The following is a guest post by Braille Music Librarian Timothy Jones.
When Louis Braille invented the braille music code, he probably did not expect his system to be a worldwide development that would forever change the course for the education of the blind community. He started life as most of us did; born with perfect sight and a bright future ahead. His father was a cobbler, and young Louis enjoyed pretending to help his father fix shoes.
One day while alone in his father’s workshop, Louis was playing with an awl when the tool slipped out of his hand and shot a direct hit into his eye. The accident resulted in immediate blindness in that eye, and the infection soon spread to his other eye.
Fortunately, there was a school for the blind in his home country in Paris. While there, Louis and some other students came up with a clever way of communicating to each other without the need for lights or speech when they were supposed to be asleep. They took a system of raised dots that was used by the army in the trenches to avoid being seen by the enemy camp. Louis and his friends used a device we now refer to as the slate and stylus to write these messages by punching the dots into the paper from the backside. This sneaky activity inspired Louis to enhance the code for his music students so they could learn music in a similar way to the sighted world.
Today, the braille music system has undergone multiple revisions, but the one thing that has never changed since its development nearly 200 years ago is the formation of notes. Learning to read these can seem a bit daunting to the student, as there are twenty-eight different note signs to memorize. However, mastering these is not as difficult as it may seem.
As with most braille codes outside of computer braille, a typical braille cell has six dots. The eighth notes only utilize the upper part of the cell; meaning the top and middle dots (dots 1, 2, 4 and 5.) If one already knows how to read basic literary English braille, learning the eighth note scale is quite easy. The trick to remember is that the first note C in the scale is one letter behind the English alphabet. In other words, a braille music eighth note C looks the same as a D in literary braille. From here, the scale simply follows the alphabet one letter behind literary braille. The only exceptions to this rule are the last two notes of the scale; A and B. These resemble the same dot formations as the literary I and J. Another way to remember the starting note is to refer to Solfege. The first scale step in solfege is Do, which starts with D.
Now that we have learned how to read the eighth note scale, we have officially learned seven braille music signs. This means we have twenty-one notes left to learn; quarter note, half note and whole note. Or do we? Actually, learning these remaining note symbols is a downhill climb by remembering a simple fact. We have already discussed how the eighth note is formed using exclusively the upper part of the cell, but we still have two unused dots. These dots are used to form the remaining notes similar to adding stems to notes on a print staff. To turn a quarter note into an eighth note, add dot 6. To make an eighth note a half note, add dot 3. To make an eighth note a whole note add both dots 3 and 6. One way to remember this is to use the popular song “Dem Bones” as a guide. The lyrics are as follows:
“The quarter note always has a dot 6.
The half note always has a dot 3.
But the whole note has dots 3-6.
And that’s how you tell them apart.
If we put this song into practice we can form all twenty-eight notes of the scale in music braille with ease. However, how does the blind musician know where these notes should be played? That’s where octave signs come in. Before discussing the dot formations for the octave signs, we must first cover an important concept that distinguishes braille music from print. In print music, notes are positioned in different locations on a staff, but the braille music system is based on the layout of the full-size piano (88 keys). An acoustic piano has a total of seven octaves plus three additional chromatic (half step) keys on the left end. The first octave begins on the lowest C and continues through the B above. Octave 2 starts on the C above C-1 and continues to the next B. Notice a pattern? The third octave begins with what theorists term as tenor C. Middle C opens the fourth octave, and so on. The seventh octave does not include the highest C note on the piano or any notes that may be above that on special instruments.
All of the octave signs are formed using the right column of dots in the braille cell. The first octave sign is dot 4. The second is dots 4-5. The third is dots 4-5-6. The fourth is dot 5. The fifth is dots 4-6, the sixth is dots 5-6, and the seventh is simply dot 6. Notes higher than seventh octave B are indicated by doubling the seventh octave sign. Likewise, any notes below the lowest C on the piano are shown by doubling the first octave sign.
Octave signs must always appear before the first note of a piece, and when beginning a new line of braille music. Therefore, a simple rhyme can help the braille musician remember. “Every time you drop a line, you always add an octave sign.”
Octave signs must also appear based on where the music goes. For example, a piece that has consecutive notes, or those that follow the scale, showing octave locations is unnecessary. The same is true for notes a third apart. If the notes form an interval of a fourth or fifth, they only need an octave sign indication if the octave changes in the gap. Consider the song “Down in the Valley” for instance in the key of C. The first note in this case is a G in the third octave. The next note is middle C. If the fourth octave sign did not precede that C, the reader would assume that the note is third octave C, and thus go down. Where this gets tricky is if we were to consider the same example in another key like F or G. Since the octaves change on C regardless of key signature. In other words, if “Down in the Valley” were in F, we would not have to show an octave sign before the second note since both middle C and the F above are in octave four.
If the interval is a skip of a sixth or more, an octave sign must appear between the two notes; even if the interval remains within the same octave. Three good examples for this rule would be “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” “There’s a Place for Us,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Now that you know how to read octave signs and braille music notes, you are on your way to reading most simple pieces in piano method books. In a future lesson, we will learn how to read time and key signatures, and accidentals (notes that don’t belong in a particular key).
For more in depth studies on reading braille music, please enjoy these resources from the NLS Collection that relate to this post. You can access many of our materials any time using Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access. To borrow music-related talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please contact the Music Section
Krolick, Bettye. How to Read Braille Music. (BRM29811)
Taesch, Richard and McCann, William. Who’s Afraid of Braille Music. (BRM32949)
Taesch, Richard. Introduction to Music for the Blind Student Part I, Course and Workbook (BRM34079)
Braille Music Course Materials from Hadley
These four courses developed by the Hadley Institute are intended for adults who wish to learn braille music for themselves, to support braille music learners, and possibly pursue further training in teaching braille music or transcribing print music into braille. The courses are available in downloadable braille in BRF or in large print (LPM) in PDF from links below. The braille and audio course materials are also available to download from the Music Collection on BARD in BRM or DBM.
Braille Music Reading: Keyboard Music (BRM37003)
Volume 1: Course textbook
Volume 2: Course textbook
Volume 3: Keyboard Music–A Discussion for Braille Music Readers
Volume 4: Answer key for exercises
Braille Music Basics (LPM00900)
Braille Music Basics
Braille Music Reading (LPM00901)
Braille Music Reading
Braille Music Reading: Keyboard Music (LPM00902)
Braille Music Reading: Keyboard Music
Braille Music Reading: Vocal Music (LPM00903)
Braille Music Reading: Vocal Music
Braille Music Reading (DBM04340)
Braille Music Reading: Audio Tracks for Exercises