A basic introduction to braille music code, with examples in braille, visual notation, and sound files. You can touch, view, and hear them.
Before we can dive into braille music notation, we will need to learn a few basic signs and rules.
The signs used for notes follow a certain system. The note name is encoded in the upper 4 braille dots. Braille letters d through j are used to indicate the note name. Dots 3 and 6 can be added to modify the note value.
|Sign||Dots||Note name||Possible values|
|⠙||1 4 5||C||1/8 or 1/128|
|⠑||1 5||D||1/8 or 1/128|
|⠋||1 2 4||E||1/8 or 1/128|
|⠛||1 2 4 5||F||1/8 or 1/128|
|⠓||1 2 5||G||1/8 or 1/128|
|⠊||2 4||A||1/8 or 1/128|
|⠚||2 4 5||B||1/8 or 1/128|
|Sign||Dots||Note name||Possible values|
|⠹||1 4 5 6||C||1/4 or 1/64|
|⠱||1 5 6||D||1/4 or 1/64|
|⠫||1 2 4 6||E||1/4 or 1/64|
|⠻||1 2 4 5 6||F||1/4 or 1/64|
|⠳||1 2 5 6||G||1/4 or 1/64|
|⠪||2 4 6||A||1/4 or 1/64|
|⠺||2 4 5 6||B||1/4 or 1/64|
|Sign||Dots||Note name||Possible values|
|⠝||1 3 4 5||C||1/2 or 1/32|
|⠕||1 3 5||D||1/2 or 1/32|
|⠏||1 2 3 4||E||1/2 or 1/32|
|⠟||1 2 3 4 5||F||1/2 or 1/32|
|⠗||1 2 3 5||G||1/2 or 1/32|
|⠎||2 3 4||A||1/2 or 1/32|
|⠞||2 3 4 5||B||1/2 or 1/32|
Finally, if both dot 3 and dot 6 are added, we are dealing with either a whole note (semibreve) or a sixteenth note (semiquaver).
|Sign||Dots||Note name||Possible values|
|⠽||1 3 4 5 6||C||1 or 1/16 C|
|⠵||1 3 5 6||D||1 or 1/16 D|
|⠯||1 2 3 4 6||E||1 or 1/16 E|
|⠿||1 2 3 4 5 6||F||1 or 1/16 F|
|⠷||1 2 3 5 6||G||1 or 1/16 G|
|⠮||2 3 4 6||A||1 or 1/16 A|
|⠾||2 3 4 5 6||B||1 or 1/16 B|
For people coming from a cultural background where notes are named like C, D, E, F, G, A, and B (English-speaking countries) or C, D, E, F, G, A, and H (German-speaking countries), you might have a hard time at first to read braille note names. However, there is a trick for memorizing them. Observe that the braille letters used to represent note names are shifted up by one letter. So the note C is written with the braille letter d, the note D is written with the braille letter e, and so on. The two exceptions here are the note names A and B (or H). A is written with the braille letter i, and B (or H) is written with the braille letter j.
There are four signs used to show rest values. As with note values, each sign can have two meanings.
|⠍||1 3 4||whole or 16th|
|⠥||1 3 6||half or 32nd|
|⠧||1 2 3 6||quarter or 64th|
|⠭||1 3 4 6||eighth or 128th|
Augmentation (sometimes also called prolongation) dots are represented with dot 3 directly following the note or rest sign.
Measures (bars) divide a piece into groups of beats, and the time signatures specify those groupings.
In braille music code, measures of music are separated with a space or newline.
Each part of a piece of music needs to end with the final barline sign (⠣⠅).
The time signature is often expressed as a fraction. In braille, we write a number sign (⠼) followed by two numbers - the first in the upper position, and the second in the lower position. If no time signature is specified, 4/4 (⠼⠙⠲) is assumed.
The following example specifies a time signature of 6/8, and puts 6 eighth notes on the third line of the five line staff.
The time signature is essential for value ambiguity resolution. Since all note and rest values in braille music code do have two potential meanings, the time signature, which specifies the duration of a measure, is required to determine the exact values of all notes and rests inside a measure.
Contrary to visual music notation, where clefs determine the pitch of a note, braille music uses octave signs to indicate the exact pitch of a note.
An octave goes from C up to and including B (or H). The fourth octave contains what is commonly called middle C.
An octave sign is placed directly in front of a note sign, without any other signs in between. The following example shows octave signs 1 through 7 placed in front of a quarter C.
There must be an octave sign in front of the first note of a piece. For all following notes, these rules apply:
If the next note is an interval of a second or third up or down, it does not need an octave sign.
If it is a fourth or fifth up or down, it receives an octave sign only if it is in a different octave than the previous note.
Compare the following two examples.
With an interval of a sixth or greater to the previous note, it always receives an octave sign.
These rules are demonstrated in the following example.
Value ambiguity is usually not a problem because knowledge of the current time signature will make it easy, in most cases, to determine to which of the two value categories a note (or rest) belongs. Where confusion is likely to arise (e.g. in the case of a half followed immediately by a 32nd), one of the value signs must be placed between them.
When a piece begins with an incomplete measure (pickup or anacrusis), and if there is any doubt as to the value of the first note or rest, the sign ⠠⠣⠂ is used if the note or rest belongs to the smaller of the two values.
Since braille music code uses octave signs, instead of clefs, to indicate the exact pitch of a note, clef signs are optional.
When a blind reader communicates with a sighted reader about a piece which is available in both braille and visual notation, it might be important to understand the implications of clefs. To make it clear why placement of clefs might be important, we need to take a small detour and explain how visual music notation actually works.
The staff (or stave, in British English) is the fundamental latticework of modern visual music notation upon which symbols are placed. The five staff lines and four intervening spaces correspond to pitches of the diatonic scale - which pitch is meant by a given line or space is defined by the clef.
A clef (French: clef; “key”) is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch of written notes. Placed on one of the lines at the beginning of the staff, it indicates the name and pitch of the notes on that line. This line serves as a reference point by which the names of the notes on any other line or space of the staff may be determined.
There are three types of clefs used in modern music notation: F, C, and G. Each type of clef assigns a different reference note to the line on which it is placed.
The treble (or G) clef identifies the second line up on the five line staff as the note G above middle C.
The bass (or F) clef identifies the fourth line up on the five line staff as the note F below middle C.
Finally, the C clef identifies the third line up on the five line staff as middle C.
Observe that the second cell of a clef sign is the interval sign that matches the line a particular clef symbol is usually place on.
If a clef symbol is placed on an unusual staff line, this can be indicated with an additional octave sign directly after the second cell in a clef sign. In this case, the octave sign is used to indicate a staff line.
|⠜⠌⠈⠇||french||G4 | 1|
|⠜⠬⠈⠇||soprano||C4 | 1|
|⠜⠬⠘⠇||mezzosoprano||C4 | 2|
|⠜⠬⠐⠇||tenor||C4 | 4|
|⠜⠬⠨⠇||baritone||C4 | 5|
|⠜⠼⠸⠇||baritone||F3 | 3|
|⠜⠼⠨⠇||subbass||F3 | 5|
Notes representing a pitch outside of the scope of the five line staff can be represented using ledger lines which provide a single note with additional lines and spaces.
The use of three different clefs makes it possible to write music for all instruments and voices, even though some sound much higher or lower than others. This would be difficult to do with only one clef, since the modern staff has only five lines, and since the number of pitches that can be represented on the staff, even with ledger lines, is not even close to the number of notes the orchestra can produce.
The use of different clefs for different instruments and voices allows each part to be written comfortably on the staff with a minimum of ledger lines. To this end, the G-clef is used for high parts, the C-clef for middle parts, and the F-clef for low parts.
Consider the following example, which does not use any clef signs in braille. As a result, a treble (G) clef is used in both measures in visual music notation.
Since the treble clef is the default, the first measure fits nicely on the five-line staff. However, the second measure requires up to 6 ledger lines below the staff to denote the low pitches in visual music notation.
If we add a bass (F) clef sign, in braille, at the beginning of the second measure, the visual transcription now fits on the staff without ledger lines.
Braille music code has no equivalent for staff lines and ledger lines, nor does it have a need for clefs. This is because the diatonic pitch of a note is encoded into the note sign, and octave signs are used to indicate the actual pitch of the notes. Clef signs are usually omitted in braille music code since they are not relevant to braille music readers most of the time.
However, if a braille music reader needs to get a clear understanding on how music is visually presented, they need to know which clef is currently in effect. For instance, a very low pitch played while a treble (G) clef is active might be unsuspected by a braille music reader, while it will require many ledger lines below the staff in visual music notation.
It is common practice to use a treble clef in the right hand staff of a keyboard part, and a bass clef in the left hand staff. If a passage of music differs significantly in pitch from what is common for a particular clef, braille music code writers should consider adding clef signs, as appropriate, to ensure that automatic conversion to visual notation will produce a pleasant result.
Additionally, clef signs might be important for communcation between blind and sighted music readers. While it should always be possible to indicate exact positions inside a piece by counting measures and beats, it is reasonably natural for a sighted reader to say something like, “After the F-Clef.” In those situations, it is particularly helpful if clef signs are presented in braille.
Just like lines and spaces in five-line staff notation, the pitches of braille music notes correspond to the diatonic scale. They can be essentially viewed as the white keys of a piano keyboard. To reach pitches that are a half step away from the diatonic pitches, accidentals are used.
Following the clef, the key signature on a staff indicates the key of the piece by specifying that certain notes are flat or sharp throughout the piece unless otherwise indicated.
The key signature in braille is usually stated together with the time signature at the beginning of the piece, optionally separated with a space characetr.
A beam in visual music notation is a thick line frequently used to connect multiple consecutive eighth notes (quavers), or notes of shorter value (indicated by two or more beams), and occasionally rests. Beamed notes or rests are groups of notes and rests connected by a beam; the use of beams is called beaming.
This kind of grouping is also used, with certain restrictions, in braille music code. Three or more 16th notes (but also smaller values) can be grouped in braille music. One group of notes should not be part of two different beats. The first note is written with the real value of the group, while the remaining notes are written as 8th notes.
Note grouping is also legal if it is started with a rest of the same value as the other notes in the group. However, rests are not allowed to appear anywhere else in a note group in braille music code.
If two or more notes sound at the same time and have the same value (duration) intervals are used.
In upper registers, or in the right hand of a keyboard piece, only the highest note is written as a normal note sign, and all other notes of the chord are written with interval signs downward.
⠀ ⠼⠙⠲ ⠀⠀⠨⠜⠨⠽⠌⠀⠽⠬⠀⠽⠼⠀⠽⠔⠀⠽⠴⠀⠽⠒⠀⠽⠤⠣⠅ ⠸⠜⠄⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠣⠅MP3
In lower registers, or in the left hand of a keyboard piece, the lowest note is written as a normal note sign, and all other notes of the chord are written with interval signs upward.
⠀ ⠼⠙⠲ ⠨⠜⠄⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠀⠍⠣⠅ ⠸⠜⠸⠽⠌⠀⠽⠬⠀⠽⠼⠀⠽⠔⠀⠽⠴⠀⠽⠒⠀⠽⠤⠣⠅MP3
If there are several interval signs following a note sign, there is no need to place octave signs in between unless the intervals are separated by an octave or more.
The pitches of the written notes determine if a chord needs to be prefixed with an octave sign or not.
⠩⠩⠀⠼⠙⠲ ⠨⠜⠄⠍⠣⠅ ⠸⠜⠸⠱⠬⠔⠤⠘⠑⠄⠤⠵⠤⠱⠤⠧⠣⠅MP3
When two, or at most three, notes of equal value move below or above a longer note, they can be written as intervals separated by dot 6.
If all simultaneously played notes of a part of a measure do not have the same rhythm, they are written as separate voices with the same duration. If the voices span a coplete measure, the full measure in-accord sign is used.
An octave sign needs to be placed in front of the first note of a part separated by in-accord signs, and the following measure needs to have an octave sign on the first note no matter if it is in-accord or not.
It frequently happens that a measure is too long or too complicated for this simple use of the in-accord sign, and it is then advisable to divide such a measure into convenient sections, each section being treated as an isolated unit of the measure. The sign used for this purpose is ⠨⠅ and it joins the sections on either side without intervening spaces. The in-accord sign used in such part-measure sections is changed to ⠐⠂ and the first note after both signs must have an octave mark.
If only one part of a measure requires an in-accord sign, a partial measure sign is used in combination with a partial measure in-accord sign.
In this example, the first measure splits into two voices at the third beat.
A measure can contain full measure in-accord and partial measure in-accord signs at the same time.
Ties and slurs are curved lines connecting notes in visual music notation. While they are visually quite similar, they represent difference concepts.
A tie is a curved line connecting the heads of two notes with the same pitch and name, indicating that they are to be played as a single note with a duration equal to the sum of the individual notes’ note values.
If notes of a chord are tied, the tie sign is placed directly after the corresponding note or interval sign.
A slur in visual notation connects several notes to indicate that they should be played as close together as possible.
The single slur sign (⠉) is used if at most four notes are slurred together. It is placed after every note except the last.
If more than four notes are slurred together, doubling can be used. The first note of a phrase receives a doubled slur sign, and the note before the last note in the phrase receives a single slur sign.