Braille music was invented along with the literary braille code by Louis Braille, himself a musician, and rose to prominence in the early 20th century.
It uses combinations of the same six-dot cell as literary braille to represent the pitch and rhythm of each note. If you imagine that the braille cell is arranged like an egg carton for six eggs i.e. in three rows of two. The top two rows represent the pitch and the bottom row is used for rhythm.
The graphic on this page 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.
Differences between braille music and stave notation
Scanning for a particular sign is much harder in braille music as it has less of a graphical representation than in print. In braille music, all the signs have to appear from left to right and one at a time. This is different from stave notation, where notes are displayed vertically in chords, and other signs like phrase markings may appear above or below them.
For example, around a particular note there may be:
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.
To save space, braille music repeat signs more frequently. These include signs for repeating a beat, part-bar or whole bar, and conventions for repeating previous bar(s), specific numbered bar(s) or sections.
The number of distinct signs is limited. Although braille music can represent all the commonly used signs in conventional stave notation, only 63 combinations of the six-dot cell are possible. Therefore many print signs are shown by combinations of two or even three braille signs, meaning that many braille cells can have multiple meaning, or look very similar depending on their context. This can be confusing for new readers of braille music.
Braille music usually shows the clef in which the original print is written, but uses a system of octave signs to determine in which octave a note is to be played.
Braille music usually needs to be memorised. The braille reader normally has to read, memorise and then play a piece. As braille is read with your hands, it is impossible to read and play at the same time, unless you are a pianist. Singers can, with practice, read and play at sight, though usually memorise either the words or the music as it is difficult to read both 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.
You may wish to download the collection of articles on memorising music from blind musicians.
RNIB's Music Advisory Service (MAS) has written a short guide to getting started with braille music which is full of useful tips for beginners, 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 aimed at learners in the UK, but may also be useful to learners in other countries.
The most common way to learn braille music is while learning an instrument, often the piano or electronic keyboard or working with your teacher through one of the braille music tutor books listed below.
Several mainstream beginners' 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, please search the RNIB Library. There are some tutor books specifically designed for learning the braille music code whilst learning singing or an instrument.
If you would like to learn braille music alongside singing or an instrument, please visit our page on braille music tutor books.
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, or A Course in Braille Music Reading, Parts I and II. These are both by Richard Taesch and available from Dancing Dots.
The New International Manual of Braille Music (NIM) was published by the World Blind Union, edited by Bettye Krollick in 1996. An accessible version of the New International Manual of Braille Music (Krolllick, 1996) is available from the links below.
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 Awards.
To check UK availability, search on the RNIB Library. You may also like to consult the listing of international organisations who produce or loan braille music, maintained by the Music Subject Area of the UK Association of Accessible Formats (UKAAF). 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. If the piece is not already transcribed, there are two main routes to getting it transcribed: Either employ the services of a braille music transcriber or produce it yourself, usually with a reader. For further information on the automated transcription of pieces into braille music, please download the following document.
If you opt for this second option, 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 Brailler or using an electronic braille note taker.
Some computer packages will transcribe stave notation into braille music, either scanning the hard copy print original into a music notation package, or converting a MusicXML file directly into braille music. In both cases, some sighted assistance is usually required for checking the accuracy of the results. For details of braille music translation packages and links to suppliers, please download the following brief summary.
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 [email protected].
A new video created by the National Federation of the Blind in the USA shows how braille music is used by a number of blind musicians including an orchestral flautist and a jazz pianist. The video also features Bill McCann, founder and President of Dancing Dots who developed the Goodfeel Braille music translator.
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 YouTube page.