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The difference between Braille Music and printed notation

I was talking to a friend of mine today, and I got to thinking about the differences between braille music and the printed score.  My first thought was “they are like worlds apart”, but then I began to list them all. I thought it could be helpful for teachers teaching blind students.

First of all, unlike the printed score, blind musicians can only read a small section of the music at a time. We cannot scan the score as sighted musicians can, and as a result, it is much slower to sight-read. As a vocalist, it is relatively easy, but piano music is much slower. We do however have bar numbers in our music, which makes referencing sections easier both for blind musicians and their sighted teachers. We also use repeats signs, such as the one bar repeat, sectional repeats, etc., and things like da capo are in braille as they appear in the printed score. 

Because of this inability to read large sections at once, and the fact that as a pianist or brass/wind player, in particular, we cannot read the music and play at the same time; we have to memorise all our music. And I must admit, that is the hardest part of the process. I can read the score and hear it in my head, but it’s painful to learn every note, every fingering and every articulation.  I’ve learnt over the years time-saving tricks, but that’s for another post.

It can be hard to refer to a braille copy of the music during lessons, as it can really slow us down.  Teachers are better off working with whatever the student already learnt, or perhaps teaching a bit more of the piece by rote, as many blind children have a great ear and find this fun.  

Unlike the printed score, braille music has no clef symbols. No treble on the bass clef. We use what we call octave markings. The bottom notes piano are octave 1 and continue to the B above. Middle c is octave 4, the c above that is octave 5, and so on, right up to octave 7.  There are rules regards when these signs are used, which I don’t need to go in to here. But it is handy as a teacher to know that this is what we use rather than clef symbols and lines and spaces.  

In piano music,  a braille music transcriber will probably mostly assume that if the notes are below middle c, it will be you the left hand, while notes above middle c will be played with the right. This can make things like hand-crossings extremely difficult for a blind person to work out which hand plays which notes. It can also be the same as composers like late-romantic 20th-century composers. These works are incredibly complex to write in braille, and you as a teacher will probably need to help the blind student   Work out how the hands fit together. 

Unlike the printed score, braille music does not have the order of sharps and flats. The printed score shows the sharps at the beginning of the score. In braille music, we only have the number of sharps or flats in the key. For example, two sharps. We have to know what they are. F and C, which would make the key D major or B minor.  We learn the circle of 5ths early on out of necessary and I think this is an advantage as we are forced to know our theory early on.  

There are probably other differences as well, but these are the main ones. Please comment here if you have any questions.   

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