Future Reflections Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille
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by C. Michael Mellor
Originally published under the chapter heading “Music” (pages 79-81) in the book Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by C. Michael Mellor. Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher, the National Braille Press Inc, Boston, Massachusetts. <www.nbp.org>
Editor’s Note: The beauty, logic, and simplicity of the Braille tactile dot code was early on adapted for musical notation by Louis Braille himself. The following account of when, why, and how Louis Braille devised this system for the blind comes from Mellor’s fascinating and beautiful biography, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius. Published in several formats by the National Braille Press, this biography is truly an extraordinary achievement and a must-read for anyone interested in the life of this remarkable inventor. Here is Mellor’s account of that little-known aspect of Braille’s accomplishment--the development of the music code:
Braille excelled in music from the start of his studies at the Institute [the Institut Royales des Jeunes Aveugles], winning the top prize for solo cello in his fifth year. By then, Braille’s reputation as a musician was firmly established. An excellent organist, he played in several parishes in Paris, including Notre-Dame-des-Champs and Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, which had a fine ancient instrument. During summer vacations, he earned pocket change tuning pianos around Coupvray. In 1839, when one of his very capable students was about to leave the Institute with no means of making a living, Louis offered him his own position at Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs.
A Good Ear
The Institute was noted for the high caliber of its music programs, dating back to the time of Guillié. Nonetheless, blind musicians such as Louis were seriously hampered by the lack of a system of musical notation that could be read with the fingers--the same fingers that were needed to play the instrument! Haüy had introduced music to students at the school from the beginning, but his methods shared the same weakness as his raised-print efforts: He simply enlarged and embossed print staves and notes, which proved impossible to read by touch. That left most blind musicians with only two options: either improvise or memorize the piece. “While a good ear is important and improvisation is an excellent talent, a printed score is crucial if a musician, blind or sighted, wishes to adhere strictly to what a composer has written.”
It is indeed a challenge to present written music efficiently to the fingers. To use computer terminology, the sense of touch processes information serially (one bit of information after another), but the eye uses parallel processing. At a glance, the eye conveys to the brain a wide variety of musical information arrayed spatially in print: clefs, staves, time and key signatures, fingering, chords, accidentals, and so forth. With one look, the eye can also detect how notes are to be played: staccato, legato, bowed, plucked, muted, softer, louder, faster, slower, and so on. Louis Braille overcame this challenge with his elegant music code that gave the world’s blind musicians not only better access to a source of profound pleasure but also opened up precious employment opportunities.
Braille’s own students had urged him to find a way to adapt his user-friendly raised-dot system to music. His earliest music code was based on a method devised by 18th century composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), which had been adopted by the Institute to replace Haüy’s system. Yet Rousseau’s music had two very serious defects: It relied on embossed print, and it could not depict the values of musical notes.
Braille first improved upon Rousseau’s method by replacing Rousseau’s hard-to-read embossed print with his own six-dot Braille code. Remarkably, Braille’s simple cell handled all aspects of music without ambiguity.
In 1829, the school published Louis’s Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Chant by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, which depicted the musical notes to be sung in Braille dots, while the words appeared in embossed print. This innovation, which applied to singing only, was imperfect, and Braille spent five years reworking it. He revamped the music code entirely and based it on the seven notes that form a musical scale in the Solfège system (in French, ut, re, mi…, in English, do, re, mi…, or notes CDEFGAB). In this way, the seven notes in a scale have the same tactile profile in every octave.
Ingeniously, Louis recycled the Braille letters d through j to represent eighth notes in the musical scale. To make them quarter notes, Braille added a dot 6. To make them half notes, he added a dot 3. To get either whole or sixteenth notes, he added both dots 3 and 6. These dots always identify the note itself; other dots tell the musician in which octave the notes are to be played (or sung), and other relevant aspects of musical notation.
It seems at first confusing that notes on the fourth line can be either whole notes or 16th notes. In fact, the blind musician looks at the values of the other notes in the same measure to determine the value of such a note. To indicate chords, only the fundamental note is written; all other members of the chord are indicated by their intervals from the written note. Octaves are shown “simply by having the notes preceded by a symbol assigned to each octave.” Braille’s music code is perfectly logical--perhaps more logical than print music, where notes assume many different shapes and have a different appearance depending on the octave in which they appear. This means that a sighted musician has many more notes to learn than a blind musician does.
By 1834, he had developed the basic music code from which has evolved the intricate system now used by blind musicians. Unlike Braille’s literary code, which took decades to gain acceptance, his system for musical notation was so superior that it was adopted almost at once. In 1866, a music teacher at the Missouri Institution for the Education of the Blind asserted of Braille’s code, “…for music it is impossible to speak of too high praise in regard to it.”
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