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Liessens Music Writer, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I read a discussion on a listserv about different ways for blind musicians to notate and print music. There were many helpful suggestions, mostly on music notational software.  As the discussion participants noted, these software can be costly and require tech savvy to use.

This post is about a music notation device that was invented around 1948 that was both affordable and simple to use. I am convinced that this device is still a viable option for writing down music that is mostly linear and does not use extreme ranges, such as vocal music.

Years ago, as a student at a university in Montreal, I became friends with a fellow music student who told me that his grandfather invented a mechanical device to notate music. What was remarkable was that his grandfather, August Liessens, had been blind since early childhood. Using his invention, he was able to write down his choral compositions for sighted singers in his vocal ensembles.

When I first heard about this device, I failed to be properly impressed due to my lack of knowledge about how blind musicians read or wrote down music; I didn’t know that most blind musicians did not learn the staff notation, let alone use it. I had never heard of music braille, which uses a completely different concept of notating and reading music than what sighted musicians use.

Fast forward to November, 2016; The Music Section had been busy getting ready for the NLS building renovations, sorting through the archival materials and discarding outdated books and equipment.  One morning, as I stepped into the nook that my colleagues decluttered the night before, I spotted a metal frame fitted onto a wooden base. I noticed some engraved words on the metal plate, and leaned forward to read them. I was astonished when I realized that I was looking at the Liessens Music Writer that my friend reverently described almost 35 years before.

cropped Liessens Writer Screen shot

Liessens Music Writer

It looked like a simple device, but as I examined it closely, I could appreciate how thoughtfully and cleverly it was designed. The Liessens Music Writer has guides, cutouts, raised dots and notches on the metal template that slide horizontally across the board. However, there isn’t anything complicated to maneuver. Here is how it works:

  1. Put a blank piece of paper on the wooden base and hold it in place by tightening the clamp at the top of the base.
  2. Tighten the thumbscrew on the side of the wooden frame to hold the metal frame in place over the paper.
  3. Mount the metal template onto the metal frame. The template has differently shaped cut outs and stencils.
  4. Place the pencil inside the serrated edge of the long vertical cut out.  Use the raised dots next to the serrated edge to guide spacing and place of the lines.
  5. Draw the five lines of staff by sliding the template horizontally across the frame.
  6. Use the stencils and cut outs on the plate to write the clef signs, tempo, key and time signature in the correct place on the staff.
  7. Use the serrated edges on the template to draw the notes. For space notes, push the template upward.
  8. As the template moves across the grooves on the bottom rail of the frame, it makes a clicking noise. Feel and listen for the clicks to guide your spacing of each note and the words.
  9. Use the stencils for crescendos and decrescendos.
Cropped Liessens Writer big1

An excerpt written with the device

As with many other inventions, this device was first created to meet the inventor’s needs. Soon after its creation, it was distributed by the American Foundation for the Blind in the USA, Japan, India, England and other countries. It was featured in the March, 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics.  Mr. Liessens was invited to different cities in Canada, the U.S. and Belgium to promote the device and explain how it worked.

That explains how Mr. Liessens’ creation came to be archived at one of the world’s biggest libraries for the blind and visually impaired. Who was this man who invented a music writing device instead of relying on his sighted family members and students to write down his music for him?

Please read the second half of this blog next week.

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