Braille music is a Braille code that allows music to be notated using Braille cells so that music can be read by visually impaired musicians. The Braille music system was originally developed by Louis Braille.
Braille music uses the same six-position Braille cell as literary braille. However braille music assigns an entirely separate meaning to each braille symbol or group of symbols, different from literary braille, and has its own syntax and abbreviations.
Almost anything that can be written in standard print music notation can be written in braille music notation as well. However, braille music notation is a completely independent and well-developed notation system with its own conventions and syntax.
Learning Braille music
Braille music, although different from print music, is in general neither easier nor more difficult to learn. Visually impaired musicians gain the same benefits upon learning to read braille music as do sighted musicians who learn to read print music.
Visually impaired musicians can begin learning to read braille music about the time they have reasonable competence reading Braille.
Teaching Braille music
Braille music for beginners, like print music for beginners, is quite simple. Sighted or visually impaired music teachers with no previous knowledge of braille music can easily learn the rudiments of braille music notation and keep a step or two ahead of the beginning student who is learning braille music. Some common print method books are available in music braille, so that the sighted teacher can use a print version and the visually impaired student the brailled version (or the other way around).
Transcribing music into Braille
Much commonly used music has been transcribed into braille. In the U.S. this is available from the National Library Service (NLS) of the Library of Congress (free for qualified individuals) and through other sources. Most countries have a national library similar to the NLS.
However, many visually impaired musicians require a good deal of music that has never before been transcribed to braille music. In the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and many other countries, there is a network of braille music transcribers who can transcribe such music.
Another option is to use a computer-music system. Such systems typically allow a sighted or visually impaired user to enter music into a computerized music notation program. The software then automatically converts the print notation that has been entered into braille music notation. One such software program is called Goodfeel. The visually impaired individual can enter music notation within the Lime program which has been scripted so that the process of music entry is entirely accessible. Then, this file can be imported into Goodfeel which converts the music into a Braille file that can be exported to a Braille embosser or read on a portable Braille display.
Introduction to Braille music symbols and syntax
Some of the most common braille music symbols and combinations are summarized in the chart below:
Pitch and rhythm
As the "Notes" section of the music braille chart above indicates, a single symbol shows both the pitch and the rhythmic length of a note. For instance, dots 1,4,5 indicate an eighth note (or 128th note) C.
As the "Notes" section of the chart indicates, every rhythm symbol in braille music does double duty—8th notes and 128th notes use the same symbols, as do quarter notes and 64th notes, half notes and 32nd notes, and whole notes and 16th notes.
In practice beginners first learn the most common rhythmic value (8th, quarter, half, and whole notes) and ignore the other possibility.
For advanced students there is never rhythmic ambiguity between the two values because the musical context, including meter signature and bar lines, makes the intended rhythmic value clear. For instance, in a measure of 4/4 time that includes only the symbol with dots 1,3,4 (whole or 16th rest), musical context says that the symbol must indicate a whole rest.
An octave mark is included before a note symbol to specify the octave of the note. For instance, the 4th Octave is the octave starting with middle C and going up to the B above middle C.
Octave symbols are only specified when needed. For instance, a melody proceeding upward from the first octave can, if moving by step, proceed to the second, third, and fourth octaves without requiring additional octave signs.
The rule is that, in the absence of an octave mark specifying otherwise, notes always move by a unison, 2nd, or 3rd rather than a 6th, 7th, or octave. For instance, the following moves upward continuously, ending in octave 5:
- Octave 2 C C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B B C C
The rule for 4ths and 5ths is different, however: in the absence of an octave sign specifying otherwise, a melodic leap of a 4th or a 5th will always stay within the same octave as the previous note. For instance, the following always stays within Octave 2:
- Octave 2 C G D A E B F C G D A E
Because of the use of octave marks, clef symbols are technically not required in braille music. On occasion when transcribing print music into braille, clef symbols (bass clef, treble clef, or other) will be indicated simply so that the visually impaired musician will be aware of every detail of the original print score.
Musical indications like "dim", "cresc", or "rit" are inserted inline with the note and rhythm notation and, to differentiate them from note, octave, and other musical signs, are always preceded by the "word sign" (dots 3,4,5).
Slurs may be indicated by a slur sign between two notes or a bracket slur surrounding a group of notes to be slurred.
Musical signs such as staccato or tenuto are generally placed before the note or chord they affect. The musical signs shown on the chart are shown modifying a quarter note C (dots 1,4,5,6).
"Music hyphen" is used to indicate that a measure of music will be continued on the following line (this happens somewhat more often in braille music than in print music).
A "word apostrophe" indicates that the word will be continued on the following line.
Like literary braille, braille music tends to be rather bulky. Because of this, a system of repetition symbols—much more extensive than that used in print music—is employed to reduce page turns, size of scores, and expense of printing.
The repetition symbol (dots 2,3,5,6) is used similarly to the musical repetition symbol to indicate that a beat, a half measure, or a full measure is to be repeated.
In addition, braille music often includes instructions such as "repeat measure 2 here" or "repeat measures 5-7 here". Such indications are in addition to the commonly used repeat marks and first and second endings employed in print music, which are also used in braille music.
Contrapuntal lines and chords within a staff
Unlike print music notation, braille music is an entirely linear format. Therefore, certain conventions must be used to indicate contrapuntal lines and chords, situations where more than one note is played simultaneously within a single staff.
Independent contrapuntal lines within a single staff are indicated via whole-measure or part-measure "in-accords". First one of the contrapuntal lines is given, then the second contrapuntal line, enclosed by the in-accord symbols. The in-accord symbols indicate that the two lines are to be played simultaneously.
Homophonic chordal sections are written using interval notation. For instance, the notation "quarter-note-C, 3rd, 5th" would indicate playing a C along with the notes a 3rd and 5th higher than C, altogether making a chord C-E-G a quarter note in length.
There is also a limited ability within the interval notation to allow, for instance, an inner voice to move briefly with rhythmic independence from the other voices. Such movement is common in four-part chorale style and it is convenient to be able to handle this situation without resorting to in-accords.
Reading the interval notation is somewhat complicated by the fact that some staves use bottom up notation (the bottom note of each chord is specified and intervals are read upwards from the given note) and some staves use top down notation (the top note of each chord is specified and intervals are read downwards from the given note).
The modern convention regarding the choice between bottom-up or top-down interval notation is to specify the main note (either the bass line or the melody line) and let the intervals go up or down from there, as appropriate. For instance, in most piano music the left hand specifies the bottom note and intervals go bottom-up while the right hand specifies the top note and intervals go top-down.
Many older scores use a different method, however, with all staves reading bottom up or all staves reading top down.
Most scores have a note indicating the direction of the intervalic notation. However, in some older scores the direction of the interval notation must be established from the musical context.
By convention, in-accords are given in the same direction as the direction used by the interval notation. For instance, if interval notation is bottom-up then the in-accords for that staff will be given with the lowest contrapuntal line first, then the next higher contrapuntal line second, and so on.
Thus, examining the in-accords is one way to establish whether the interval notation on a particular staff is bottom-up or top-down.
Dealing with different staves
Much print music is written on several different staves. For instance, piano music is typically written on two different staves combined into the grand staff: one for treble clef and one for bass clef, while choral music often has four different staves (one each for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). In print music, the notes in different staves that play simultaneously are aligned vertically.
Because of the nature of braille music, and the fact that the braille musician can typically read only one staff at a time, multiple staves are handled in several different ways depending on the complexity of the music and other considerations.
Bar over bar format is most similar to print music. Simple piano music in bar over bar format is quite similar to print music, with right hand notation on the top line and left hand notation on the bottom line. Some degree of vertical alignment between the right hand and the left hand is maintained.
Other ways of dealing with multiple staff music are line over line format, section by section format, paragraph style, and bar by bar format. As a rule these formats take up less space on the page but require more of the musician in working out how to fit the staves together.
For instance, in a piano score notated in section by section format, the right hand part may be written out for the first 8 measures, followed by the left-hand part for the same 8 measures. No attempt is made by the transcriber to align or synchronize the right hand and left hand parts for these measures.
The same procedure is followed for measures 9-16 (first music for the right hand, then for left hand), and so on, section by section, throughout the score.
On a practical level, the musician learning a score notated in section by section format learns and memorizes one section right hand alone, then the same section left hand alone, then works out the two hands together by memory and by referencing various spots in the braille music score to work out mentally how the sections fit together.
A note from the transcriber in the score often clarifies the format used. However, with many older and more complex scores the format must be determined by examination of the music and context.
Variations in Braille music
Over the years and in the many different countries of the world, a variety of minor differences in braille music practice have arisen. Some countries have preferred a different standard for interval or staff notation, or have used different codes for various less common musical notations.
An international effort to standardize the braille music code has continued to make progress, culminating in the updates summarized in Braille Music Code 1997 and detailed in the New International Manual of Braille Music Notation (1997). However, braille music users should be aware that they will continue to encounter divergent usages when ordering scores from printing houses and libraries, because these scores are often older and come from various countries.
- NLB Braille Music Library
- Braille Music (RNIB)
- Braille Byzantine Music Notation used for Greek Orthodox liturgical chant.
- The Braille Music Code 1997—a complete description of the Braille Music Code.
- Music Braille
- Contrapunctus, a project of the European Blind Union to design and to develop a demonstration service allowing faster and easier access and use of Braille music scores filed in libraries and transcription centres, by focusing on developing international standards for electronic representations of Braille music.