Not only did Louis Braille develop a tactile code, known today as braille, he also designed the braille music code, which enabled people who are blind to read music.
All of its signs and symbols were created using the same six dot braille cell used by literary braille - one of the ways the braille music code differs from print music which does not look like English letters.
Musician and Vision Australia music transcriber Jordie Howell started learning braille music at a young age because her piano teacher thought it would help her to become a more independent musician.
She quickly became fascinated by it.
“Suddenly I got to see the notes I was playing represented in tactile form and it all made sense,” she said.
“I was quite excited.”
This introduction to braille music has led Jordie down a brilliant career path including professional singing, teaching braille music and transcribing print music to braille music.
Differences between print music and braille music
In print music, musicians are able to determine the pitch of a note by its position on the stave (the set of five horizontal lines and four spaces).
If a note is in the top line of the stave it will be higher in pitch than a note in the bottom line.
In the braille music code, the seven notes, A, B, C, D, E, F and G, are written individually using different combinations of braille dots.
Other combinations of dots are used to provide information including the sharpness or flatness of a note and the octave it should be played in.
There is also a difference in how the length of a note is shown. In print music, the shape of a note indicates how long it is.
For example, musicians reading print music are able to distinguish between a crotchet (one beat) and a quaver (half a beat) because of their different shapes.
In braille music, quaver notes are written using a combination of the top four dots in the braille cell.
By combining those dots with the dot in the bottom right hand corner of the cell, you can turn the quaver into a crotchet.
Although it may seem difficult to get your head around, Jordie explained the benefits braille music brings to people’s lives makes the challenge of learning it worthwhile.
Importance of literary braille
Although it can be difficult for people who are used to literary braille to adjust to the braille music code, Jordie said it would be more difficult to learn if you don’t know how to read literary braille.
“I think you could learn a basic melody, but literary braille is interwoven into every aspect of braille music including the title of a piece, the composer and the musical instructions.”
Braille is such a vital companion for any age and Jordie encourages anyone who has thought about learning braille but hasn’t taken the plunge to do so, because learning braille music could follow after.
Learning braille music
Braille music feels identical to the literary braille signs and letters under your fingers.
For example, to write a G quaver you would use the same combination of dots as you would use to write the letter H.
As Jordie pointed out, this is often confusing for someone who is used to literary braille.
“Learning wasn’t always fun and there were definitely times when the enthusiasm petered out and I would feel like I was learning too slowly.”
These days, Jordie is highly proficient in braille music and she uses it in many different ways.
“I wouldn’t be able to do all the singing I do without braille music,” she said.
“I sing for Christ Church South Yarra as a choral scholar.
“Knowing how to use braille music means I have the scores for all the music we perform in front of me.”
It has also opened up many professional opportunities for Jordie.
“For two days a week I transcribe music in to braille with the help of volunteer readers who dictate the music scores for me.
“I also teach braille music to students who are blind or have low vision.”
Jordie highly recommends musicians who are blind learn how to use braille music.
“You don’t have to be a classical musician.
“You could be a jazz guitarist or a pop singer and still have the benefits of braille music under your fingers to help you know when to repeat a chorus or play different parts of a song more loudly or quietly than others.”
“I think there’s a way to implement braille music into your life no matter what musical stage you’re at.”