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Alternatives to Braille: 19th-Century Experiments in Tactile Music Notation in the United States

Greetings, music lovers! This week in the NLS Music Section, we’re continuing to learn about the history of braille music and of tactile music notation more generally. We know that Louis Braille published his system of raised-point writing for words and music in 1829. But did you know that other systems of tactile music notation were created in the United States in the 19th century, long before braille music became the standard? Today, we will learn about two of these systems, both of which were developed at the New York Institute for the Blind.

The first schools for people who were blind or partially sighted in the United States opened in 1832, and music was part of their curriculum. But at that point, Louis Braille had only just published the first description of this system of tactile writing a few years earlier, and his code was not widely accepted in his own country of France until around the time of his death in 1852. So then, how did blind students in the US learn music before braille music was available to them? We can gain many insights from the research of Phillip Hash, professor of music education at Illinois State University, who has researched music education at the New York Institute for the Blind (2015), and Esther Burgos Bordonau, professor at Complutense University of Madrid, who has studied tactile music notation codes developed in the US and Spain (2010).

The New York Institute for the Blind (NYIB) began operating in 1832, and music was part of its curriculum from the outset. Music was both recreation and vocational training, and regular performances by the school’s band and choir helped publicize the school and generated revenue for it. About half of the students studied instrumental music during the school’s first decades.

As a student at NYIB from 1842-48, Cornelius Mahoney (1818-1885) not only became a violinist and teacher, but he also developed the first tactile music notation to be used to any notable extent in the US. NYIB published his book “A New System of Musical Notation: For the Use of the Blind” in 1853. At first glance, those familiar with print music will find Mahoney’s system has recognizable similarities to staff notation, and this is likely due to the fact that Mahoney was exposed to print music notation before becoming blind as an adult. His raised notation resembles a grand staff, with an upper horizontal line labeled “TC” for treble clef and a lower line labeled “BC” for bass clef. As Burgos Bordonau describes: “He used the letters of the alphabet to name notes or sounds, and to express their durations different flags were added to the eighth notes. Other lines and dots, vertical and horizontal, were also used to express musical symbols. Keys were also designated with letters; ‘T’ for Treble and ‘B’ for Bass. Other indications such as measures, slurs, dynamics, accidentals, etc, all used the same characters as in ink-printed sheet music. Visually, the music appeared much more compressed, than any other system, on the page which the author appreciated, believing it saved space.”

Superintendent Samuel Gridley Howe at the Perkins Institution responded enthusiastically to Mahoney’s notation and recommended that it be used at schools for the blind in the US. The American Educators of the Blind endorsed Mahoney’s system at their first meeting in 1853. For his work, Mahoney received commendations from the American Institute of the City of New York, the French Academy, and Queen Victoria. However, as Hash points out, staff at NYIB (including the first director of instrumental music, Anthony Reiff) voiced serious reservations about Mahoney’s notation and indicated that they didn’t believe it was a helpful method for either students or teachers in learning new music. Mahoney’s notation fell out of favor because it ultimately proved too slow and tedious to read, and because it was difficult to have much repertoire transcribed due to lack of funding.

William Bell Wait, who served as superintendent of NYIB from 1863-1905, created a raised-point writing system called New York Point in about 1867. He expanded his system to music notation and in 1873 published “The New York System of Tangible Musical Notation and Point Writing and Printing for the Use of the Blind.” According to Burgos Bordonau’s research: “Wait believed that Braille’s code wasted too much space between dots. He decided to organize his system differently. Wait’s code used a horizontally oriented dot system with a variable base that was more compact than Braille, with the dots in Wait’s system being considerably closer to one another. The dot structure consisted of two points vertically and one, two, three or four points horizontally. He avoided some punctuation signs and took time to develop all capitals letters (26), all small letters (26), numbers, punctuation marks, and short forms for diphthongs, triphthongs, contractions and other symbols commonly used.”

Crucially, in 1879, Wait succeeded in securing an annual appropriation from the US Congress for the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) to produce embossed books. Wait’s New York Point music notation gained wider adoption thanks to this federal funding for book production. Indeed, in the 1870s and 1880s, APH produced instruction books for piano, repertoire for piano, and music theory books that employed New York Point.

Despite the creation of these tactile music notation codes at NYIB, these systems were not heavily used by students during the school’s first decades. Hash provided the following explanation based on his research: “The absence of a standard tactile system of notation was probably due to (a) the lack of a method more efficient than rote teaching; (b) the technology, time, and expense required to transcribe a large repertoire of music; and (c) teachers’ reluctance to learn and accept new experimental systems.” Students at NYIB learned much of their music by ear, but they were also well-educated in music theory. NYIB music directors appear to have strongly believed in ensuring that students understood the foundational principles of Western music theory, and they provided instruction so that students did not merely learn by rote, but instead understood the concepts of rhythm, tonality, and harmonic structure that underpinned their repertoire.

For all the ingenuity of New York Point and Mahoney’s system, these notations did not succeed in gaining the global adoption that braille music eventually did. Students at NYIB likely used these systems for some of their music education, but many ultimately seem to have relied on aural and experiential instruction. It would take a few more decades for the braille music code to become standardized, more widely available, and firmly established as the official tactile music notation in the US as well as many other countries around the world.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of braille music or music education for people who are blind or partially sighted, check out the resources listed below. Please note that all library materials listed below are available to borrow by mail, and some are also available for instant download on BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille music and large-print music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

Audio

Journey through Braille Music (DBM04274). Produced by the United Kingdom Association for Accessible Formats. Podcast series. Episode 1: History and background of braille music — Episode 2: Music for single line instruments — Episode 3: Vocal music — Episode 4: Keyboard music — Episode 5: Advanced topics — Episode 6: Series summary and available resources.

Braille

Braille Authority of North America. Braille Music Code, 2015 (BRM38364)

De Garmo, Mary. Introduction to Braille Music Transcription. 2nd edition, 2005 (BRM34958)

Dykema, Dorothy. They Shall Have Music: A Manual for the Instruction of Visually Handicapped Students in the Playing of Keyboard Instruments (BRM29278)

Krolick, Bettye. Dictionary of Braille Music Signs, Revised Edition, 2006 (BRM36087)

Krolick, Bettye. New International Manual of Braille Music Notation, 1996 (BRM29674)

Miller, Harvey Horatio. Music Braille (BRM35795). Excerpted from Braille into the Next Millennium (BR 13188)

Rodenberg, Lewis W. Embossed Music: Its History, Present Status, and Future (BRM30323). Mostly consists of a speech presented at the convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind at Janesville, Wisconsin in 1923. Includes appendix of agencies and persons active in braille music at the time.

Large Print

De Garmo, Mary. Introduction to Braille Music Transcription. 2nd edition, 2005 (LPM00719)

Krolick, Bettye. Dictionary of Braille Music Signs, 1979 (LPM00428)

Blog Posts

Many of our past blog posts elucidate the history of braille music as well as music education for people who are blind or partially sighted:

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