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Early Braille Music Codes

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On today’s blog, we will be featuring another Musical Mainstream reprint by Bettye Krolick. This article goes into detail about how Louis Braille developed the braille music code, and other music systems that were being developed at the same time.

Additionally, Mrs. Krolick discusses attempts to standardize music in France, Germany, and England at Cologne in 1888, which resulted in the accepted notion that paragraphs should be the main style in which the braille music code should be written. Today, however, bar over bar (lines in parallels) is the most accepted style for much braille music, and paragraph format is rarely seen in new transcriptions in the United States. You can read more about the different braille music formats in February’s blog.

Braille Music Reading Questions: Early Music Codes
Musical Mainstream, November-December 1978
By Bettye Krolick

An Arizona reader asks, “How many methods are there for writing braille music, and who invented this code?”

In the collection of braille music at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Washington, D.C., I have found music written in twenty different methods or formats. Let me quickly add that some of these formats differ in name only, several are very closely related, and all emanate from one code invented by none other than Louis Braille.

Music was so important to the lives of the young people at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris where Louis Braille was student and then a teacher, that he worked on a system for music at the same time he was developing one for the alphabet. Braille became an accomplished organist and pianist and, in addition to academic classes, he taught music at this school.

In 1829, during the first year he was an apprentice teacher, Louis Braille published his system for writing words and music with dots. In this publication the system for music was quite different from what we now know; it included some dashes mixed in with the dots. The idea of dots and dashes had originated with Charles Barbier, an artillery captain, who used it for writing during night maneuvers with the army. Braille refined Barbier’s idea into a standard-sized cell that was composed of six dots, and he gradually eliminated the dashes as he perfected the system. By 1835 the music code had been revamped and was remarkably similar to modern braille notation.

Key and time signatures, octave signs, notes, rhythmic values, rests, accidentals, and bar lines were exactly the same then as they are now. It was Louis Braille who decided that octave signs are necessary for a skip of a sixth or larger, that they are not necessary for a skip of a third or less, and that fourths and fifths should be marked only when a note moves into a new octave. He also decided on the interval signs, the full-measure in-accord, repeats of various kinds, and a truly amazing percentage of the other signs that make up our modern music code.

Other music systems were being proposed in the first half of the nineteenth century. The earliest idea was to emboss a raised staff with the print symbols. When it became apparent that raised lines for staff stem, slur, etc., were indistinguishable, experiments centered on systems using raised letters because books for the blind were being embossed in raised letters at that time.

A system proposed by Rousseau (no first name given) was limited to less than thirty notes. The first seven letters of the alphabet represented the first octave of the C scale, h through n represented the next octave, o through u was the third octave, and v started the fourth. Rhythmic values were approximated by the spacing of letters, numbers were used to indicate rests, and an apostrophe following a letter indicated a chord rather than a single note.

In a system devised by Johann Guadet the raised letters a, e, i, o, u, v, and x, represented the seven note names, and these were combined with the numbers one through seven to indicate the octaves. Diacritical marks were placed over each letter to indicate rhythmic value, the print characters for sharp and flat indicated these signs, and parentheses surrounded chord notes. Another system used a raised one-line staff and raised letters with print stems and flags attached. Still another had distinctive shapes along with the raised letters. The shapes (which are similar to Moon type) indicated the rhythmic value.

Blind people found raised dots easier to recognize than raised letters, but the major advantage was that dots could be easily and accurately written by blind people themselves. This same reason caused Louis Braille to eliminate the dashes from his first system for music. For his system, Barbier had developed a sliding rule that moved between two guiding boards. The rule was equipped with windows through which a person with a stylus could press dots into heavy paper below. This sliding rule was easily converted to a slate with six­dot cells.

Accounts of the official acceptance of Braille’s system in France do not agree. Apparently the music code was not published in its final form during his lifetime and its acceptance was a gradual process. I have found no substantiation for any official acceptance date, although individual authors give 1844, 1847, 1850, and 1852.

The music code of braille notation was introduced into England in 1871 and Germany in 1879. Minor discrepancies appeared among the French, English, and German versions, so a commission of representatives from France, England, Denmark, and Germany was established to reach an agreement on all details. The report of this commission was accepted by the four countries at a meeting in Cologne in 1888; thus we had the “Cologne key” and a precedent for future international cooperation.

Getting back to the number of formats mentioned at the beginning of this column, the agreement reached in Cologne specified that music should be written only in paragraphs. The paragraphs should be as short as possible and should be numbered consecutively. In music for keyboard, a paragraph for the right hand is followed by a paragraph for the left hand part of the same passage, and only the right hand paragraphs are numbered. Chords and intervals for the right hand read down; for the left hand they read up. Vocal music starts with the entire voice part; this section is followed by all of the words. The accompaniment is last, and may be divided into paragraphs.


Braille, Louis. Procédé pour Écrire les Paroles, la Musique et le Plain-chant au Moyen de Points. Paris: Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles, 1829.

Guadet, J. Les Aveugles Musiciens. Paris: lmprimerie de Fain et Thunot, 1846.

Musical Notation for the Blind, Braille System. London: British and Foreign Blind Assoc., 1889. (BRM30247)

Musical Notation for the Blind, Braille System. Rev. Ed. London: British and Foreign Blind Assoc., 1900.

Reidinger. “Notenschrift fur Blinde,” Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. No. 57, Oct. 1810.

Roblin, Jean. The Reading Fingers. New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1955. (BR 14555)

Robyn, Henry. Thorough Description of the Braille System. St. Louis: August Wiebusch & Song, 1867.



Comments (5)

  1. Do you have material that I can teach myself how to teach a blind child? I began teaching him but then stopped when he became ill. His family would be delighted for him to begin again now that schools are closed and he is not getting much, if any education. I am a Master’s degreed teacher in the Suzuki Method, the reason I was excited to start him. I am used to teaching by ear first, then note reading second. If you could assist me in any way, I would be most appreciative!


    Jocelyn D. Basse
    MME, MA Ed.

    • Yes, you may be interested in perusing our website as there are many free resources available for teachers and parents. In particular, there is a free PDF called “Who’s Afraid of Braille Music” under the “Publications on Reading Braille Music” heading that may be particularly of interest. If you would like to email us at [email protected], we will be able to further assist you by getting materials for you and the student.

  2. Hello,

    With reference to the introduction of this blog posting, it would have been worth pointing out that music in paragraphs tends not to be produced in English-speaking countries, however it is the preferred format in many other countries.

    Yours sincerely,

    Roger Firman.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, the reference regarding paragraph versus parallel styles is centered on what is produced in the United States, and I have amended that so it is clearer. That being said, some of our patrons in the US prefer paragraph style over parallel, because of learning it that way or just preference (and we have many French, Italian, and even older American scores that suit their needs!).

  3. Being a blind ethnomusicologist myself, I find this fascinating! I was taught by an old man, who, thus, taught me by the old standards from 1929., and not by those that came in 1964. Thus, that is the style with which I am most familiar… Just recently, I enrolled in a facebook group for Braille music transcribes, and inquired about the usage of the segno sign (dots 3, 4, 6, followed by the letters of the alphabet, and dots 1 6 to point where the section, which has to be repeated, ends. I was told that it has fallen entirely out of fashion, and that we have switched to numbers instead. Anyway, it would be lovely to discuss about this with more people. I send you warmest regards from Montenegro, Balkan peninsula.

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