American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2017       MUSIC AND DANCE

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Braille: The Man and His Code for Music

by William R. McCann

From the Editor: Bill McCann is the founder and president of Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology. He has authored numerous articles about his work to automate production of Braille scores with his company's first product, the GOODFEEL Braille Music Translator software. GOODFEEL is now in use throughout the United States and in fifty other countries. With Richard Taesch, McCann is the co-author of Who's Afraid of Braille Music? This article was written shortly before the 2009 bicentennial celebration of Louis Braille's birth.

The song is ended,
But the melody lingers on.
You and the song are gone,
But the melody lingers on.

These words by Irving Berlin were written about bringing an old love to mind. But we can apply them aptly to the important work of a genuine hero of the blind, Le Professeur Louis Braille. As we approach the bicentenary of his birth, it is a fitting time to pay homage to his memory and to his enduring legacy.
It is my privilege and my aim in this article to acquaint the reader with an aspect of Braille's work that too often has been overlooked. I try to give a relatively nontechnical description of his system for music notation and propose that it is still relevant in our time.

The Man Himself

Bill McCann sits at a keyboard with a student.Once a comedian was trying to tell a joke, but he kept interrupting himself by laughing. Someone in his audience asked him why he kept laughing, and he explained that it was because he knew how this story was going to end. To properly appreciate the work of our benefactor or, for that matter, of any great figure in human history, we must engage our imaginations and transport ourselves back to a time when the story was not yet over. Nobody yet knew the ending or even whether that ending would be a happy one.

No doubt, some readers of these pages can relate quite personally to the youth of only ten years whose loving father, in 1819, brought him from his happy home in the countryside to the strange surroundings of the school for the blind in the big city of Paris. How many blind people up to our own day have had to live away from home during their developing years to gain an education? At the world's first school for the blind, Braille found not only a portal to the world of learning and ideas but also hours of study and labor in the various enterprises of the school, such as slipper making.

After his life-changing meeting with Captain Charles Barbier, who shared the technique of "night writing" with the teenager, Braille forfeited many hours of sleep to study and design his significant adaptation of Barbier's system. At the age of twenty, he published his system. But universal acceptance and recognition of his work had to wait for many years after his death.

Louis Braille worked diligently during his short life to teach other blind people not only music, but also mathematics, geography, French, and history. He took on many other duties aside from teaching, such as serving as foreman for the school's slipper-making operation. He played the organ professionally for masses and other liturgical functions. He encouraged and supported members of his extended family and his many friends.

Yet Braille suffered real adversity. Not everyone believed in his work. There was a time when a new director of the school even burned all the books produced in Braille's code! Add to all of this the fact that Braille contracted tuberculosis in his mid-twenties, the disease which ultimately took him from this world at the age of forty-three. Despite his illness he kept on working, teaching, and caring until the day he died.

But why even discuss these things? Precisely because we are the beneficiaries of the hope that Louis Braille never abandoned. Each time we read a Braille book sitting outdoors on a sunny day, learn to play a piece of music from a Braille score, or Braille ourselves a grocery list; any time we read or write for school, work, or leisure, we are collecting the dividends of a life invested fully in the conviction that an inspired, innovative idea has the power to overcome adversity, prejudice, indifference, and even injustice. Let us never forget Braille's example, especially during those times when these obstacles appear in our own paths. May his example strengthen our own resolve to prevail over adversity, improve our own circumstances, and leave a legacy to those who follow us.

Braille's System for Music

Until I founded a company in 1992 to develop a Braille music translator software, I was among the majority of people who did not know that Louis Braille invented Braille music notation. Even though I had been reading and writing Braille music for many years, I somehow had the impression that the application of Braille's writing system to music came after his death. To the contrary, Braille considered music notation from the very beginning. In 1829 he published his system under the title Procédé pour écrire les paroles, la musique et le plainchant au moyen de points a l'usage des aveugles et disposéness pour eux. So music and singing were in the mix right from the start.

Braille played the piano, the cello, and the organ very well. He yearned to read music just as sighted musicians did. He tried using tactile representations of printed staff notation, but rejected it as ill-suited to the needs of blind musicians. Such scores were bulky and expensive to create, just as similar tactile editions of literary texts were. He determined that what was needed was a system that maximized the ability of the human finger to collect information. Instead of mimicking the method of input based on the human eye, Braille substituted a method optimized for the sense of touch.

Again, since we know very well how the story ends, we simply accept that the Braille cell contains six dots. But why? In fact, Louis Braille experimented with using cells of twelve or more dots. But he knew intuitively that a cell of six dots guaranteed that each dot was on an outside edge. Modern technology has brought us the marvel of paperless Braille displays, which have the option of showing an eight-dot cell. But anyone who has ever been confused by an eight-dot character that does not use Dots 1 and 4, but includes a Dot 7 or 8 knows why the six-dot cell avoids ambiguity.

But wait! The six-dot cell yields only sixty-four unique combinations. How can Braille's system express equally well text, mathematics, and musical information with such a small number of characters? The answer communicates the elegance of Braille's creative mind. He redefines each of these characters to carry a different meaning, depending on the type of information to be written. For example, Dots 1-3-4-5 represent the letter n in text, a variable value in mathematics, or a half note to be played on the musical pitch C. Braille and others since his time have developed rules of context that help readers know when which type of information is being shown in a document. The ability to change comprehension of the type of Braille code being read is called code-switching. Experienced Braille readers do it unconsciously and without confusion.

Braille's system is quite well defined. It permits the accurate transcription of minute details of a score of Western music written in conventional staff notation. That is, the Braille score shows not only the notes to be played and their rhythm (how long they should be played), but such details as the text for titles, lyrics, etc.; when to play more loudly or softly; when to speed up or slow down; when to play passages smoothly or by leaving a bit of silence between notes (staccato). In short, Braille insisted that the blind musician have access to the same information conveyed to sighted musicians; every detail of the piece that the composer thought important to write down.

A part in Braille music notation reads from left to right along a single line, unlike print notation. Braille assigned the top four dots of the cell (Dots 1, 2, 4, and 5) to represent the seven degrees of the Western scale by seven unique combinations. He used the bottom dots (3 and 6) to indicate the rhythmic value of a note. Therefore, under the tip of a single finger, one can know the pitch to be played and how long to play it. A series of seven octave signs tell us in which register the note should sound.

For example, Middle C is indicated by the fourth octave sign (Dot 5), which immediately precedes the cell showing the note. The first note of a passage must be written with an octave sign, but subsequent notes may or may not need one, depending on their musical distance from that first note. Braille established a set order for other signs that must precede or follow a note. By following this logical presentation of information, a transcriber can clearly communicate the slightest nuance of musical performance.

But can't blind people just listen to sighted musicians playing a piece of music from the score, and thus learn to perform it? There is a global tradition of passing on music aurally, and I myself have learned many a tune by listening. But if a blind musician learns a piece by mimicking the interpretation of the music notation read by a sighted player, he or she is separated from seeing that specific information the composer wished to pass on in order to help musicians faithfully realize the music to be performed. In other words, the blind musician can only follow and not lead. We know that the symbols on the page, whether print or Braille, are not the music but a means of helping us to recreate the music heard in the mind's ear of the composer. As the only blind member of our high school band, I sometimes learned to copy perfectly the mistakes of the sighted trumpet player beside me until I received my Braille scores and could play certain passages correctly with confidence. As blind people we must sometimes follow. Having the information available to sighted peers empowers us to lead when we wish. Success breeds success and points us in a positive direction.

Mrs. Bettye Krolick, the woman I lovingly refer to as the Fairy Godmother of Braille music, once told me how she got started in transcribing music into Braille. It was 1970. She had studied hard and learned to transcribe her first assignment, some clarinet music for a local elementary school student named Jeff. Soon after, at an early-morning band rehearsal, she observed the student, Braille score on his music stand, playing one of the parts before practice began. A couple of the sighted students looked on, and one said to the other in admiration, "He plays from memory!"

On hearing this remark, Jeff sat up straight and tall in his chair and played on with greater confidence than ever. This simple but eloquent gesture by a blind fourth-grader motivated Mrs. Krolick to dedicate a substantial portion of her life's time and energy to transcribing, standardizing, and promoting the use of music Braille all over the world. She quickly realized that memorization comes naturally to the blind, and that she could provide in Braille the unfiltered information the composer meant to convey to the player.

Just as we can more fully appreciate the grandeur and magnitude of a great mountain the farther it recedes in the distance, as time passes we can look over our shoulders and see our hero's stature grow as he towers over literary history in the company of innovators like Gutenberg, Edison, and Helen Keller. In fact, Miss Keller traveled to Paris in 1952 to commemorate the centennial of the death of Braille. At that time his remains were moved to the Pantheon of Heroes of the French people, amid many special events and tributes. I myself am blessed and honored to be invited to speak about Braille's system for music at our own generation's tribute, which will take place on the occasion of the bicentennial of Braille's birth in Paris in early January 2009. I hope to greet many of you there on that joyous occasion and to continue to add my own efforts to preserve and extend the heritage of this patron saint of the blind, Louis Braille.

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