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19th-Century Tactile Music Notation in Spain

In my previous post, we learned about systems of tactile music notation used in the United States in the 19th century before Louis Braille’s music code became the most widely adopted system. This week, we will again learn from the research of Esther Burgos Bordonau, professor at Complutense University of Madrid, who has studied tactile music notation codes developed in the US and Spain (2010).

According to Bordonau’s research, two systems of tactile music notation were prevalent in Spain prior to the widespread adoption of braille in the 20th century. Both systems were developed in the mid-19th century by educators at Spain’s most prominent schools for the blind at the time: Gabriel Abreu Castaño, a blind music teacher at the National School for the Deaf and Blind in Madrid; and Pedro Llorens y Llatchós, a sighted teacher at the Municipal School of Music for the Blind in Barcelona.

The Abreu code was expressly dedicated to music notation, rather than literary text. Abreu was familiar with Louis Braille’s music notation, the first description of which had been published in 1829. Like braille, Abreu’s system used raised dots, but unlike braille, the dots were arranged in two columns of four dots each, making an eight-dot cell, compared to the six-dot braille cell. The upper four dots represented a note’s pitch, while the lower four represented its duration. The advantage of a larger cell was that each musical symbol could be represented in a single cell, rather than having to use a combination of two or three cells for one symbol. Abreu published a description of his code in 1856, and it was well-received and popular locally among music students who were blind in Madrid. Although the Abreu code became known throughout Spain, it ultimately did not have the international impact that braille had. However, the code was used at the School for Deaf and Blind in Madrid for about 100 years, up until the mid-20th century.

The tactile code that Pedro Llorens y Llatchós developed in Barcelona had both literary and musical components. While the literary component was basically an embossed modified Latin alphabet, the musical component was an embossed notation consisting of various combinations of horizontal, vertical, and oblique lines as well as dots. Llorens introduced his system in 1855 and circulated it among various organizations for evaluation, including the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (IRJA), where the late Louis Braille had been both a student and teacher. The Llorens system was used at the School of Music for the Blind in Barcelona through the end of the 19th century, and the school officially adopted braille code in 1918. Despite its use locally, thanks in part to Llorens’ long tenure at the school, his system failed to gain a wider following, mainly because it placed too much value on readability by sighted people, thereby compromising readability by its intended audience. As Bordonau explains, “Later critics argued that his system was not a good method for the blind as it was repeatedly shown that blind individuals perceive a raised dot better than a continuous line (always inside the margin of the fingertip). For this reason, Llorens’ system and other similar ones, were soon abandoned (as also happened with the American embossed letter codes).”

I’d like to add a personal note to end this week’s post. After five years of working in the NLS Music Section, I recently began a new position here at NLS. I now work as a cataloger, ensuring that BARD and the online Voyager catalog have helpful descriptions of each resource we offer to our patrons. I began cataloging for the Music Section and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I decided I wanted to pursue more cataloging work. This is one of life’s lessons: try something new because you just might like it! I’m happy to continue working in a new role here at NLS and to continue collaborating with my wonderful colleagues in the Music Section. The NLS Music Section is a national treasure and truly one of the most unique music libraries in the world, offering a wide variety of braille music, large-print music, and audio music instruction. If you know anyone who would enjoy and benefit from the NLS Music Section, please have them e-mail [email protected] or call 800-424-8567, extension 2.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy a series I previously published about Joaquín Rodrigo, the blind Spanish composer who gained international renown in the second half of the 20th century:

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.

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:

3 Comments

  1. Esther Burgos-Bordonau
    September 23, 2022 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for this post. Very grateful to check that my work is useful. Regards

  2. Esther Burgos Bordonau
    September 23, 2022 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks for this post. A great surprise to find out that my work is being recongnized and it’s still useful. Thanks indeed.

    • Lindsay Conway
      September 28, 2022 at 12:55 pm

      Thank you so much for your message, Dr. Burgos-Bordonau! We are so glad that you enjoyed reading this post featuring your research. Thank you so much for your work–it is immensely helpful to people who wish to learn about the history of tactile music notation as well as music education for people who are blind or partially sighted. Both librarians and patrons of the National Library Service here in the US have benefited from your work. Thank you!

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