $40 USD.
Many players start with a good plastic soprano, then as they acquire
skills, they add a wood soprano or an alto. The lower alto voice is
particularly haunting. This Youtube
can help you choose a good beginner soprano.
Wood is the traditional material for recorders. It's more expensive,
with prices ranging from $30 to
on the low end, up to hundreds for the mid-range, and
thousands for the top instruments. The less expensive ones are
factory produced from woods like pearwood or maple. Craftsman create
the more expensive ones from specialty woods. Keep in mind that
price alone doesn't determine quality. Sound is subjective and
personal taste differs. Some say the skill of the player counts more
than the quality of instrument.
tells what to look for in buying a new recorder. As with
ocarinas, quality varies enormously. I recommend listening to a
sound clip either at the manufacturer's website or Youtube before
buying. Read all the reviews you can, too.
In contrast to ocarinas and Native American flutes, recorders are
tunable. Most consist of either two or three pieces. You tune the
instrument by moving the mouthpiece in or out. This is a big
advantage in group playing. Along with all the available ensemble music, it
makes the recorder the superior choice for duets, trios, and
Let's listen to a few sound samples. In case you've never heard a
recorder ensemble, here's a quintet
playing Greensleeves. This performer demonstrates the
on several classical pieces. That's a $45 USD
plastic instrument he's using so don't let anyone convince you
to spend hundreds on an expensive wood recorder until you're ready.
Here's how that sweet alto
With its tunability and two-octave range, the recorder offers
ensemble fun and musical possibilities beyond those of many other
Recorder - Free Resources:
Youtube channels: Sarah
Can Play It
Product reviews: Sarah
Jeffery's recorder reviews
reviews at Amazon, Recorder
reviews at Youtube
Community: American Recorder
Recorder Society (Facebook),
, A Facebook
Free sheet music: 8Notes, Sheet
music at Pinterest, Free-Scores.com,
The Solo Recorder
Tin whistles are also called penny whistles
. Like ocarinas and recorders, they trace their
heritage back to the earliest civilizations. The modern whistle is a
much more recent invention. Only in the 19th century did it
standardize in its present form.
The instrument's forte is traditional Irish, Scottish, and Celtic
music. Yet it's versatile enough to play American folk music or any
other genre you wish.
Top to Bottom: Two Whistles in D, Two Whistles in C, B♭ and G Whistles in Brass
As the photo shows, penny whistles come in many different
keys. The D whistle is most common. These measure a bit less than a
foot long and are surprisingly lightweight. As with
ocarinas and recorders, larger instruments have lower pitches.
One of the delights of whistling is the variety of instruments
available. Some pipes have tapered bores while others are straight.
They're made from all sorts of metals: brass, nickel, nickel-plated
brass, tin, aluminum, even lead (back before they learned it wasn't
safe). Other materials include ABS resin plastic, wood... and even
home-mades from PVC
The body of the instrument combines with a fipple,
mouthpiece. These can be plastic, wood, or metal; and either
separate or built-in. Only whistles with separate fipples are
Add it all up and you have a gloriously varied universe of whistles
to explore. Based on different design and materials, some whistles
sound bright and clear; others, musky or rustic; and still others,
soft and warm. Whatever your taste, there's a whistle to match it.
Part of the fun of whistling is finding your favorite pipe. With
whistles being so inexpensive, many players build collections.
like transverse ocarinas and recorders in that you progressively
lift fingers to hit higher notes. But the similarities end there.
Whistles have only six top holes and no thumb holes beneath. With a
pitch range of about two octaves, you achieve the higher octave by overblowing
the instrument. You finger the higher octave the same as the lower,
and hit the higher notes by blowing harder.
This is an entirely
different concept than instruments like the recorder where you
finger the "octave hole" with your thumb to move up an octave.
Overblowing might sound difficult at first, but it doesn't take much
practice to learn.
Like alto C ocarinas, high notes on the D whistle can be loud --
they might disturb close neighbors. Experienced players learn to
clearly articulate high notes with a nice tone.
With its two-octave range, the whistle lets you play any kind of
music. It can play all sharps and flats, yet most consider the
whistle a diatonic instrument. Why? Those sharps and flats involve
not only cross-fingering but a lot of half-holing. This requires
some practice, especially with fast tunes. A simpler approach is to
to switch keys simply by playing a different whistle. Or, change the
key of the tune to fit your whistle.
The popular D whistle sounds D5 as its base note. (That's one note
above the C5 base note of alto C ocarinas and soprano recorders.)
It's a fairly high-pitched instrument. D whistles pop out
quick-fingered notes in a bright, dynamic way that makes them ideal
for quick dance tunes, happy jigs, and the like. Ornamentation shows
off well. Many players enjoy learning fancy techniques for Celtic
music. But those aren't necessary unless they interest you.
Which whistle should you start with? Yikes, you'll get a ton of
advice on this topic! Just like ocarina and recorder players,
everyone promotes their favorite. Here's a secret. I only started
playing the whistle last year, having never touched one before. I
tested a flock of whistles and found I could immediately hit all the
notes with the Clarke
. I don't know that it's the best whistle ever made
but it's surely a great one to start with. It's got a pleasing tone,
too. All for only about $15 USD. You can't lose with it.
Let's listen to sound samples. How about the dramatic theme
the film "Titanic"? Celine Dion's signature hit includes several
penny whistle solos. This clip
features the whistle in a song by the neoceltic folk band Omnia.
Here's a comparative review that demos sound
from several whistles you might consider buying, and this video
reviews several more.
If you have an interest in Celtic culture, or you'd just like an
inexpensive start with an incredibly expressive instrument, the
penny whistle might be for you. You can see if it suits you for less than $20.
Tin Whistle - Free Resources:
Youtube channels: CutiePie
(aka Stephanie), Online
Academy of Irish Music
Beginner tips: The
Product reviews: Celtic
reviews at Youtube
reviews at Amazon
Community: Chiff and
, Reddit Group,
Irish Pub on Facebook, Tin Whistles on
Free sheet music: Irish-Folk-Songs.com
, Tin Whistler
Native American Flutes
Historically, Native Americans
comprised a diversity of related peoples with different languages
and cultures spread over a vast geographic area. They invented many
kinds of flutes and developed varieties of each. The Native American
flute gives you access to this unique musical tradition.
What we call the Native American flute today is the result of a
standardization process that occurred in the 1980s. This evolution
brought Native American flutes closer to conformance with European
musical concepts. For example, base pitches were standardized and
pentatonic minor scale
a five note scale, became predominant. The
result has been an explosion of interest in Native American flutes.
Take a look at these flutes:
Native American Flutes
(Photo from Frank B. on Pinterest)
As you can see, the flute is defined as having an external block
held in place on top by a strap. You blow into a breath hole that
connects to a small air chamber preceding the block. Your breath
hits a splitting edge behind the block at the start of the larger
sound chamber. The sound chamber has either five or six top holes
you finger to alter the pitch. (The instrument has no thumb holes.)
Like tin whistles, Native American flutes are primarily considered
diatonic instruments. Fingering whole notes is simple. Just
progressively lift your fingers for higher notes. Sharps and flats are
possible, too, but
varies across flutes.
Similar to tin whistles, these flutes are crafted in every imaginable key
is most popular. Many people are attracted to the sounds of even
lower-pitched flutes, but not everyone can reach their key holes. So
if you want to buy an F#, F, or lower flute, make sure you can
comfortably reach all the holes first.
One other fact: six holes are better than five because they yield
more notes. So most experts advise beginners to start with a
six-holed flute in A, G, F# or maybe F. Listen to these sound samples
determine which pitch appeals to you. Of course, you'll also want to
listen to any specific flute before you buy it.
Native American flutes are typically produced from woods like cedar,
walnut, juniper, redwood, cherry or other more exotic choices. As
with recorders, wood density affects tone (though not so much,
perhaps, as the flute's
.) Coloring often depends on staining
techniques more than the wood used. Given that the instruments are
handmade, prices reflect labor costs. As with wood recorders, many
cost several hundred dollars. However, there are excellent flutes
available for under $100 if you seek them out, as my recommendations
Plastic is an option
too. Some feel that plastic flutes don't have the authenticity of handcrafted
wood ones, but they're durable and can voice well.
Most Native American flutes are keyed to the pentatonic minor scale.
This lends them their soulful, contemplative sound. Advanced players
can play other scales, too. The range of the instrument varies from 1 to 1
. With some flutes you attain the highest couple
notes by overblowing
(blowing harder), just as with the tin whistle.
Native American flute music is pure and relaxing. It attracts tens
of millions of listeners at Youtube. Listen to this example
or this one
You might enjoy joining a flute circle.
These groups let you to socialize with other flute players, sharing
and learning together. Search this list
for a circle near you.
Its five-note scale makes the Native American flute incredibly easy
to play. All notes sound pleasing together, so you simply can't
hit a wrong one. That's the big draw to this instrument. Whether or
not you have musical training, the Native American flute helps you
Native American Flute - Free Resources:
Beginner tips: Flute Tree
Native American Flute group
, Facebook NAFlute
Facebook NAF group
Free sheet music: Flutopedia,
How do our four kinds of flutes compare? All are easy to
learn. Yet the Native American flute stands out in this regard, with
its simple pentatonic scale and limited fingering. This is truly an
Ocarinas follow close on. If you can blow, you can elicit their
soulful tones. Their limited pitch range means you need learn few
Tin whistles and recorders are easy for beginners to start with,
too. But they require greater effort if you wish to explore all
their possibilities. Some whistlers progress into fast-fingered
ornamentation and chromatics while some recorder players take on
ambitious classical music.
In the end, the old saw applies to each of these folk flutes: It's
easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.
Compare this to traditional concert instruments. They're both hard
to learn and
difficult to master.
You can get started with any our folk flutes for only $20 to $40
USD. Native American flutes are the exception, with their entry
price of $70 to $100 USD. All other resources for these instruments
are free on the web -- tutorials, sheet music, how-to's, peer
advice, instructional videos, and more.
So what are waiting for? Grab a folk flute and begin your
| Tin Whistles
| Varies, most
10 to 13 notes *
| About two
1 to 1 1/3 octaves
|Holes on top:
8 to 10
5 or 6
| $10 on up
| $10 on up
$10 on up
$80 on up
| various metals
diatonic but yes
diatonic but most
chromatics are possible ***
for a few high notes
| Popular tunes,
| Irish, Scottish,
contain more than one sound chamber. This
allows for a much wider pitch range.
They require greater playing skill and cost more.
** Double holes count as 1.
*** See this
discussion on scales and tuning
Here are popular, inexpensive flutes
for beginners. They're easy to start with and produce great sound.
* For transverse ocarinas, I recommend beginners start with a plastic instrument rather than ceramic.
** For tin whistle, I recommend beginners start with
a metal instrument rather than plastic.
Disclaimer: I receive no compensation for these recommendations.
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