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Braille Music Basics – How Music is Laid Out

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In our last article, we learned how to form the notes of the scale in braille music and the seven octave signs, but where does the musician go from here? How does the braille music reader determine which hand plays the notes on the piano? In print music, notes are placed in different clefs on a staff. In braille, however, the music notes are arranged in one of several formats. The most common braille music formats in use today are bar-over-bar, line-by-line, and paragraph. The format used is largely determined upon the instrument, the complexity of the piece, and in some cases, the transcriber’s preference.

For piano and organ scores, the bar-over-bar format is the most popular as it allows the braille music reader to physically “see” the parts aligned up. In this format, there are lines of music, which should be played together. These lines form what is termed a parallel. For piano music, there are two lines in the parallel, which correspond to the right hand and left hand. In organ music, an additional pedal line is added to the parallel. In this arrangement, the lines are always grouped from top to bottom as right hand, left hand, and pedal (if applicable). A parallel should never be interrupted by a page break, parenthetical statement, or anything else. This is so because it would make it difficult for the reader to determine how the music fits together otherwise.

To ensure ease of reading a parallel, designated hand signs are provided at the start of each new music line. Each of these takes up two braille cells. The right hand sign is formed by dots 4-6 followed by dots 3-4-5. The left hand sign is similar; dots 4-5-6 followed by 3-4-5. The organ pedal sign is dots 4-5 followed by 3-4-5.

Typically, a parallel always starts in cell three if counting from left to right. The margin is considered cell one. Just as there are spaces between words in literary braille, there are spaces between groups of music to form measures. When the music moves to a new line, a measure number will be shown at the margin on the right hand line of the parallel.

Sometimes, there are situations where all the notes in a parallel line cannot fit on a single line in braille. When this happens, the music is interrupted in a logical place via a dot 5. This is known as the music hyphen, and functions in a similar way to that of the hyphen in literary braille when there is not enough space for a word. When a word is broken by a hyphen, it is done between syllables. Similarly, a measure should be broken midway if possible. To show that the next line is a continuation of the right hand, we add dot six from the margin of the page to the point where the right hand sign will line up with the one on the previous line.

What do all these signs have in common? Answer: they all have the same suffix of dots 3-4-5. Most of the time, an octave sign will immediately follow these signs and the music will be displayed. However, unlike the rule for octave signs, which states that nothing can come between an octave sign and a note, anything pertaining to the music can follow the hand sign. Some examples include but are not limited to dynamics, tempo markings, phrase indications etc.

In addition to hand signs, some scores also have fingering indications. Unlike hand signs, the fingering signs are the same regardless of what parallel they are placed in. A good rule of thumb (no pun intended), is to remember that piano fingerings are arranged in the same pattern as the seven octave signs. The only differences are that they are on the left side of the cell as opposed to octave marks, and there are only five of these since the human hand only has five fingers. Thus, the fingering signs are as follows

  • Finger 1, dot 1.
  • Finger 2: dots 1-2.
  • Finger 3: dots 1-2-3.
  • Finger 4, dot 2.
  • Finger 5: dots 1-3.

It is important to remember that the braille music reader will not be able to sight read in the same fashion as the print musician due to having to take the music in by feel rather than by sight. Reading a single line of music, such as the right-hand part, can be accomplished by reading with one hand and playing the part with the other. However, assembling the parts together requires total memorization. Though this does slow the process down a bit for learning a piece of music in braille, the reward is that the braille music reader has his/her repertoire memorized long before sighted peers.

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. See section 5, page 29, for material related to this post. (BRM29811)

Rozen, Ruth. Braille music reading: keyboard music [music(braille)] / Prepared by the Staff and Faculty of the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired.  A continuation to the course “Braille Music Reading” (BRM37002), this course enables students to read keyboard music in braille. For those who play piano or another keyboard instrument, reading braille keyboard music will expand their musical experiences. The ability to read braille music allows players to study and practice independently. The course provides abundant exercises excerpted and trancribed from print piano and organ music, which allow students to practice their skills. Answer key for exercises is in volume 4. A print companion edition of the course book and music is available for sighted teachers and assistants (LPM00902). Volume 3 includes a supplementary discussion for readers of braille keyboard music by Karen Gearreald, designed for current encouragement and future reference. (BRM37003)

Taesch, Richard. Introduction to Music for the Blind Student Part I, Course and Workbook. This course is not necessarily intended as a self-guided study of braille music reading basics. It can, however, be adapted to situations where a teacher may not be available. The gradual presentation of music rudiments has been prepared as the groundwork for braille music notation itself. (BRM34079)

Taesch, Richard McCann, William. Who’s Afraid of Braille Music (page 17). (BRM32949)

Comments (2)

  1. A very interesting article. I am an organist and had to learn other music presentations including the so-called paragraph style, and bar-by-bar formats. There are challenges reading contracted Braille in other languages. After I studied German, I got a pamphlet to learn German contracted Braille. I don’t know French or French contracted Braille. On rare occasions I encounter the so-called substitution method were notes of equal value are written as quarter, eight, 16th, and 32nd note signs. Different note values represent octave marks. This deprecated method is common in keyboard music where there are groups of sixteenth notes. If only we had modern complete editions of the organ works of Bach, and other Baroque composers.

    • Dear Dan: Thank you for your comment. That is a major accomplishment to learn to read braille in German. We are excited to let you know that NLS offers the latest Bärenreiter Urtext edition of Bach’s complete organ works in bar-over-bar format. The transcriptions of the eleven print volumes are available to registered patrons on BARD, or can be mailed upon request. The call number for the first volume is BRM36795.

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