Braille music was invented along with the literary code by Louis Braille, and rose to prominence in the 1920s.
It uses a system of six raised dots to represent the pitch and rhythm of each note. The top two rows represent the pitch and the bottom row is used for rhythm.
Differences between braille music and stave notation
The graphic below shows print notation of a rising chromatic scale in quavers from middle C with the braille music equivalent. Note the first three cells in the braille denote the treble clef, the following dot denotes the fourth octave, and the last two cells denote a thick double bar. Note the print barline is shown by a space in the braille.
It's harder to scan
Scanning for a particular sign is much harder in braille music than in print. In braille music, all the signs have to appear left to right, one at a time. This is different from stave notation, where notes are displayed vertically in chords, and other signs like phrase markings are put above or below them.
Related to this is the issue of space: a bar of Braille music can take up considerably more room than in print notation. Reading and following scores can therefore be challenging as there may be just one bar per page.
The number of signs is limited
Although braille music can represent all the commonly used signs in conventional stave notation, braille music uses fewer signs than print music and they are frequently used in combination. This means that it's easy for new readers of braille to get confused.
For example, around a particular note there may be:
- preceding it, a dynamic marking, an accent or staccato sign, an accidental, and finally an octave indication
- the note itself
- after the note, a sign to show added duration, a fingering number and a slur sign to the next note.
For brevity, braille music uses repeat signs more frequently than in print. Braille also needs to use a sign to specify in which octave to play a particular note.
Braille usually needs to be memorised
The braille reader normally has to read, memorise and then play a piece. You read braille with your hands, so you can't usually play an instrument at the same time.
If you're teaching a group who are playing from different formats, you may find that the braillist takes a lot longer to learn a score than a print reader.
Getting started with braille music
RNIB's Music Advisory Service (MAS) has written a short guide to getting started with braille music which is full of useful tips for the beginner as well as some ideas for instrumental and classroom teachers. It also contains a useful resources section with details of transcribers, software and online resources. It is mainly aimed at learners in the UK, but may be of some use for learners in other countries.
Learning braille music
The most common way to learn braille music is while learning an instrument, often the piano or electronic keyboard, working with your teacher through one of the tutor book in braille.
Tutor books in braille
Several mainstream beginner's books are available in braille music, though learning this way does not introduce braille musical terms and syntax in a progressive way. To see if a particular tutor book is available in braille, see the RNIB Library Catalogue.
There are some tutor books specifically designed for learning the braille music code whilst learning singing or an instrument. The most frequently used of these in the UK is a book for pianists:
- Braille Music for Beginners, by Joan Partridge (1994)
To view a list of other braille music tutor books, please visit our tutor books in braille page.
If you want to learn to "hear" the symbols in your mind, and work on memorisation skills in a graduated way, try:
- An Introduction to Music for the Blind Student
- A Course in Braille Music Reading, Parts I and II
These are both by Richard Teasch and available from Dancing Dots.
Modified Braille Music Notation
The RNIB Music Advisory Service (MAS) is currently working on guidelines for producing Braille music suitable for users in a variety of contexts. The background to this work, as well as the guidelines can be downloaded below. Your comments and feedback would be welcome by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting tested on braille music skills
Young people up to the age of 19 have an opportunity to test their braille music skills, and receive formal feedback on their achievements, by entering the annual Gardner’s Trust Braille Music Literacy Tests.
Getting pieces in braille music
To check UK availability, consult the RNIB Library Catalogue. The piece you want may already be available in braille music, though you may need to check it is the edition you require and in a braille format with which you are familiar.
The RNIB National Library Service stocks at least one copy of all pieces of music brailled through the formal transcription agencies listed below for loan.
If the piece is not already transcribed, there are two main routes to getting it transcribed:
- get an official braille music transcriber to do it for you, or
- produce it yourself.
Using an official braille music transcriber
For a list of braille music transcribers, please visit our Libraries and producers of braille page. Note that prices and lead times may vary so always ask for an estimate.
Doing your own transcription: manual
You may wish to train a sighted reader to read music precisely how you need it, so you can write the music down, either using a manual brailler, such as a Perkins machine, or using a braille note taker.
Software transcription packages
Some computer packages will transcribe stave notation into braille music, if you use them in combination with other compatible devices (such as scanners). Usually some sighted assistance is required for tidying up the scanned stave notation score.
For details of braille music translation packages and links to suppliers, please visit our Music page.
Private collections of braille music
Some braille music users have extensive personal libraries of scores. To contact other Braille music readers, why not subscribe to the Braille Music Chat email group, set up in December 2009. To subscribe, send a blank email to Brailleemail@example.com.
Video: Braille - My Musical Language
In 2011, Nota, the Danish Library for the Blind, created a video entitled "Braille - My Musical Language". They describe it as "a beautiful and moving film about three blind musicians, who through their own personal stories emphasize the importance of braille music." The film is available to watch online by visiting the Nota website
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