Letter Aria

When I was in grade school, there was a brief period of time when one of the nuns decided that I and another girl should learn how to read and transcribe braille. Why? I can only think of two reasons, both valid: 1) it would use up time I would have otherwise spent disrupting the classroom, or 2) they figured it was likelier than not that I would foolishly blind myself someday, and I might as well get a head start. Anyway, I was never very good at it—both my stylus work and my reading were painfully slow—but just for fun, I looked it up today, and it turns out that I still remembered most of the alphabet. (Puzzle for the day: figure out which English letter breaks the otherwise consistent pattern.)

Now here’s a little diversion. Braille can also be used in a rather intricate way to notate music—and most of the symbols overlap. Using the letter names of notes to translate words and names into music is an old trick, the most famous being the BACH motive (Bb-A-C-B-natural). But using braille as an intermediary, you get a whole new set of text-to-music translations. Here’s one:


(Notice that “the” gets its own symbol, one of the many contractions that make braille a challenge to learn—and a breeze to use once you get good at it.) You can already see a lot of the characteristics that would be common using text-to-braille-to-music. Accidentals don’t overlap with any letters, so everything’s diatonic. And since each symbol is both a pitch and a duration, you end up with these odd-meter, non-symmetric rhythms.

Not everything works. BACH actually fails because both B and A are fingering indications, which make no sense without a note to attach them to. The C symbol translates into a slur, though, so as long as it’s between two notes, it fits. Shostakovich’s DSCH adaptation is ironically hopeful:


Arnold Schoenberg becomes a jaunty little alphorn tune (complete with a suggested fingering, brought to you by the letter B):


This is just an idle game, but one that would have been appreciated by the inventor. Louis Braille, son of a saddlemaker, accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with one of his father’s awls at the age of three; the resulting infection spread to both eyes and he was permanently blind within the year. As a teenager, expanding on the work of Charles Barbier, who intended his raised dots as a military code, Braille codified the six-dot system for embossing wet paper with, yes, an awl—the tool that cost him his sight would also, in a symmetry too unlikely for fiction, land him in the Pantheon (literally: he was reinterred there in 1952). But Braille was also well-known as an organist and cellist, gaining compliments from the likes of Felix Mendelssohn. The transcription of music evolved side-by-side with that for text—Braille’s 1829 handbook, which introduced the new method, covered both. In a way, braille music is a lovely closed circle: touch to mind to ear and back to touch.

Transcribing music into braille by hand is a time-consuming process, but the computer can make it easier, for a price: programs such as GoodFeel and Toccata can translate from MIDI files, or piggyback on the music scanning software SharpEye—GoodFeel also works with Finale and Sibelius. Frustratingly, my attempts to render the graphics for this post in a useful way for visually-impaired computer users came to naught—apologies.

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