How To Read  Braille Music Notation 







Fifty-Second National Conference
College Music Society

Minneapolis, Minnesota

September 23–26, 2010



            Braille music notation as an aid to the visually impaired musician was not a singular invention but an evolutionary system involving many earlier contributions.


Barbier in 1819 provided the first system using dots.  A dot system, previously used as a signaling device in the army, utilized a twelve-dot cell in conjunction with a five-lined musical staff.  Placing these symbols between spaces, above and below the staff, the notation appearance was similar to that of actual musical notation


Don Gabriel Abrew developed a system that utilized an initial eight-dot at the Royal College in Madrid in 1855.  Proponents of this cell, (four by two, arranged vertically) claimed that both music and words could be read simultaneously


Figure 1

Abrew Eight-Dot Vertical Cell 


Various other methods of symbolization were experimented with at this time.  The Petzet system developed in Vienna used a special Roman character for each tone of the Chromatic scale.  A refined version of this system used lower Roman letters to indicate notes and rests.  Kraams in Germany developed an eight-dot cell running horizontally.


Figure 2

Kraams Eight-Dot Horizontal Cell


The most important name in the history of notation systems is that of Lewis Braille.  Braille was born in Coupray, France in 1809.  He lost his sight in 1812 while playing with his father’s harness-making tools.  After studying at l’Institution, Nationale des Jeune Aveugles in Paris, he was made a professor at this school.


            Braille initially experimented with raised letters of musical notation but quickly discarded this method.  Working with Barbier’s twelve-dot system, he simplified it into the six-dot cell that stands today.





The Braille System

              The Braille Music Notation system is relatively easy to understand.  The following examples provide an overview.


Note Values and Names

            The system is composed of a set of six raised dots forming a cell.

Figure 3

Numbering System of Braille Music Cell


Two forms of information are conveyed by the musical Braille cell, the note (upper four dots), and the time value (lower two dots).  Thus the note C as an eighth note (without three and six dots raised) would be identified as illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4

Braille Note C – Eighth Note


To indicate the note C as a quarter note, dot six would be raised in addition to one, four, and five (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

Braille Note C-Quarter


To show the note C as a half note, dot three would be raised (see Figure 6).

Figure 6

Braille Note C-Half



A whole or sixteenth note would have both 3 and 6 raised (see Figure 7).

Figure 7

Braille Note C-Whole or Sixteenth

The value of the note would be identified depending on the placement of the note in the overall context of the measure.


In Figure 6, the C scale is shown written as quarter notes.

Figure 8

C-Scale Written in Quarter Notes



            The following symbols (Figure 9) are for various rests.


Figure 9

Rests Written in Braille



           Figure 10 illustrates the Sharp, Flat, and Natural signs.


Figure 10

Accidentals Written in Braille


            To indicate a note as sharp, flat, or natural, the accidental is placed before the note as in Figure 11.

Figure 11

F Sharp and B Flat Written in Braille


Time Signatures

            The time signature is developed around the usual two numbers found on musical notation.  A signature sign precedes the top number sign then followed by the bottom number (see Figure 12).


Figure 12

3 and   6 Time Signatures Written in Braille

                                                  4         8


Key Signatures

            The key signature is combined with the time signature at the beginning of the piece and is usually placed on an indented line OVER the music notation (see Figure 13 and 14).


Figure 13

Key of F, one flat, four-four Time



Figure 14

Key of G, two-four  time


Octave Signs

            The visually impaired person reading Braille notation uses the same symbol for the note “C” whether it is at the bottom of the “bass clef” or at the top of the treble.  The clef signs as the sighted would know do not appear.  Instead, an octave sign appears before the note or notes, identifying where that note or notes should be played (see Figure 15).


The following signs are used to designate octaves.

Figure 15

Octave signs in Braille


            As an example of what each designation means, the 4th octave is indicated in Figure 14.  This octave starts on middle C and proceeds to B on the third line of the treble clef.  Similarly, the fifth octave would start on the third space and include B above the staff.

Figure 16

Fourth Octave Ink Print Designation


Chord Designation

            To indicate chords, especially important for keyboard instruments, interval symbols are used to show the location of additional notes.  The left-hand part is read from the bottom note, and the intervals up from that note, while the right-hand part is read as the top note of the chord with the other intervals indicated below it (see Figure 17). 

Figure 17

C Chord – Third Octave; Fourth Octave



            The chord signs in the previous section assume that all notes have the same rhythm.  When a measure is to be separated into two or more parts and these parts are to be played at the same time, the in-accord sign is used for clarity.  Bettye Krolick (1975) gives an example of how this is accomplished (see Figure 18). 


Figure 18

Musical Example Using In-Accord Sign (Krolick, 1975, p. 25)


Composition Formats


As Braille music notation has been changed and adapted to better serve the performance capacities of the visually impaired musician, so have the compositional formats used for greater ease of Braille reading.  Five formats have been used predominantly and are still in vogue at this writing.  These formats include bar over bar, bar by bar, paragraph, phrase, and sight format.



           Bar-over-bar format provides the musical lines over each other enabling the player to realize some harmonic aspect of the piece being played.  This style is one of the newest, and approaches the normal grand staff concept of musical composition found in the majority of keyboard music.  Krolick  (1975, p. 23) provides an example in Figure 19.

            Bar-over-bar format would seem to the sighted musician at first glance to be the ideal method for tactually realizing the harmonic and rhythmic relationships between two or more lines.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In most situations the only harmonic lineup is at the beginning of each measure.  As the music includes extended groups of sixteenth notes, dotted rhythms, or any of the more complex symbolic patterns, the vertical proximity of the harmonic relationships becomes detrimental to the player depending on them too closely.  A second reason for the limited use of bar-over-bar notation is that the player must use two hands on the page.  Bar-over-bar format does have the advantage of allowing the player to keep the place harmonically while reading, which is important for beginning students.  It is one method and should be considered in light of the type of music being read.



            The bar-by-bar method presents a measure of one hand for keyboard players and then the same measure for the other.  Throughout the piece this alternation appears continuously.  A problem inherent in this system is that neither a vertical nor horizontal feeling for the music is ever given.  The memorization of individual lines is hindered because of the fragmentation necessary for this method.


Paragraph Method

            The paragraph method is used especially for music with words.  A section or paragraph of words are written and preceded or followed by the notation.  The reader memorizes the words and puts the notes to the words as closely as he or she can.  This method has its problems especially as the music becomes more complex and there are alternate possibilities of synchronizing notation and words.


Phrase Method

            The phrase method is more accepted than the paragraph method as the piece is broken down into shorter sections.  The reader is able to work with short sections that are more easily fit to sequential word structures and not confused with longer sections.  This format is limited in applicability to sight-reading because only short sections of notation are presented with the corresponding words following.


Sight Method

           The sight method has been used experimentally at the Jacksonville School for the Blind.  This method arranges the notes and words in short group fashion hence making it possible to read more or less “at sight.”  The notes follow words, with the fingers assimilating the words and notes as short sections.  The applicability of this method definitely depends upon the level of reading ability developed by the students.  A beginning student will have more trouble with this method then an advanced student.  Again, as with the other methods it should be noted that the type of music, complexity and the learning abilities of each student, should be considered before one of these methods is applied.

Figure 19

Musical Example Using Bar-Over-Bar Format (Krolick, 1975, p.23)


Computer Assistance and Tactile Braille Display

Computer transcription of traditional musical scores to Braille and their display through tactile display devices are important new technological developments for storage and dissemination.  Software now allows scanned musical scores to be transformed immediately to Braille that can be read by tactile devices.  Computer software such as Goodfeel and Toccata allow the transformed musical scores to be sent to an embosser where Braille copies can be immediately produced.




The present system of Braille music notation is an evolutionary format. It   is constantly being improved and presently benefits from transcribing software and new hardware devices for tactile reading.


For visually impaired musicians, Braille provides a vehicle for accessing repertoire in tactile hardcopy, in addition to providing a means for archiving created compositions and exercises in “written format.”  The future is bright for visually impaired musicians utilizing the Braille music notation system as an increasing focus has been developed for providing Braille music materials for students who can benefit from their usage.



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Braille Music Reference Websites

An Introduction to Music for the Blind Student-- A course in Braille music reading.  <>


Opus Technology Products <> Good location source of information about Braille Music resources including Braille music transcription programs and Braille music translator.


Dancing Dots <http:/> -great source of information about technology and music for Visually Impaired and Blind individuals.