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Explanations, and Pointers for Student and Teacher

by David Goldstein
(Note: This monograph was originally written in 1994 as part of a project funded by the
Blackford Memorial Fund, to develop a curriculum that could be disseminated to teachers
working with blind music students. One resource not mentioned is the new "Introduction to
Music for the Blind Student," a teaching method of lessons and exercises by Richard Taesch
and published by Dancing Dots. Teachers might wish to consider that book along with the
others mentioned here. This article should be useful, for those who want to know what the
braille musicthe code, and the learning of it involves. The last part of the monograph
consisted of the original braille music resource list, which has now grown to become the
"Comprehensive Resource List" found on this web site. This web-based version of the article
has a link to the Resource List, so that that part, at least, will remain current as additions are
made to the web page.)
Copyright (C) 1994 by David Goldstein
Although the end result of music is a performance to be heard, the means by which a
musician conveys to his colleagues how his composition should be performed, or learns to
perform the music of others is through the use of written symbols. The advent of recordings
and computers has not lessened the need for the written score. A page of music, just like a
page of any other type of literature, permits study and analysis, section by section, until the
concept of the whole is gained. Also, like other forms of written material, the score allows
the student to form his own interpretation of the music, rather than simply parroting someone
else's rendition from a recording. The ability to read and write music, therefore, is the
cornerstone for anyone who is planning to make a serious commitment to the art. A blind
student needs to have that ability just as much as his sighted peers.
The lack of popularity braille music has experienced in the face of more glamorous
media does not detract from its importance. Like print, it is the only medium that provides a
symbolic means for music to be read and studied. Compared with print, braille music is often
cumbersome and its use presents challenges unknown to the sighted musician. However, it
certainly works. It is used throughout the world, and in the 160 years since its invention, no
better system has been found.
All the musicians who responded to our surveys used braille music and emphasized
its importance. They found it particularly helpful in developing a basic understanding of
music concepts, theory, and the arrangement of scores, not to mention providing written
material for learning repertoire. Some reported using braille music less frequently at different
times in their careers, but all said their ability to use braille was indispensable. Of all the

special tools and strategies available to a blind music student, a firm grounding in the use of
braille music notation was considered one of the most essential factors for success.

Who Can Teach Braille Music

Braille music must be thought of as a means to an end, the end being, of course,
music. It is tempting, and sometimes necessary, to isolate aspects of the system for study as
one would an academic subject. However, it will have little use or meaning if music isn't kept
as a part of the activity. For this reason, the approach taken to learning braille music must be
fitted to the particular needs of an individual student -- his age and interests, his way of
learning, and the type of music currently being studied. If, for instance, a child is beginning
the study of music at the same time he will be learning braille music, the symbols can be
introduced much as one would learn print music. If he is in elementary school, the songs sung
in class will make excellent exercises for practicing braille music. The approach would be
much different for the musician who is learning the system after being familiar with other
aspects of music. Ideally, everyone should get through the basic lessons of braille music,
such as those outlined in the Primer of Braille Music (see the annotated bibliography at the
end of this article for books mentioned.) However, even these can be omitted if the student's
needs are minimal. For instance, if all that is needed is to sing Gregorian chants written as
eighth notes, just the first couple of lessons would be sufficient. Many students, who require
a means for writing music will invent their own codes. Such a code may work for a while, but
it can bring about bad habits and of course will not allow the student to read standard scores.
For this reason, braille music should be introduced as early as possible.
The small number of teachers who know braille music, and the unlikelihood of
finding one locally has led people to come up with a variety of ways to learn what they need.
Much will depend on how fluent the student is in literary braille and how curious and
motivated he is to explore how music and music symbols relate. There is no disputing that a
blind student can take regular music lessons from a traditional music teacher. A question
often debated is how well that student can learn the braille music code along with other music
skills from such a music teacher who does not have a technical knowledge of braille. Our
experience shows that this type of setting can work quite well, but again much depends on
the student and his understanding of literary braille. Certainly, the more the teacher
understands, at least with regard to the reasons why braille music is set up the way it is, the
better things will be. Eventually, the student learning in this way may need the help of a
braille expert to polish his skills, especially with regard to writing. But in the absence of such

a person, a music teacher can help get him started. Resources and pointers to give the teacher
the background to do this will be the subject of most of this article. First, however, we will
list sources of material for the student who wishes to work independently, and suggestions
for locating expert assistance if more expertise than a regular music teacher is required.

To the Student Working Independently

You might consider independent study if you already have a musical background and
have the discipline for putting in the effort of mastering a skill without much outside







(Note: Complete addresses of all resources mentioned are given at the end of this article.)
Custom Packages from the Music Section, National Library Service. The Music
Section of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of
Congress, is the largest repository of braille and large-note music scores in the country and
has books and fact sheets for the beginner. It also has recorded materials and courses on
music theory. Upon request, the Music Section will assemble a package of material suited to
your level and needs. Among the possibility of books that might be included are the Primer
of Braille Music by Jenkins, How to Read Braille Music by Krolick, and Dictionary of
Braille Music Signs, also by Krolick. These books are generally made available on extended
loan, for as long as you need them. The dictionary is yours to keep. Some cautions. The
dictionary is meant as a reference, not a tool for learning at the beginning. You would soon
be overwhelmed if you tried to learn braille music from it. There are other braille music
learning books which will be mentioned later. You will want to avoid books addressed to the
braille transcriber, such as Manual of Braille Music Notation 1988, American Edition;
Introduction to Braille Music Transcription by De Garmo; and The New International
Manual of Braille Music, 1996. These are meant for people learning the skills for rendering
print music into braille and are not appropriate for the music student. Also not to be used is
Lessons in Braille Music by Spanner, still found on many library shelves. This is an exercise
book for transcribers meant to accompany a now outdated manual of 1956.
MENVI. The Music Education Network, coordinated by Richard Taesch at the
Southern California Conservatory of Music, Sun Valley, CA, is a coalition of parents,
students, and teachers who share information through a newsletter. Mr. Taesch has developed
a teaching method for braille music which he and his colleagues offer in person in California
or through customized correspondence courses.

Correspondence Course. The Hadley School for the Blind, Winnetka, Illinois, offers a
correspondence course in braille music geared to the needs of the student. Students are sent
the Primer of Braille Music and other materials in braille and work with the instructor using a
combination of braille and tape. The Hadley School offers a wide variety of courses on other
topics, including a series designed to help someone prepare for study in college.
The Internet. A mailing list called Braillem serves as a forum on all aspects of braille
music. It is a good place to get questions answered by experienced users or to locate sources
of braille music and teaching materials.

Locating a Braille Music Teacher or Mentor

If you or your student are more comfortable working with someone who knows
braille music, the following suggestions may help you find a teacher in your area or a blind
musician willing to share his knowledge.
Lighthouses. Often lighthouses for the blind in various cities have someone on the
staff who can teach braille music. In New York City, the Lighthouse Music School, offers
comprehensive programs for people of all ages.
The Association of Education and Rehabilitation of the Visually Impaired (AER) an
international membership of teachers, school administrators and workers in the blindness
field. Its national office in Alexandria, Virginia may be able to put you in touch with a
teacher in your area.
The American Foundation for the Blind, New York, NY is embarked on several
projects to improve braille literacy, including a mentor program designed to team students up
with braille users. Some users of braille music are on this list. AFB also houses the Careers
and Technology Database, which provides information about jobs held by blind people and
can put others in touch with blind people working in a particular field of interest. Several
musicians are on this network.
The American Council of the Blind, Washington, DC, has a number of affiliate
groups which can be of help. Friends in Art is a network of blind musicians and artists; the
Braille Revival League promotes braille literacy.
The National Federation of the Blind, Baltimore, MD, also has affiliates which
include the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB); a parents' group;
and various opportunities for artists and musicians to share information. Plans are underway
to develop a network of braille music users throughout the country who can serve as mentors.
A network is being organized to help locate people who can teach braille music in various

states. NFB's national headquarters houses Job Opportunities for the Blind, which has
musicians in its network, and the International Braille and Technology Center.
Schools for the Blind and Alumni. Some residential schools for the blind still teach
braille music or have consultants available to work with students. Such schools may be able
to put you in touch with alumni who are musicians. The agencies listed above can provide
addresses of schools in your area.
MENVI. The Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired, Sun Valley, CA,
described above, has members throughout the country who can teach braille music and may
be able to put you in touch with someone in your area.
The Music and Arts Center for Humanity, Bridgeport, CT offers music lessons and
instruction in braille music. It may also be consulted for suggestions on teaching methods. Its
National Resource Center for Blind Musicians serves as a clearinghouse on braille music and
technology and can put people in touch with musicians around the country who can serve as
mentors. Its Summer Institute for Blind College-bound Musicians is a three-week, residential
program teaching braille music, technology, and musicianship, and provides opportunities for
students to work with people in the music field while practicing campus living.

To the Regular Music Teacher Working with a Blind Student

If you are a regular music teacher with a blind student ready to learn braille music, we
hope this section will offer you guidance and encouragement in meeting the challenge. If you
are reading this, you probably have the qualities necessary for being a good teacher -- the
willingness to spend extra individual time with the student; interest in adapting your musical
experience to a new perspective, and the understanding and innovation to help your pupil
work around problems not experienced by sighted students. The situation we are addressing
assumes that your student already reads and writes English braille. Unless you really want to
(and the effort would be lauded and appreciated), you do not then need to learn braille
yourself. Just enough of an idea of how the code differs and the reasons for its being as it is
will be sufficient. An excellent guide for teachers, particularly with regard to piano, is They






Selecting a Braille Music Lesson Book for your Student

The most accessible resource for obtaining music braille instruction books is the
Music Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library
of Congress, Washington, DC 20542; (800) 424-8567. The Music Section will provide the
instruction books mentioned below on extended loan in braille to the student, and also in

print for the teacher if borrowed in the student's name. The annotated bibliography at the end
of this article lists other books and sources from which they may be obtained. The number of
titles is small, but each book takes a slightly different approach that could be suitable to
particular students' needs and abilities.
By far the most widely used book for learning braille music in this country is the
Primer of Braille Music by Edward W. Jenkins. This divides the learning of the basic signs of
braille music into twenty-four lessons; additional lessons and addenda have signs and
methods of presentation of music for particular instruments. Explanations are concise,
making a teacher's help essential for the young student. Each lesson has several short
exercises to give practice reading.
How to Read Braille Music by Bettye Krolick is written with fifth grade level
vocabulary so it can address the beginning or intermediate music student directly. The book
does not contain exercises, relying instead on material the student would be using in his
regular music classes. Its explanations are easy to understand, encouraging the student to
explore on his own and come to the teacher with questions. An index of signs helps the
student identify new symbols as they are encountered in his reading. Sometimes this is used
in conjunction with the Primer above.
Another book to be mentioned is not yet widely available, but we hope it will be soon.
Music Through Braille by Dr. Anne Burrows of Canada provides excellent explanations and
practice exercises and activities helpful for classes of more than one blind student. Although
it is a long time in coming, we are hoping that the book will soon be available to U.S. readers
through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (see bibliography for more

About Braille Music

Braille is a system of dots which can be distinguished easily by the practiced touch
reader. Each letter or symbol is a pattern of up to six dots in a rectangular matrix or "cell"
three dots high and two dots wide. In literary braille, the first ten letters are composed of the
upper four dots. The rest of the alphabet, punctuation, and space-saving combinations of
letters, known as contractions, are made by adding the bottom dots to the first four. There are
sixty-three possible symbols that can be made from the six braille dots.
A page of a score in braille music looks vastly different from its counterpart in print.
There are no lines and staves, no notes laid out higher or lower on the page to indicate pitch,

and no stems or ligatures relating one part to another. Instead, all the information for playing
a melody is contained on a single horizontal line of letters and signs. The page layout looks
much like a page of poetry, with lines and indented runovers. Usually the reasons why things
are done as they are arise from the challenge of meeting a necessity, and so it is with braille
music. An understanding of why it is in the form that we have it will help you not only in
working with the beginning student, but will make sense out of the challenges the student
will face in more advanced work.
How would you formulate a written code for music if you could look at only one line
at a time? One essential difference between reading a page visually and with the fingers is
that the eye can take in the layout of several lines at once while the fingers can deal with one
horizontal line at a time. You can get a clearer idea of the implications if you imagine trying
to read music if the page is covered by a piece of cardboard containing a slot just wide
enough for one line to show through. A five-line staff, with notes filled in various places on
it, or two staves to show both hands of piano music, would not have much meaning if only
one line was visible at a time. Thus the challenge of braille music is to provide all the
information about the note -- it's name, octave, value, accidental, fingering and dynamics -all in one place. Consider now that the maximum number of signs that can fit on one braille
line is just forty, and you will see that the method for supplying all this information must be
one of high economy.
In braille music, the note name and its rhythmic value are written as one symbol. Note
names are written as letters, which use up to four dots at the top of the cell, and the rhythmic
values for quarter, half, or whole notes are represented by adding one or both of the
remaining dots at the bottom. (Eighth notes are simply the letters with no bottom dots
included.) The octave in which the note to be played is indicated by a sign placed
immediately before a group of notes in that octave. Signs for accidentals, fingering, slurs and
ties, intervals, dynamics, etc., are also placed on the same line with the notes. Since there are
more music symbols than the sixty-three braille dot combinations, many music signs are
made up of two braille characters. Of course, all these signs have different meanings in
English braille, or braille codes for mathematics and foreign languages.
"The braille score translates everything written on the printed page," notes teacher and
braille music user Dorothy Dykema. "... This is its glory and this is its confusion." The
necessity to put all information on the line at the same level as the notes "... sometimes
produces a profusion of signs, baffling to the novice. If a student has a thorough mastery of
the basics -- notes, accidentals, intervals, octaves, fingering--certain extraneous signs can be

ignored. In other words, you can help the student learn to ignore the irrelevant until it
becomes relevant."

Mastering the Basics -- Getting Over the Initial Hurdles

The above explanations are probably more confusing to you as a sighted person than
to the blind student. A good reader of literary braille, from an early age, would accept a linear
system for music as the only sensible way to show it. Practically everything else in braille is
written that way. Indeed, explaining lines and staves can quickly lose the young blind
student, unless the way of making the concept make some sense is thought out thoroughly
before starting. Eventually, of course, the blind student will have to understand the meaning
and use of the print way of doing things if he wants to communicate with other performers or
to understand discussions in theory classes. Most teachers agree that initially it is best to
discuss music in the blind student's terms, such as saying "fourth octave C" rather than "C
below the treble clef." Even if the student has not yet learned anything about braille music, he
would understand the former terminology readily if he has explored a piano or other
But the learning of braille music, even with that view, is not exactly straightforward.
At the outset there are a number of confusing elements which must be accepted and learned
to be dealt with. They are not hard in themselves, but it seems that if they are the only things
a student hears about braille music, they will be enough to turn him away. The obvious
example, which we will discuss in detail, is that letter names for notes do not correspond with
braille letters -- the note C is designated by the letter D. There are historical and logistical
reasons for this, but in a case like this, it is probably best to say to the student, "I know it
doesn't make much sense, but that's the way it is." Once such things are worked with and
practiced enough, they stop being a source of confusion and become second nature.
The First Hurdle -- C written as D. In braille music, the sign for a note is one letter
ahead of what we think it should be. C is the braille letter D, D is the braille letter E, and this
goes on through the note G being H, note A being I, and B being J. This must just be
implanted in the mind as children are made to learn their addition facts or multiplication
tables -- even more so, since the symbol must be recognized for what it is in one step, without
hesitation. Saying "h'm, that's really F" for each note read would be too slow. A student
should do as many exercises as possible, such as the ones in the Primer of Braille Music,
until instant recognition is attained.

If a student wishes to know the reason for how this came about, this is the one
generally given: According to teacher and performer John di Francesco,
At the time Louis Braille formulated his code, musical notes did not have letter names
-- this was a convention adopted later on by German- and English-speaking countries. In
most of Europe, notes were referred to by syllables--do (or ut in French) re mi. Whereas we
think of Do as being at the beginning of a scale of any key, at that time it was a "fixed" Do.
Do was always C. Thus it made sense to start the notes with the braille letter D and proceed
from there. The confusion began only when letter names for notes started being used.
The Second Hurdle--which rhythmic value do we start with, or "How can o-w be a
quarter note A?" This is more of a philosophical problem for teachers and authors of
instruction books, but it does steer the course of how a student will learn. The problem is this:
the same braille character indicates both the pitch of the note and its rhythmic value: the top
four dots show the note name, and one or more bottom dots show the rhythm. Eighth notes
use no bottom dots, and so theoretically are easier to learn. As to why the braille music
system should begin with the eighth note, Dr. Anne Burrows writes, "I believe that Louis
Braille placed eighth notes in his system first, because, as a member of a school run by the
clergy, and a chorister there, he understood the need for a reliable notation for Gregorian
chant. In modern times, eighth notes have been used for this purpose."
When dots are added to the bottom, the signs look like letters or contractions in other
codes -- a quarter note C looks like a t-h contraction, and a whole note C is the letter Y.
Sighted children normally learn whole notes (or sometime quarter notes) first and work down
to smaller values. Should a blind student learn the same way, or start with eighth notes?
There are advantages to each approach, as can be seen from the various braille music
instruction manuals in the bibliography. Both Jenkins and Burrows start with eighth notes
and work to the other values according to the logic of the braille system; Krolick and
Partridge start with quarter notes.
The advantage of beginning with eighth notes, besides their being the most
straightforward to learn, is that the student immediately gains insight into the logic of the
braille music system. He immediately can think of a quarter note as an eighth note with dot 6
added. If he cannot remember a sign, all he must do is go back to the equivalent eighth note
and see what other dots have been added. This is fine, so long as the student does not get into
the habit of thinking each note out when reading. The advantage of starting with quarter notes
or whole notes is that it immediately forces the student to learn the unfamiliar signs for what
they are. Here at the Music and Arts Center we have been introducing students to braille

music with Jenkins' Primer of Braille Music, which starts with eighth notes. This approach
works and certainly helps the student understand the logic of the system. This writer believes
that students should be encouraged to memorize all the signs for different values, again like
the multiplication tables, to make music reading and writing a fluent process. Exercises to
practice this process, and to develop the ability to sight-read and write simple tunes will be
time well spent.
Lest the amount of learning and memorization for braille music seems overwhelming,
it bears reminding that print music also has its learning challenges. The challenges are
different, but when placed along side braille music, the two almost balance out. In print
music, each note must be learned by its placement on the staff, and that placement will
change depending on the octave of the note. In braille, the note C is written the same way no
matter where it falls. In print, each C will have to be learned separately -- C on the treble clef,
middle C, the bass clef, etc. The print reader learns to recognize these varying forms in the
same way the braille reader deals with the different letters and note values -- with practice.

Suggestions for Teaching -- Keeping Motivation High

Once you and your student have gotten through these first initial surprises, progress
should be easier. This is not to say that there aren't other challenges, but by getting this far,
there should be a feeling that the two of you can communicate and both have an
understanding of one another's language requirements. One way to keep the communication
open is to make sure you have a print version of the same braille music instruction book that
the student is reading in braille. Print editions of many of these, such as the Primer, have inkprint representations of the braille dots as well as staff notation. The camaraderie developed
through teamwork usually encourages motivation, and motivation is probably the key
element here. Some ideas for fostering motivation are discussed below.
Counter resistance with early success. It is not uncommon for children to approach music
lessons unwillingly. Blind students of any age may put up some resistance, conscious or
unconscious, to learning a symbol code for music. A sighted child usually sees print music at
an early enough age to accept as natural that there should be a connection between what is
heard and what is on paper. A blind student may not have had this opportunity. Music seems
such a fluid and liberating activity to listen to and to play. Why would anyone want what
appears to be a complete departure from the world of sound, slow, cumbersome and
complicated? Isolated from others who use the system, the student may not have any
examples to follow, other than those who may have been telling him for years about the

contradictions and complexities. This type of feeling may be encountered even with those
who on the surface understand why a written form of music should in theory be useful for
advanced study. One of the best ways to break down such barriers is to provide opportunities
for success and increased self-worth as early as possible. Find ways to let the student
demonstrate to himself that braille music can allow him to do more than he could before. For
instance, as soon as the student has learned eighth notes, ask him to write down a tune for
you to play. If you cannot read his braille, have him dictate the notes from his braille copy so
you can write it down. Then play it. The student will get the gratification of hearing how
what he wrote could be conveyed to someone else to turn it back into sound. If you play
exactly what he gives you, he will discover in the least threatening way any mistakes he may
have made and have the opportunity to correct them.
If you do not know braille, it is often a good strategy to give the student the role of
braille expert. Let the student explain the differences between the literary braille he knows
and the music code. Giving him the opportunity to articulate such things early on will help
him be able to explain his needs and suggest alternate ways of working to sighted teachers
and performers he will interact with later. The student will have the feeling that he is
contributing something to the learning process -- which he is.

Tack-Tiles (R).
These are square plastic blocks with one braille symbol per block, which fit into a
board like Lego (TM) bricks. The dots are large and distinct, and can be used by children
who may not yet have developed the ability to read standard braille on paper. A set of TackTiles has been developed with braille music symbols with their corresponding meanings in
print. They can be used to put together simple songs and an make an endless number of
learning activities. At the Braille Music Division of the Southern Conservatory of Music,
Tack-Tiles have been used in special cases to introduce the reading of braille music before
the introduction of literary braille, opening the pathways to literacy in musical children. (See
resource list for more information.)
Games and Practice Exercises. Braille music teachers can make up Work sheets and
other materials to give students recognizing braille symbols. These include filling in missing
notes, finding one note in a line that differs from the others, or finding the next note in a

Group Games.

Several braille music teachers told us about games they played with individuals or
groups of students in workshops or courses. At the Music and Arts Center's Summer Music
Institute, we have had fun doing group sight-singing, "name that tune" from braille contests,
and musical scrabble, using the tiles from a braille scrabble set to represent music symbols.

To Play, or Not to Play?

If you are going to be teaching the student a piece from braille, we believe it is helpful
for the student to hear part or all of it played once. Some people frown on playing anything
for the blind student, since it may cause the student to try to get away with memorizing the
music from its sound. We believe that will not happen if the piece is played just once.
Hearing the result of what he will be studying will inspire him to work hard toward being
able to read it. Motivation to learn is most important, and the teacher should be flexible in








Maintaining a Balance.
Another question that often comes up is how much the student's musical instrument
should be used during a braille music lesson. Richard Taesch writes about the advantages of
the European method of teaching music reading before the instrument and how this can be
applied to braille. He believes braille music should be incorporated as part of a full
pedagogical system of teaching music. He has found, as we have, that often when an
instrument is within easy reach, the student may not be able to keep away from it long
enough to concentrate on anything else. At the same time, however, there is the danger of
going to the opposite extreme. We have worked with students who knew all the signs and
concepts of the braille music system but could not translate them back to actual music. The
instrument must have a role, whether in the braille music lesson or at another time. When
doing an exercise, it may be best for the student to first read the exercise orally to the teacher.
Then the student should be encouraged to play exercises on the piano, or sing them, if
that is more comfortable. In most beginning exercises it is possible to read with one hand and
play with the other. It should be borne in mind that when the student gets to the stage of
reading more sophisticated music, he will need both hands for his instrument and will
therefore have to memorize the music from the braille first. Students should be encouraged to
practice reading braille with either hand, so they can read with the left hand while practicing
the right-hand part, and vice versa.

The student also needs to develop facility in counting and other musical techniques.
Such skills often are more necessary to the braille music user than the sighted reader, since
there are fewer cues to go by than in a print score.
A bright student may read through a braille music instruction book himself and
understand most of what is in it. Even for such a student, practice exercises are important. If
some seem too elementary, they can probably be skipped as long as future lessons reinforce
the earlier material.

Moving on -- Other Braille Music Concepts

It is beyond the scope of this article to provide details on everything you and your
student may encounter in the process of learning and using braille music, but we would like
to outline the order in which concepts are generally taught and mention some of the places
which often present problems. For a frame of reference, it may help to know that the Primer
of Braille Music, still the most commonly used instruction book, presents basic signs in
twenty-four lessons. It then has sections specifically for vocal, strings, keyboard, organ and
guitar music.
Following the rhythm signs already discussed, basic topics include:
Octave Marks and Rules for Their Use. Since clefs are absent in braille, signs are used
to show the octave in which notes are to be played. There is a symbol for each of the eight
full octaves on the piano. Middle C is written with the sign for octave 4 before the C. In order
not to have to put an octave mark before every note, there are rules to determine when they
are needed. An octave mark is always placed at the beginning of a melody or musical
paragraph. Whether they will be needed elsewhere depends on the interval between one note
and the next. Skips of seconds and thirds are never marked, and skips of a sixth or greater
always are. A fourth or fifth is not marked unless the jump takes the melody into another
Many people find this confusing, probably because they are so intimidated by the
rules that they do not have the opportunity to gain skill in working with them. It can be
helpful to read Bettye Krolick's simple explanation in How to Read Braille Music. Once
people realize that the marks exist to tell whether the melody will be going up or down, the
need for using them will make sense. We have found two exercises helpful.
(1) Knowing which octave sign is which. People tend to study the eight octave signs in order,
but may not have an idea of what notes are covered by each one. A game you can play is to
play a note on the piano and ask the student what octave it falls into and the braille sign that

should be used. This may be easier for a student with perfect pitch, and you should remember
that contrary to belief, absolute tonal memory is not much more common with blind people
than sighted. Even without perfect pitch, a student should be able to gain an idea of the
ranges octaves fall in, and this will make his reading of music easier.
(2) Learn rules from writing. Let the student write down a melody with octave marks. Have
him dictate it back to you, reading where he put the octave marks, and play it exactly the way
he gave it to you. If he made a mistake, he will know it immediately and will gain an
understanding of how the rules work.
Accidentals and Key Signatures. Braille music has signs for sharps, flats, and naturals.
The student must remember that these signs are placed before the note, not after it. It is not
"C-sharp", but "sharped C." Beginners often make the mistake of reading the accidental as
being on the previous note. The key signature is given at the beginning of a composition and
is not repeated unless it changes. Therefore, a student must remember that, given a signature
of two sharps, F and C are always sharped unless preceded by a natural sign."
Intervals: Intervals are made much more use of in braille than normally, because they
are used to show more than one note appearing in the same place in a measure. The linear
nature of braille prevents more than one note from being written on the same beat. In fact,
braille music employs special interval signs not found in print, and these provide practically
the only means for writing chords. Chords cannot be written vertically. To show that the
notes C, E, and G are to be played simultaneously, rather than as a sequential melody, one
writes the root note C, a third interval sign, and a fifth interval sign.
Notes are counted differently depending on which hand plays them. Since 1956, all
music in the United States is brailled with intervals counting down from the root with the
right hand and counting up in the left hand. Before then, there was no standard, and Older
music often was written differently. It has only been recently that the 1956 rule has become
the standard in all countries. More about this in our discussion of working with braille scores.
For the student, the procedure of using intervals to represent chords means that he must
become comfortable with them before his peers would in a harmony class. Ear training to
recognize their sound will be very helpful. Also, it might help for the student to memorize the
"look" in braille of common chords so he can recognize them quickly without needing to
figure them out each time.
Smaller Values and Grouping. Many books save the teaching of sixteenth notes and
smaller values for later. The reason is that, because the dot combinations for rhythms are
limited, the same signs must be used again for small values. Thus the sign used for whole
notes is used for sixteenths; halves for thirty-seconds, and quarters for sixty-fourths. The

reader knows the difference by keeping the time signature in mind and counting notes in a
measure. Obviously, if a measure has several signs that look like whole notes, they must be
sixteenths. This is seldom a source of confusion, but the technique called "grouping" often is.
Grouping divides music into beats. The first note or rest in a beat is written in its true value -sixteenth, for instance; the remainder of the notes in the beat, if they are also all sixteenths,
are written as eighth notes. There are a number of explanations why grouping is used. Some
say it helps people keep track of beats when there are many notes comprising them. The sign
for eighth notes, without any bottom notes, is easier to read and transcribe. Grouping does not
conserve any more space than not using it would, but it is a standard thing that is used, and
students must become accustomed to it. If a student says something is an eighth note when it
is really something of a smaller value, it is probably because he forgot about the possibility of
grouping. Encourage the student who gets confused to count the number of notes in the beat.
In-accords. Measure or part-measure in-accords provide a means of showing the keyboard
player two or more note sequences to be played simultaneously with one hand. The need for
in-accords arises from the same problem of not being able to write notes vertically or connect
them with stems. One melody is written, and the division and in-accord signs signal where
the second part begins and ends. Students often have trouble knowing which goes with what.
Repeated practice and illustration should help.
Space savers -- Repeats and Doubling of Signs. If anything can be done to save the
amount of space braille music takes up and the time it takes to transcribe it, you can be sure
that space-savers will be used to the fullest advantage. Braille music has several more types
of repeat signs than in print. Identical parts of measures may be written just once with the
repeat sign a certain number of times, and then perhaps the measure close. It is often
confusing to keep track of the number of times a measure part, full measure, or series of
measures are repeated.
Another technique is "doubling of signs." If several notes are to be slurred, for
example, A slur sign is written twice after the first note and then once before the last note to
be slurred.
The braille music code has many other signs not covered here, such as fingering,
dotted notes, ornaments, breath signs and abbreviations. A look through the table of contents
of any manual will show you the others that will be important to your student. Whether you
cover the twenty-four lessons in the Primer, or use another book or system, it is important for
the student to know and to have practiced the basics so that the transition from the instruction
book exercises to the real score is as smooth and comfortable as possible.

Acquiring the Score

Before one can begin working with a score or method book, it must first be located
and acquired. This requires advanced planning. The idea of advocating for oneself to make
sure the proper material will be there when it is needed should be stressed to the student. As
early as possible, the student should be involved in the ordering process. If the score is
available from a library, it may come in a few days or a few weeks. If it needs to be
duplicated or transcribed from scratch, it could be a matter of months. As soon as you or the
student know what materials will be needed during the course of the year, that is the time to
begin the search for them. If a student will be taking a music course in college, he should be
encouraged to get in touch with the teacher as far in advance of the course as possible for the
book list.
Sources of Music Scores. Full addresses of the agencies mentioned here are given at
the end of this article. The major sources of braille music in the United States are the Music
Section of the National Library Service of the Library of Congress, which offers materials on
loan; the National Braille Association, which has hand-transcribed music for purchase and
provides a registry of transcribers who can produce short music assignments on request; and
the American Printing House for the Blind, which currently does not braille music but has
older materials for purchase and maintains the Louis Database of Accessible Materials,
which lists the holdings of agencies throughout the country.
Beginning the Search. At the moment there is not just one catalog to which one can
refer for all braille music. Several projects are underway to compile such an index both in
this country and abroad. The Union Catalog maintained by the American Printing House at
the moment is probably the closest to a single index, particularly with regard to handtranscribed music. In Europe, the Students Library for the Blind in Amsterdam contains one
of the world's largest collections of braille music and keeps a database of completed scores
and those in progress in several European countries. In England, the Royal National Institute
for the Blind and Library for the Blind have large music collections. The latter agency has
compiled a list of libraries throughout the world containing music braille. A central source on
the availability of music in Canada is the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
Music Section, Library of Congress. The most practical way to begin your search for
braille music is to call the Music Section. The toll-free number is (800) 424-8567. Follow the
recorded directions for leaving a message for the Music Section, and a librarian will return
your call.

The Music Section contains a substantial collection of not only scores, but method
books and learning materials in braille, large-print and recorded form for people of all ages
and levels of ability. The largest holdings are in classical music, but the list of other genres
represented is growing. The Section publishes popular music lead sheets and a magazine
called Musical Mainstream, which contains articles from print periodicals and information
about new braille acquisitions. Examples of method books include the Alfred Piano Library,
Mel Bay's Classical Guitar, Sight Singing for Beginners, and the Belwin Band Series.
The Music Section has several catalogs and circulars available, listing instrumental, vocal
and keyboard music. While these catalogs should be in the collection of any serious
musician, it should be borne in mind that most of them date from the late 1970's. If you
cannot find a particular book you are looking for in the catalog, that doesn't mean that it is
not available. A good rule of thumb is to call the Music Section and inquire about a particular
When making a request, be as specific as possible. The latest edition of a method
book may not be available. Would an earlier edition work? Some of the Section's holdings
were brailled before the 1956 standards became effective. Would this be a problem for new
The Music Section provides other services that may be of help to the student and
teacher. Since the Library of Congress also trains transcribers and proofreaders, it can be
consulted for problems that may arise from interpreting the braille score. It should also be
remembered that the Music Section has available on extended loan many of the braille music
manuals mentioned. The Dictionary of Braille Music Signs is yours to keep, and is a must for
anyone who will be reading music extensively.
Getting Music Transcribed. If a conscientious search reveals that a particular book or
piece is not in braille and a substitution cannot be made, the material will need to be put into
braille by a transcribing agency.
One of the best places to turn to is the National Braille Association in Rochester, New
York. NBA works with transcribers around the country and can assign your material to one
of them. If it is a short piece, turnaround may be fairly fast. An entire book will take a much
longer time. The number of highly trained music transcribers is very small and the pool of
proofreaders certified to proofread music is even smaller. Assignments will be done on a
first-come-first-served basis. Master copies of complete books are kept in the Association's
Braille Book Bank so they may be duplicated for others who need that title. The Association
also keeps a registry of transcribers willing to do small assignments for personal use.

Another agency, National Braille Press, does not transcribe music itself, but keeps a
list of Individual Braille Transcription Services which it updates regularly and makes
available without charge as a public service. The agencies listed produce small assignments
for individuals, and some can handle music (see resource list). Volunteer groups, transcribers
and proofreaders are listed in the reference circular, Volunteers Who Produce Books,
available in large print or braille from the National Library Service of the Library of
When arranging for a small piece to be transcribed, it can be helpful to give the age of
the person using it, so that the braille can be set up to meet the student's particular needs and
At this writing, two companies, Dancing Dots and Perspectives, provide braille music
transcription by computer, using software they market. The most efficient way to get music
transcribed by these companies is to supply them with computer files with the music in Lime
or MIDI file format. If such files cannot be provided, the companies will transcribe from the
print score. Work is being done to develop ways for print music to be scanned and then
converted into braille. While it is now theoretically possible to do this, it will be a long time,
if ever, before the accurate rendering of braille by this means will be automatic enough to be
practical. Until new developments come on the scene, it is probably best to use the computerbased services in situations where the music is simple and straightforward, and where fast
turnaround is required. It is safe to say that more complicated music transcription, which
requires decisions on how best to convert a highly visual score into something a blind person
can work with, will remain an art of interpretation and judgment which humans still do best.
From the Primer to the Score
How easily a student will be able to make the transition from what he has learned in
the music braille instruction manual to a regular braille score will depend on several factors:
how well he has learned the material, what instrument the score is for, the type of music -folk, classical, jazz -- the braille style or format used, and how motivated the student is to
spend the time necessary for analyzing each measure and committing it to memory.
Memorization of the music beforehand, and the time it takes to do this, are among the biggest
challenges for the musician using braille music. Again, the best resource for a teacher to gain
an understanding of what is involved in interpreting scores for keyboard is Dorothy
Dykema's book, They Shall Have Music. Here we will outline some of the challenges
students at the Music and Arts Center have confronted in their work.
As was pointed out earlier, the thing that can be most intimidating about a music score
is the profusion of signs. The situation is similar to the exchange student who has studied the

language of the country he will be visiting, and now finds himself actually among people
speaking it. He looks for things he knows in order to make sense of what is going on. In the
same way, the braille music reader must have the patience to look for things he already
knows and then decide whether the dynamics, ornaments and other signs are necessary for
the first reading. It is easy to become overwhelmed, and one must learn to look at a little at a
Flute and single-voiced instruments. Probably the most fortunate are those whose
instrument is the flute or something like it. Parts for these instruments are written much as a
simple passage in the braille music manual. Additional signs would include breaths and
Vocal music can be fairly straightforward. Usually the words are written on the line
above the music. Repeat signs for both words and music are used extensively to save space.
In popular music, guitar chords may be written as regular braille letters below the words.
Classical pieces with multiple parts will have a few measures of each part on separate lines.
Accompaniments that differ from the music being sung may also be given. Many teachers
use sight-singing books as a means of providing students with practice in reading braille
music. It should be remembered that many sight singing exercises make extensive use of
intervals, which will make the braille score more complicated.
Keyboard Music. Finding the best format for music for two hands has challenged
transcribers for as long a braille music has existed. Since 1956 music in the United States has
been brailled in a style called bar over bar. Thanks to the work of international committees,
this style, as well as the American format of intervals --down from the right hand, up from
the left -- has just recently become the standard in sixteen countries. The New International
Manual of Braille Music, to be published in 1996, sets forth these standards. Because older
books and materials from other countries may be set up differently, students should be at
least aware that some things may look different.
Bar Over Bar. In this style, now the standard, a few measures are written on the
braille line, with a runover of perhaps one line. The notes for each hand are on separate lines
(hand signs distinguish each one for the reader.) Measures are spaced out so that the notes for
each hand line up as closely as possible.
Some older formats include bar by bar, in which a measure for the left hand is
followed immediately by the notes for the right, and paragraph by paragraph, in which eight
or sixteen measures are written first for the left hand and then for the right. In some older
books, measures for one hand may take up several pages before the same measures in the

other hand appear. This can be inconvenient if trying to understand the relationship between
both hands.
Intervals. Older music may have intervals written in the same direction for both hands
or opposite from the way used in the United States. A student seeing such a score may play
passages in the wrong sequence or with incorrect notes. Usually comparison with the print
can help the student resolve the problems of format and intervals. If not, it may be necessary
to call upon an experienced braille music user or the Library of congress.
Transcribing Interpretations. Although there are many rules to help transcribers make
decisions of interpretation as consistent as possible, there will be times when music in one
braille score will appear different from another. The transcriber's job, after all, is to analyze
the print page and render it in the best way that a braille user can read it, and the decisions as
to how to go about it can vary. Often different music for the guitar, or other instruments,
which are written in different clefs, may require the transcriber to decide which octave mark
to use. Also, there are times when one transcriber might use intervals, where another would
accomplish the same thing with in-accords. A student should consult someone with the print
version if there is a question about octaves or other variables.

I once saw a demonstration done by a teacher in a residential school, where each
student in a chorus was given music and words to sight-read. After a short pause, they were
able to perform the piece together. In those days, just about everybody in the residential
school used braille music on a daily basis. Today, with few people to compare themselves
with, students and teachers may not be able to assess what realistic capabilities are. Reading
braille music can be complicated and memorization comes much harder when one cannot
play through a piece fluently as a sighted person would. Yet it can be done. Teachers must
remember to keep a balance in their expectations. There is a danger of demanding the
impossible, if they are not aware what the problems are, but there is also a danger of not
challenging the student enough because of an unawareness of the possibilities. Braille music
is just one of the tools a blind student will need to have in his arsenal. Each student has
different abilities and will be able to achieve a certain level. As a teacher, it is important that
you let the student try the various options and find out, in a safe environment, what works for
him and what doesn't. If the student is going off to another school or a college where he is

unknown to all, he should be comfortable about saying "this will work" or I can't do this
exactly the way you want, but here's a way that I could do it."
All this may be overwhelming, but it may seem less so if you and your student work
as partners in a team. There are others willing to share their experience with you. It is
satisfying to work together on a problem, and especially so when the result ends up as music.

(3/15/99 draft)
Most of the books mentioned below are available on loan to people who are blind or
physically handicapped from the Music Section, National Library Service for the Blind and
Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20542; (800) 424-8567, or
(202) 707-5100. Addresses are also given for where these books may be purchased. The NLS
Music Section is the largest source in the United States of music scores, method books and
course materials in braille, large print, and recorded form. The Music Section has several of
the books mentioned here in regular print for the use of teachers and parents. Print books
must be borrowed in the registered borrower's name.
Instruction Manuals for Students and Teachers
Burrows, Anne. Music Through Braille. Edmonton: M.E. MacNAB Corporation, 1987, ISBN
0-921889-00-3. Braille and print editions soon to be available for purchase by U.S. readers
from the Canadian National Institute Library for the Blind, 1929 Bayview Avenue, Toronto
Ontario Canada M4G 3E8; (416) 480-7520. A comprehensive textbook for beginning
students of braille music, particularly suited for group interaction. Explanations are clear and
exercises have students reading meaningful musical passages and well-known songs. The
rhythm exercises are particularly fun and interesting. An annotated table of contents quickly
acquaints teachers with the organization of the braille music system. Recommended for
consideration for classes of several blind students.
Dikeman, Thelma Corless. Braille Music for Piano Beginners (for students aged 7 and up);
Dikeman, Thelma Corless. Music Piano Course Book One: A Specific Method of Piano
Study for the Blind Student. 1978; (For students aged twelve and up, and adults). available
for purchase from MATVI, att.: Caralyn Pender, 913 County Road, No. 612, Lewiston, MI
49796. These method books provide study materials "so that the student may learn braille
music symbols as he learns to play them, in the same manner as a sighted student learns to
read print music as he learns to play." Each volume has print opposite the braille, so a parent
or teacher can follow along. Book One of the piano course begins with whole notes and takes
the student slowly through learning a few scales, chords, and other note values. The bar over
bar method of reading music for two hands is introduced. There is no Book Two.
Dykema, Dorothy. They Shall Have Music: A Manual for the Instruction of Visually
Handicapped Students in the Playing of Keyboard Instruments. Carbondale, Illinois: privately
published, 1984. Braille and print editions on loan from NLS Music Section; braille edition
available for purchase from National Braille Association, Inc., 3 Townline Circle, Rochester,
NY 14623-2513; (716) 427-8260. Purchase print edition from the author at 604 North Allyn,
Carbondale, IL 62901; (618) 549-6164. An experienced blind pianist and teacher offers
guidance for the regular piano teacher who will be working with a visually impaired student
for the first time. Based on an extensive survey of blind musicians and teachers, the book
discusses the several approaches people have used, explains braille music, and strategies for
overcoming challenges. Contains comprehensive resource information.

Jenkins, Edward W. Primer of Braille Music, New Revised Edition, 1960, with 1971
Addenda. braille and print editions available on loan from the NLS Music Section; braille
and print editions available for purchase from The American Printing House for the Blind,
P.O. Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085; (800) 223-1839, or (502) 895-2405. Starting
with eighth notes, this book divides the basic signs of braille music into twenty-four lessons.
Additional lessons and addenda cover signs and methods of presentation of music for
particular instruments. Explanations are brief but sufficient for the student already familiar
with music concepts to learn on his own. Excellent short exercises provide practice for each
sign learned. Beginning students need the help of a teacher in order to make best use of this
Krolick, Bettye. How to Read Braille Music: An Introduction, Second Edition. San Diego:
Opus Technologies, 1998. Braille edition available to students from the NLS Music Section.
Print, braille, and multimedia CD-ROM editions available for purchase from Opus
Technologies, 13333 Thunderhead Street, San Diego, CA 92129-2329; (619) 538-9401. This
book is written in a cheerful style addressed directly to the student. Vocabulary is at the fifth
grade level, making it useful to elementary school students as well as adults. The signs
introduced apply directly to beginning or intermediate level music. Concise explanations and
examples are supplied, but not practice exercises. Practice is gained from using the actual
books used in class or from other sources listed, such as the Primer of Braille Music. An
index of signs helps the student identify new symbols as they are encountered in reading
music. Recommended for use with a teacher, but its explanations make it possible for even
the young student to work independently when the teacher has a minimum of contact hours.
This new edition is only slightly expanded from the original, published in 1975 as How To
Read Braille Music, Book I, with an Index of Music Symbols. The first may still be used.
There is no Book II.
Krolick, Bettye. Dictionary of Braille Music Signs. Washington, DC: National Library
Service, Library of Congress, 1979. A dictionary of braille music symbols found in music
scores. This is meant as a reference for the person who already knows braille music and
needs to identify a symbol when reading; it is not a teaching manual.
Levy, Rita. Tactile Music Notation. Privately published. On loan from NLS Music Section.
Not currently available for purchase, as a new edition is being prepared. A manual for
learning to read print music using the Optacon from TeleSensory Corporation. Provides
musical examples and practice.
Mark, Sr. Mary, and McGuire, Lenore. Piano for the Blind Child. Los Angeles: Office of
Faculty Publications, Emaculate Heart College, 1962. Addressed to the parent or teacher of a
young child, this provides a logical method for orienting the child to the piano keyboard and
introduces reading braille music. The first section provides explanations and rote exercises;
the second, published separately in braille as Read, Remember, and Play, provides short
piano pieces in braille music.
Music and Arts Center for the Handicapped. Curriculum for Blind Student Musicians.
Bridgeport, 1997. Music and Arts Center for the Handicapped, 510 Barnum Avenue,
Bridgeport, CT 06608 (203) 366-3300. Outlines the skills needed by a blind musician
preparing for advanced study at a college or conservatory, and suggests means for gaining
them. Based on the Center's experience in working with its students, and input from
professional blind musicians.
Partridge, Joan. Braille Music for Beginners for the Piano. Braille edition published by the
Royal National Institute for the Blind, London, 1982. A classic teaching book for braille
music in the United Kingdom; English terminology and conventions make it difficult for use
in America.
Taesch, Richard. "The Literacy Movement--What does braille music have to do with it?" The
California Music teacher, Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall 1994 pp. 14-16. This is one of the many

articles, some as yet unpublished, which the author makes available to teachers and other.
Mr. Taesch is head of the Music Education Network for the Visually Imapaired and can be
reached at the Braille Music Division, Southern California Conservatory of Music, 8711
Sunland Boulevard, Sun Valley, CA 91352; (818) 767-6554; E-mail
For the Braille Transcriber
Braille Authority of North America. Manual of Braille Music Notation 1988, American
Edition Louisville: American Printing House for the Blind, 1988. The official code reference
for braille music used today.
De Garmo, Mary Turner. Introduction to Braille Music Transcription. Washington, D.C.:
Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, 1970. Although not
brought up to date with the latest code changes, this remains the teaching book for the
Library of congress's course for music transcribers and remains the book used by anyone
interested in learning how to put music into braille.
New International Manual of Braille Music Notation, Bettye Krolick Compiler, 1996. U.S.
distributor of print, braille, and CD-ROM versions: Opus Music Systems, 13333
Thunderhead Street, San Diego, CA 92129; (619) 538-79401. Sets out standards for music
codes adopted so far in 16 countries.
Introduction to Music Braille, 1995. National Braille Association, 3 Townline Circle,
Rochester, NY 14623-2513; (716) 427-8260. Explains braille music and how to learn to
transcribe it.
Handbook for Music Braille Transcribers, Second Edition, 1993. National Braille
Association; Reference book for use by the trained braille music transcriber. Clarifies rules,
shares tips, and provides examples of problem situations and ways to deal with them.
Individual Braille Transcription Services, 1997. National Braille Press, 88 St. Stephen Street,
Boston, MA 02115 (617) 266-6160. Updated annually, this lists agencies that can produce
braille for individuals; a few can transcribe music.
Volunteers Who Produce Books. Washington, D.C.: National Library Service, Library of
Congress. Available in print or braille from the Reference Section, National Library Service
for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20542;
(800) 424-8567. Directory of volunteer agencies and individuals who transcribe or record
books and other materials for blind readers. Includes braille music transcribers and
proofreaders. The listing is alphabetical by state.
Link to the Comprehensive Resource List: