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Tactile Staff Notation

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Today’s post is about the braille books in our collection that explain to blind readers how staff notation (print music) works. In case you are wondering why blind musicians need to know staff notation, two important reasons come to mind.

First, music teachers who are visually impaired must be able to help their sighted students learn to read print music and explain what each print musical symbol means.

Secondly, young students with visual impairment attending public schools will encounter music teachers explaining the notational system to the class at some point. The student will appreciate being able to understand and follow classroom discussions even if she/he never uses print notation.

How do you explain staff music notation to someone who is blind, especially to someone who uses the radically different braille music notation system? Braille books using well-designed tactile graphics can often provide the “a picture is worth a thousand words” effect that helps people who cannot see understand concepts that may not be well explained with words. As the name suggests, tactile graphics are raised images like diagrams, graphs, charts, and maps that you can touch to access the information contained in them.

There are three tactile graphics books in the NLS music collection that explain staff notation effectively:

  • Manual of the Staff Notation of Music by Edwin Gardiner (BRM17759)
  • Print Music Symbols in Tactile Graphics by Lois Krantz (BRM32355)
  • The AB Guide to Music Theory: Part 1 and 2: Diagrams by Eric Taylor (BRM35551 and BRM35553).

Manual of the Staff Notation of Music has raised line graphics that show the main musical symbols used in staff notation. In addition, Gardiner includes very short excerpts of an organ piece, a song with piano accompaniment, and the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony to illustrate how different parts are put together to form vocal or instrumental scores.  The readers will get a good sense of the construction of staff notation even if they are unable to decipher the notes and symbols by touch.

Print Music Symbols in Tactile Graphics uses raised lines to illustrate basic musical notational concepts such as the five lines and four spaces of the staff and how the clef signs, key signatures and notes with different rhythmic values are arranged on the staff. Featuring 40 musical symbols, this book is suitable as an introduction to staff notation for beginning level students.

The AB Guide to Music Theory Part 1 and 2 are multi-volume books published by the Royal National Institute of Blind People in England. The tactile graphics and braille in this book were produced on Minolta heat-sensitive paper (to learn more about this process, see below*) which feels very different than the traditional tactile graphics found in braille books such as Krantz’s. Taylor includes a wide range of musical symbols from the ornaments commonly used in 17th and 18th century western music to the symbols used by the composers of the Second Viennese School such as Schoenberg.  One thing that American teachers need to be aware of when using this book is that the note values are given in the British terms. For example, a quarter note is called a crotchet, an eighth note a quaver, a sixteenth note a semiquaver, etc. The NLS Music Section has inserted a guide for our patrons in the beginning of the book to help you learn the American equivalents of the British names. This book is an excellent reference for blind teachers who work with sighted students of varying levels.

We hope you enjoy these beautiful books. We would like to request that patrons return these books promptly after use since the music section currently does not have the means to reproduce tactile graphics books onsite.

* Here is how this fascinating process works. The graphics are drawn or copied in black ink onto the heat sensitive paper (also called microcapsule or swell paper). The paper is then pushed through a device that evenly distributes heat over the paper. The black lines absorb more heat than the light background, causing them to pop up to form tactile images. These images are precise and include great detail compared to raised line graphics.


Comments (10)

  1. Further to the recent post about tactile staff notation, may I deal first with one matter of terminology and another of accuracy.

    Perhaps “the visually impaired” could have been better phrased, we are people who happen to be visually impaired.

    Secondly, RNIB’s name was stated incorrectly. For many years it was known as given, however, for a number of years it has been known by its current name: Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

    Another reason for visually impaired people to have an understanding of staff notation is to enable communication with sighted musicians. We can’t expect stave notation users to know the conventions of braille music without having learned them.

    In case of interest, the Eric Taylor book: First Steps in Music Theory has been produced by RNIB as this represents a more up-to-date book than those by Eric Taylor already named. This title has diagrams also and covers ABRSM Grades 1-5.

    Yours sincerely,

    Roger Firman.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have rephrased the term and updated the full name of RNIB. We are glad that NLS Music Notes is engaging readers in England.

  2. 01 December 2017

    What a wonderful resource available at the U. S. Library of Congress. I thank both Ms.Donna Koh and Mr.Roger Firman for their respective additions, both of which are greatly appreciated. As a musician and a lawyer, I am particularly pleased to have had this introduction to three resources that are currently available for people who happen to be visually impaired.

    I am most interested in learning how one would go about connecting people who happens to be visually impaired with music professors and teachers who possess the skills necessary to teach students in the application of these techniques.

    Warren E. Brown, Esq.
    Washington, D. C.

    • Dear Mr. Brown
      Thank you for your comments and question. I will email you privately with some suggestions on how to find music teachers who are trained to teach students with visual impairment.

  3. Hi

    I have a blind student who will be taking my online jazz theory class this semester at a university in the UK. I think the Print Music Symbols in Tactile Graphics by Lois Krantz book would be a great addition to her current setup (Sibelius), and allow her to fully visualise Western notation alongside developing aural/theoretical abilities – it’s a requirement to learn Western staff notation so at the moment Braille notation is not on the cards.

    Do you know anywhere where it’s available to buy in the UK or EU? (or even the US) – have not managed to find anything online.

    • Thank you for reaching out. We will answer by email. In the meantime you might find some helpful information on the NLS website on General Resources on Disabilities; the braille literacy section includes information about braille music resources. Thank you again!

  4. I noticed that you had responded to James in regards to a book I have been searching to find. I am hopeful you will know where I may locate the book. It is: “Print Music Symbols in Tactile Graphics” by Lois Krantz.

    • Thank you for reading NLS Music Notes. Since my response includes a link to a commercial website, I will send you a separate email with more information about the book.

  5. Hello, I would like to purchase a copy of this book as well. Could you send me a link?

    • Print Music Symbols in Tactile Graphics by Lois Krantz was published by the National Braille Association (NBA). Unfortunately, this book is out of print and NBA has no plans to republish it in the future. However, if you are an NLS patron, you can borrow this book from the NLS Music Section.
      If you are interested, The AB Guide to Music Theory by Eric Taylor mentioned in this post is still available from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

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