Louis Braille, himself a talented pianist and organist, created a basic Braille music code at around the same time he invented the Braille alphabet. This has now become a priceless resource to visually impaired musicians worldwide, who are now able to access, or to request, almost any music score in Braille which currently exists in print.
The issue of having to adjust to several different Braille codes, depending on the subject or language, does not apply in the music world. This is one consolation at least, since music is, generally speaking, an international code: a Braille score produced in one country can be easily read in another, although it may be presented slightly differently, depending on which instrument the music has been transcribed for.
The one major difference between print and Braille music is the way in which it is represented on the page. In print, music is written on a stave, (five horizontal lines, reading from bottom to top, for example: in the treble clef, the lines read E, G, B, D, F; and the spaces read F, A, C, E), and each music bar is divided by a bar line. In Braille however, presenting music in this way is simply not practical, therefore, the music is written as a single line, with a blank space representing each bar line.
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 the treble clef, and one for the bass clef; whilst choral music often has four different staves, one each for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. In print music, the notes in different staves which 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.
The most popular method of presenting Braille music, and perhaps the simplest to read, is “bar-over-bar”. This is most similar to print music, where the treble clef notation appears on the top line, and the bass clef notation on the bottom. Some degree of vertical alignment between the clefs is maintained in order to aid navigation through the score, and so the parts begin together at each bar.
Other ways of dealing with multiple staff music include “line-over-line”, “section-by-section”, “bar-by-bar”, and “paragraph-by-paragraph”. 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, resulting in a longer learning process. For example: in a piano score notated in section-by-section format, the right hand part may be written out for the first 8 bars, then followed by the left hand part for the same 8 bars. In using this method, alignment or synchronization of the parts is not possible. The musician is required to read and memorize each part first, before applying the parts together, and attempting the next section of music.
Braille music uses the same six dot position Braille cell, as literary Braille: two vertical rows of three, 1-4, 2-5, 3-6, from top to bottom. 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. Most anything that can be written in standard print music notation, can also be written in Braille music. However, Braille music notation is a completely independent, and well-developed notation system, with its own conventions.
One of the world's largest collections of Braille music is located at the National Library for the Blind, (NLB), in Stockport, UK. There are many other substantial libraries located around the world, who also stock a large collection of Braille scores, including within Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.
Braille music, although different from print music, is in general neither easier, nor more difficult to learn. Visually impaired musicians gain the same benefits by becoming musically literate learning to read Braille music, as do sighted musicians, who learn to read print music. Visually impaired musicians, who become highly proficient performers, without ever learning to read music, have the same difficulties and disadvantages as sighted musicians in the same situation. In either case, the illiterate musician is completely dependent upon others for learning new music, or new parts, and it is very difficult for the advanced musician to have the patience to spend months, or even years, re-visiting the rudiments of music, in order to learn to read and write what can already be performed with ease.
Visually impaired musicians can begin learning to read Braille music about the time they have reasonable competence reading grade 2 literary Braille. 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. However, this is by no means ideal, nor is it recommended. Unlike with sighted students learning to read print music, who in most cases, receive professional instruction by qualified teachers, visually impaired musicians, who may be fortunate enough to be able to find someone who can teach them Braille music, do not often gain the same level of quality or support during their learning process, due to the lack of experience or regular study on the teacher’s part. Some common print method books are also available in Braille, including The AB Guide to Music Theory, so that the sighted teacher can use a print version, and the visually impaired student a Brailed copy, or vice versa.
Much commonly-used music has been transcribed into Braille, to be used by visually impaired musicians. Many countries around the world have a national library of Braille and Braille music, available for loan, or to purchase. However, many visually impaired musicians require a good deal of music that has never before been transcribed into Braille music, and consequently, have to either go without, or endure long waiting times for their national institute to transcribe it by request. In the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and many other countries, there is a network of Braille music transcription services, and private transcribers, who can transcribe such music for a small charge, or in some cases, for free.
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 via a scanner. The software then automatically converts the print notation that has been entered, into Braille music notation. Two such software programs are: “Dancing Dots”, and “Toccata”. The Braille Music KIT works in both directions: musicians can create a Braille music score, which can then be converted into print music; or a sighted musician can use “Finale” to create a print score, which can then be converted into Braille music. Sibelius is also a very popular music software programme, both for sighted and non-sighted musicians alike, who can create music scores by entering information via a midi piano keyboard, or a standard qwerty keyboard. This programme also has the added advantage of allowing the user to hear their input, and to make adjustments accordingly.
It is possible to download Braille music charts in the following mediums:
In Braille music, a single symbol shows both the pitch, and the rhythmic value of a note. For example: dots 1,4, and 5, indicates a quaver (eighth) note C; dots 1, 4, 5, and 6, indicates a crotchet (quarter) note C; dots 1, 3, 4, and 5, indicates a minim (half) note C; dots 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6, indicates a semibreve (whole) note C - notice that one dot is added each time the note becomes longer in value.
As with the Braille alphabet, there is a pattern which occurs as the rhythm value becomes longer. For example: with quaver notes, only the top four dots of the cell are used; by adding dot 6 to each quaver, forms their crotchet beats; by adding dot 3 to each quaver, forms their minim beats; and by adding both bottom dots, forms their semibreve beats. Due to there being only 64 possible combinations of dots, and in order to write notes with shorter values than a quaver, a more complex grouping system is necessary, which requires further detailed study of the code. For example: when several semibreve notes are written in a group with no spaces, they become semiquavers.
For beginners, the basic note and rhythm symbols are first learnt, along with simple time signatures, and bar divisions. For more advanced students, there is never rhythmic ambiguity between the two values, as the musical context, including the time signature and bar lines, makes the intended rhythmic value clear. For example: in a bar of 4/4 time, which includes only the symbol with dots 1, 3, and 4, (which represents a semiquaver, semibreve, or bar rest), musical context says that the symbol must indicate a whole bar rest.
Since Braille music is written in a single line, and does not display the octave position at which the notes are to be played, an Octave sign is included before a note symbol, to specify the octave of the note. For example: the 4th Octave begins at middle C, up to the B above; so in order to identify the notes within the fourth octave from those in the fifth and third for instance, dot 5 is added before the note. Again, there are additional rules which govern the use of octave signs. For example: it is not necessary to include an octave sign where the note or notes are in close proximity to one another. Octave signs are only specified when needed. For example: 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 sign specifying otherwise, notes always move by unison, 2nd, or 3rd, rather than a 6th, 7th, or an octave. For example: the following scale moves upward continuously by step, beginning in the 2nd octave, and ending in the 5th octave:
The rule for 4ths and 5ths is different. 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 example: the following always stays within the 3rd octave:
Because of the use of octave signs, 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 reader will be aware of every detail of the original print score. With keyboard music, hand and pedal signs are used in place of clef signs, and remain in the same position as it appears in the print. For example: the right hand features first; with the left hand falling beneath this; and the pedal (organ) beneath this. In piano music, and music for other keyboard instruments which only feature two or three foot pedals, pedaling signs only appear in the music where required.
Musical indications like "dim", "cresc", or "rit" are inserted inline with the note to which they apply. In order to differentiate them from note, octave, or other musical signs, dynamic and tempo markings are always preceded by the "word sign", (dots 3,4,and 5), followed by dot 3, to separate the letters from the musical notes to which the marking refers.
Slurs may be indicated by either a slur sign between two notes, or by a bracket surrounding a group of notes to be slurred. The slur sign, (dots 1 and 4), may also be written twice, in cases where more than one bar is to be slurred; and a single slur is used before the last slurred note to indicate the end of the slurring. Other musical signs, such as the staccato or tenuto, are generally placed before the note or chord to which they apply, but may also feature as like the slur, in cases where many staccato notes or chords appear.
A "music hyphen" is used to indicate that a bar of music will be continued on the following line, (which happens somewhat more often in Braille music than in print music). Similarly, a "word apostrophe" also indicates that the word will be continued on the following line. The new line of music will begin with an octave sign, whether the music continues in the same octave as the previous line or not, in order to save confusion of tonal placement.
Like literary Braille, Braille music tends to be rather bulky. Due to this, a system of repetition symbols, (much more extensively than that used in print music), is employed in order to reduce page turns, size of scores, and expense of printing. The repeat sign, (dots 2, 3, 5, and 6), is used to indicate that a beat, half of a bar, or a full bar is to be repeated. In addition, Braille music often includes instructions such as "repeat bar 1", or "repeat bars 1-8"… 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.
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-bar, or part-bar, "in-accords". The first part of the contrapuntal line is given, and then followed by the second, enclosed by the in-accord signs. These symbols indicate that the two lines are to be played simultaneously, not as separate parts.
Homophonic chordal sections are written using interval notation. For example: the notation "quaver-C, 3rd, 5th", would indicate playing a C, along with the notes a 3rd and 5th higher, making a chord of C-E-G a quaver in length. There is also a limited ability within the interval notation, to allow, for instance, an inner voice to move position with rhythmic independence from the other voices. Such movement is common in four-part chorale harmony, and it is convenient to be able to interpret this situation without having to resort to using in-accord signs.
Reading the interval notation is somewhat complicated, due to the fact that some staves read from the top note down, or from the bottom note up. For example: in the treble clef, or right hand, (most commonly the melody line), the first note of the chord is specified, followed by the accompanying intervals, which are interpreted downwards; and in the bass clef, or left hand, (most commonly the bass line, or accompaniment), the first note of the chord is specified, followed by the accompanying intervals, which are interpreted upwards.
The majority of Braille music scores state which methods of transcription have been used, in “Note to Braille Edition”. This may include the method by which the music has been written, specification of reading intervals; as well as any other, perhaps more unfamiliar signs which may occur throughout the music, but which have been used for a specific purpose, such as beat divisions in music where the time signature changes at regular points within the score.
Braille music is read in the same way as literacy Braille, with the tips of the fingers. However, unless the reader is a singer, Braille music cannot be read and the music played at the same time. The music, or portions of, must first be read and memorized, before then applying it to an instrument; unless when reading keyboard music, where one hand can play what the other hand is reading. This is a skill in itself, and one which takes a great deal of time and practice to become proficient with.
So, learning music from Braille can be very time consuming, especially with organ music, and larger scale works, due to the musician having to not only memorize the general notation, but also the many other musical details, such as dynamics, tempi, expression, ornamentation, etc, not to mention its shear volume. Extra time is required for a performing musician to prepare their music, in particular, the process by which the musician has to first learn and memorize the score, prior to perfecting its musicality and interpretation. Audio recordings are also useful in the learning of new music, especially for assisting clarification of more difficult or intricate passages, although the art here is not to learn the interpretation of the audio performance, but to make the performance as unique as any other.
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