Braille Music Basics: Intervals
This post is a continuation of the series Braille Music Basics. We recommend reviewing the post on reading notes in braille music.
While the signs for notes and rests themselves are crucial to know, this is only the starting point for mastering the braille music code. One major difference between braille music and print music notation is how chords are written. Though many different instruments can play more than one note at a time, the most common scores to possess chords are those written for keyboard instruments like the piano, harpsichord, pianoforte and organ. It is important to know that braille music identifies a chord as having two or more notes played simultaneously, whereas a chord in print music is considered to have three notes played together. Hence, we get the term triad.
In print music, all the notes of a chord are written out on the staff. In braille, however, only one note of the chord is indicated, and the rest are shown by special signs that follow the written note. To better understand this concept, we must define an interval. Simply stated, an interval is the distance between two notes that are played together in sequence. There are seven interval signs in braille music, which are as follows:
- Interval of a second: dots 3-4.
- Interval of a third: dots 3-4-6.
- Interval of a fourth: dots 3-4-5-6.
- Interval of a fifth: dots 3-5.
- Interval of a sixth: dots 3-5-6.
- Interval of a seventh: dots 2-5.
- Interval of an eighth (or an octave): dots 3-6.
According to a treatise by Harvey Horatio Miller on The Braille Music Code, intervals originally read upward for all scores, but this rule was changed in the 1960s to have those played by soprano instruments and the right-hand part of keyboard music to read down. One way to think of this is to consider a choral piece in four-part harmony or SATB (soprano alto tenor bass) format. The outer voices are the bass and soprano, while the inner parts are composed of the alto and tenor lines. If we were looking at this arrangement in braille music, the soprano notes, or those played by the right-hand in keyboard scores would be written out followed by the interval signs to indicate the lower notes that are to be played together with the ones shown. The left hand uses the opposite arrangement; meaning the bass pitches are spelled out, while the remaining pitches of the chord are indicated by the appropriate interval signs following the bass pitches. In other words, left-hand intervals read up, while right-hand intervals read down.
To ensure interval direction is interpreted correctly, the reader should check if the score contains a Transcriber’s Notes section, as these will often explain the interval directions in the piece. Some scores also indicate interval direction within the actual music when the first chord is depicted. If the score is older, it may not contain a Transcriber’s Notes section. In these circumstances, the reader may have to use some logic and context clues in the music to determine interval directions. If in doubt, there is nothing wrong with asking a fellow musician to verify with the equivalent print score. The good news is that any score produced today will follow the standard conventions above unless the Transcriber’s Notes indicate something different.
Let us now consider a simple example of a three-note chord in braille music. In the key of C, a C chord in root position is made up of the pitches C, E and G. To write this in braille music for the right-hand to play on the piano, we first indicate the note value of the top note. For simplicity, we will use eighth notes for this example. So, we will write an eighth note G in the fourth octave [G above middle C (which is dot 5 followed by dots 1-2-5)], then an interval of a third (dots 3-4-6 to get to note E), and an interval of a fifth (dots 3-5 to get to note C). To write this same chord for the left hand, we would first indicate the appropriate octave sign. We will use the third octave for this example, which is dots 4-5-6. We would then write an eighth note C (dots 1-4-5), followed by an interval of a third, and an interval of a fifth. In braille music, all the notes that make up a chord must have the same rhythmic value. In other words, the eighth notes used in the example above tell the reader that every note of the chord, including those shown by interval signs are eighth notes. It is worth noting (no pun intended) that in music the first note of a chord is considered the starting pitch for counting intervals. This concept is true of music in general: not just braille.
What if the chord is C-minor? In this case, the notes to be played could be interpreted one of two ways. Either the notes/intervals have appropriate accidentals preceding them, or the chord is identified by the key signature. In a past blog, we discussed how key signatures tell us what notes are automatically sharp or flat. In the key of C-minor, for example, there are three flats: B-flat, E-flat and A-flat. If writing a C-minor chord in root position with this key signature in place, we would not have to write a flat sign before that interval of a third sign since the key signature already tells us that all Es are flat unless otherwise stated by an accidental. However, if a D-major chord is shown while this same key signature is in place, the interval of a third (F-sharp) must be preceded by a sharp sign because there are no sharps in C-minor.
For more in-depth studies on reading braille music, please enjoy these resources from the NLS Collection. 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 at 800-424-8567 Extension 2, or by sending us an email.
Dictionary of Braille Music Signs (BRM26334)
This dictionary is a braille music reader’s one-stop quick-reference manual for looking up any braille music sign prior to the revisions of the 2015 braille music code, which is available for download from the NLS Music Materials website above. Though braille music has had some minor changes with UEB, this manual still makes a great source to quickly determine difficult passages in scores. A section on reading intervals is found on braille page 219.
– How to Read Braille Music (BRM29811): Section 5 (braille page 30)
Braille Into the Next Millennium (BR 13188)
Essays examining the history and future of braille include such topics as the development of the literary, Nemeth, and music codes; braille production; legal issues; library service; and literacy and computer access concerns. Edited by Judith Dixon, with a foreword by Frank Kurt Cylke and a preface by Kenneth Jernigan. 2000. This book is also available in audio on BARD.
Miller, Harvey Horatio. The Braille Music Code
This treatise was excerpted from Braille into the Next Millennium as listed above.
“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 transcribed 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.”
Introduction to Music for the Blind Student Part I, Course and Workbook (BRM34079)
“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.”–Introduction.
Taesch, Richard McCann, William. Who’s Afraid of Braille Music (BRM32949)