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Tactile Staff Notation

Today’s post is about the braille books in our collection that explain to blind readers how staff notation (print music) works. In case you are wondering why blind musicians need to know staff notation, two important reasons come to mind.

First, music teachers who are visually impaired must be able to help their sighted students learn to read print music and explain what each print musical symbol means.

Secondly, young students with visual impairment attending public schools will encounter music teachers explaining the notational system to the class at some point. The student will appreciate being able to understand and follow classroom discussions even if she/he never uses print notation.

How do you explain staff music notation to someone who is blind, especially to someone who uses the radically different braille music notation system? Braille books using well-designed tactile graphics can often provide the “a picture is worth a thousand words” effect that helps people who cannot see understand concepts that may not be well explained with words. As the name suggests, tactile graphics are raised images like diagrams, graphs, charts, and maps that you can touch to access the information contained in them.

There are three tactile graphics books in the NLS music collection that explain staff notation effectively:

  • Manual of the Staff Notation of Music by Edwin Gardiner (BRM17759)
  • Print Music Symbols in Tactile Graphics by Lois Krantz (BRM32355)
  • The AB Guide to Music Theory: Part 1 and 2: Diagrams by Eric Taylor (BRM35551 and BRM35553).

Manual of the Staff Notation of Music has raised line graphics that show the main musical symbols used in staff notation. In addition, Gardiner includes very short excerpts of an organ piece, a song with piano accompaniment, and the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony to illustrate how different parts are put together to form vocal or instrumental scores.  The readers will get a good sense of the construction of staff notation even if they are unable to decipher the notes and symbols by touch.

Print Music Symbols in Tactile Graphics uses raised lines to illustrate basic musical notational concepts such as the five lines and four spaces of the staff and how the clef signs, key signatures and notes with different rhythmic values are arranged on the staff. Featuring 40 musical symbols, this book is suitable as an introduction to staff notation for beginning level students.

The AB Guide to Music Theory Part 1 and 2 are multi-volume books published by the Royal National Institute of Blind People in England. The tactile graphics and braille in this book were produced on Minolta heat-sensitive paper (to learn more about this process, see below*) which feels very different than the traditional tactile graphics found in braille books such as Krantz’s. Taylor includes a wide range of musical symbols from the ornaments commonly used in 17th and 18th century western music to the symbols used by the composers of the Second Viennese School such as Schoenberg.  One thing that American teachers need to be aware of when using this book is that the note values are given in the British terms. For example, a quarter note is called a crotchet, an eighth note a quaver, a sixteenth note a semiquaver, etc. The NLS Music Section has inserted a guide for our patrons in the beginning of the book to help you learn the American equivalents of the British names. This book is an excellent reference for blind teachers who work with sighted students of varying levels.

We hope you enjoy these beautiful books. We would like to request that patrons return these books promptly after use since the music section currently does not have the means to reproduce tactile graphics books onsite.

* Here is how this fascinating process works. The graphics are drawn or copied in black ink onto the heat sensitive paper (also called microcapsule or swell paper). The paper is then pushed through a device that evenly distributes heat over the paper. The black lines absorb more heat than the light background, causing them to pop up to form tactile images. These images are precise and include great detail compared to raised line graphics.