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Should Braille Intervals Read Downwards or Upwards?

In about 1960 braille music standards were changed so that braille intervals read downwards in the right hand for soprano instruments and keyboard right hand parts. They wanted to make the melody line easy to recognize. The underlying assumption is that you’ll have to base things on recognizing what you’ve heard before. What an insult to our intelligence! Hearing is not reading, and reading is not based on hearing. Sighted musicians do not rely on recognizing a piece they’ve heard in order to read it, and neither should we.

When my music theory teacher learned that braille chords in the right hand are written contrary to music theory, he was furious. Every music theory class in the whole world requires students to build chords from the bottom up, and for good reason. If the cans in your pantry are mislabeled, you won’t know what is in them. If you say “gab” no one will guess you meant “bag”. If you play the right chord but say it downwards, it will be counted against you, because you are WRONG. You would be stating the chord backwards, and no one would understand you. Chord names are based on the name of the root note. Chords (and chord progressions) are built from the root. My theory teacher never got over his anger.

Unlike print music, braille is linear. This offers a unique opportunity to build and reinforce the concepts of chord structures and progressions. ASSUMING the intervals read upwards in both hands. If they read downwards, it does the opposite, blocking these concepts in the piece and degrading proper though processes.

Mastering music theory is challenging for anyone. Obviously, it will be harder for a blind person. Braille music that contradicts music theory makes an already challenging task even more difficult - when it could have made easier! This misguided policy has undoubtedly reduced the number of blind students who successfully master music theory.

But the damage does not stop when music theory class is over. Chords that read downwards will continually cloud your view of chords and their progressions - which will hinder the development of your skills and damage your confidence. You’ll have to struggle to see the chords and progressions the rest of your life. Of course, this won’t be a problem in music for instruments that don’t play chords.

Reading music with intervals reading upwards in both hands quickly reveals chord structures and progressions. You will understand musical pieces based on their music theory foundations. This will improve your skills, from memorizing a piece to interpretation to performance to composition.

I believe in this so strongly that before I attempt to play a piece, I go through a lot of work to get the piece to read properly. I usually transcribe the braille copy into Lime music notation software. Then I use the GoodFeel braille transcriber (by Dancing Dots) to produce a computer braille copy. This results in a clean, easily legible piece with both hands reading upwards. I have developed a substantial library of classical keyboard pieces this way (see CDs-MP3s for examples of my performance). But because of the standards, Library of Congress has not published them. What are they afraid of?

In summary, the current standard claims to make it easier for beginners to pick out their part. This misguided standard sacrifices the musical development of all who are subjected to it. Many of those beginners they mean to protect have been doomed to stay beginners. Many have set aside braille music altogether, saying it does not work.

The dubious benefits of this standard most certainly do not justify the terrible costs.

April, 2024 article by Rick Epperly, Edited by Steve Heinze.

Permission is hereby granted to share or publish this article freely, but only in its entirety.

 


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