LACO has partnered with the Braille Institute in Los Angeles for Haydn: Cello Concertos on October 19 & 20. As part of our effort to raise awareness about how visually impaired artists are able to practice and perform music, we invited Monique Marianni, an instructor at the Braille Institute to share her insight on Braille music notation. We are excited to share this fascinating information with you!

Monique joins Jeffrey Kahane on Sunday, October 20 at Royce Hall for the concert prelude to speak about Braille musical notation in more depth and David Simpson, also from the Braille Institute, is at the Saturday, October 19 concert prelude.

Interested in learning more? Visit the Braille Institute online to view their complete array of services and courses.

braille music notation

Where does the word “braille” come from? Simply – from the name of the man who invented it.

Louis Braille was born in 1809 (the same year as Abraham Lincoln) in Coupvray, a little village in France, not far from Paris. His father was a harness maker.

At the age of three, in 1812, Louis injured his eye in an accident while playing with his father’s tools. A tool slid from his hand and penetrated his eye. Not long afterwards, his other eye became infected and at the age of five, Louis Braille was totally blind.

In spite of his infirmity, he was allowed to attend the primary school of his village. He was immediately noticed for his insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge. But one crucial problem remained. Louis could neither read nor write.

At the age of ten, he was sent to Paris to a school for the blind founded before the French Revolution by Valentin Haüy, a philanthropist who had been so shocked by the plight of the blind, often mocked at, and earning a few farthings as clowns and beggars, that he decided to dedicate his life to their education.

At Haüy’s school, the Royal Institution for the Young Blind now the National Institute for Blind Children, pupils learned skills as well as grammar, geography, history, arithmetic and music. For reading, Haüy made a few books by embossing thick paper with the shape of print letters. But books were few and cumbersome and reading them was difficult; moreover, students still could not write.

When Louis was about fourteen years old, Captain Barbier – came to the school to demonstrate a method of night reading he had devised for sailors to communicate in darkness without drawing the attention of the enemy. This method consisted of twelve dots in different positions. It was rudimentary, not alphabetic, but based on sounds and deprived of punctuation rendering it clumsy to use. But it was from this method that Louis was inspired to create his six dots alphabet, punctuation system, and later, musical notation which performers have used throughout the world since his death in 1856.

In 1829 he published: Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, his first complete book about his new system. A few years later, Louis became the first fully blind teacher at Haüy’s school. An avid cellist and organist, Louis studied with Jean-Nicholas Marrigues and held the position of head organist at several Paris churches.

Braille musical notation is quite different from regular printed notation that sighted artists use. It is not based on the position of notes on different lines, rather it looks like a regular Braille text.

Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti are transcribed as ‘d’ ‘e’ ‘f’ ‘g’ ‘h’ ‘i’ ‘j’. And all manners of signs are added to specify octaves, pauses, length of notes. A blind musician cannot play and read music at the same time. In order to play, he or she must decipher and learn the whole score first. Throughout the ensuing centuries, different countries have adapted different standards for notation and intervals, but an effort in the past twenty years has arisen to create a more unified system.