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Braille Graphic Scores

If you had ever been a music student, then you have no doubt come across the Norton Anthology of Western Music. This tome compiles the standard repertoire of Western art music presented in history, theory, and performance classes, and describes the music with historical notes and other contextual information.

For some time, the Music Section of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has had the older editions of this canonical item, but we did not have the sixth edition, which adds more music and a third volume dedicated solely to Twentieth Century music.

But, we are happy to announce that the third volume of the Norton Anthology sixth edition was just added to the NLS collection this month.

The scope of this volume is something worth noting. As previous editions had clumped all music from the Classical era to the Modern era into one volume, it gave little mention of modern avant-garde classical composers. The sixth edition, however, contains music from many more Twentieth Century composers, including Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arvo Pärt, and György Ligeti, among others.

Besides being an integral addition to our holdings, it is also a brilliant feat of braille music transcribing (done by transcriber Christina Davidson), as it is over 20 volumes with some of the hardest-to-transcribe music scores. Such pieces as Projection I for Cello by Morton Feldman and Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima use graphic scores or altered notation, which do not follow the rules of standard music notation.

Feldman’s piece in particular, which uses geometric figures over the course of a graphically represented x-axis of time, cannot be transcribed at all into standard braille music encoding. Standard braille music notation is inherently linear; that is, all information that is conveyed to the musician is laid out in a horizontal fashion, as one would read words.

In Feldman’s piece, each rectangle represents a different timbre to be produced on the cello. The location of each rectangle (whether low, middle, or high) represents the general pitch that the soloist should be playing, and whether the cello should be plucking the strings (pizzicato) or using the bow (arco).

A Sim-Braille (braille font) excerpt of the Morton Feldman piece "Projections I"

A Sim-Braille (braille font) excerpt of the Morton Feldman piece “Projections I.” This image shows what the braille on the page for this piece would look like.

To get around this problem, the transcriber describes the score through text, as well as by providing the score as a tactile graphic. Tactile graphics are common in braille to aid in reading an inherently visual resource, such as a map or a graph. The example of the tactile graphic score for this particular piece is exhibited above.

Twentieth Century music is an indelible part of Western art music history, and the third volume of the Norton Anthology sixth edition shows just how impactful this era of music has been to the modern age. The music section of NLS is committed to ensuring that all music, specifically such inherently visual material as graphic scores, is as accessible for the blind community as it is for the sighted.

The third volume of the Norton Anthology of Western Music can be ordered from the NLS Music Section with catalog number BRM 36037, and is also available for download from BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download).

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