Floris Schuiling

Braille music and spoken scores: inscribing musical abilities for blind musicians

The research presented in this paper forms part of a comparative ethnographic study of what I call Notation Cultures, investigating how the use of different forms of notation by musicians informs ways of conceptualizing music as a social and creative practice. The paradigm shifts in musicological research of the late twentieth century were generally premised on an opposition to the score as a primary object of research. This project looks at the ubiquity and diversity of notation across musical practices and approaches its writing and reading as part of human beings’ musicking behaviour.

This paper in particular presents results from fieldwork with blind musicians in the Netherlands. Throughout the twentieth century, blind musicians have used a special form of Braille notation to read music, but its use has always been restricted, both because of a lack of resources as well as the perceived difficulty of reading this notation. More recently, Dutch libraries for the blind have started producing “spoken scores”. With the increasing availability of audio devices—which have led to a decreased Braille literacy among the blind more generally—such spoken scores have become quite popular, especially amongst late-blind musicians.

Both systems remediate forms of reading that are familiar to most blind people, and repurpose them for the function of musical representation. Both systems work serially, with notes represented one by one and any signs affecting a group of notes—such as slurs, octave designations, or dynamics—functioning with “start” and “stop” signs, and frequently relying on their context to resolve ambiguities. The way in which the music is represented is thus clearly related to the physical habits and abilities of their users, and considering they are prescriptions for creative action, we might consider this relation to be reciprocal.

Peter Szendy describes arrangements as ‘a mutation of bodies—of the instrumental body as well as the interpretative body—that opens new possibilities to translate music to the letter’ (Szendy 2008, 55-56). Employing the concepts of “inscription” and “de-scription” of technologies by their users as found in Actor-Network Theory (Akrich 1992), I investigate how these forms of notation for the blind construct the musical abilities of musicians, and how musicians negotiate their technological affordances in using them.

From the perspective of disability studies, these notations are part of the socio-material networks through which blind musicians incorporate and enact their impairments; they co-constitute forms of musical creative agency for the blind, and enable forms of musical skill and knowledge not despite their bodily impairment but because of it. Their investigation may help us reconceptualise the creative agency of performing musicians more generally in terms of relationality and interdependence rather than freedom and autonomy.



Utrecht University, Netherlands

Specializes in the role of material culture and technology in musical creativity. He received his PhD at the University of Cambridge for his work on Amsterdam- based improvising collective the Instant Composers Pool, resulting in the monograph The Instant Composers Pool and Improvisation Beyond Jazz (Routledge 2019). His current postdoctoral project is entitled “Notation Cultures in Contemporary Music”. It presents a comparative ethnographic study of how different forms of notation construct ways of conceptualizing music as a cultural and creative practice.