Expert discussions in Madrid, september 2022: Braille codes and braille notation

These discussions and information change between braille experts took place during the EBU Braille Workgroup meeting in september 2022 in Madrid. Each discussion lasted one hour. This article represents the notes of the discussion with useful information and resources gathered during the meeting.

Moderator: Bart Simons

Braille music

The braille music code is universal in the whole world (as documented by Bettye Krolick). Blind people can read music scores that are produced in a different country.

The universal braille music notation is good, but does not incorporate all kinds of music played throughout the world (from simple guitar chords to more complex Asian music). Also some very old or modern music is written differently and can’t be transcribed with the existing braille music notation.

The Spanish braille commission has a group that is working on braille music. The group is not working on the code but on
– promotion such as videos and podcasts – giving more visibility to braille music and how to learn it.

The official manual is detailed and can only be understood by musicians. They made a simplified version that can also be read by less advanced learners.
There is a technical document with a simplified music code for young learners.
They are also extending the code to people who do not manage to read them in the original way.

In Spain, the music transcriptions are done manually. All the programs they tried, give a lot of errors. Others confirm that programs like Dancing Dots don’t respect the universal code. This means that we are very dependant on the availability of the few specialised transcribers who can do it by hand.


MakeBraille is a transcription software used in Germany. It is the result of the Daisy music project.

Makebraille works on line:

  • You sign in to a server;
  • you can send a scanned document (tiff) or a music xml file
  • you decide whether the translation should be fully automated or proofread by a human transcriber.

The service is free. A small fee is charged when you want the results to be embossed and/or proofread.

To get well formatted music xml files, you can use:

  • the German software Capella (not easy to be used by blind people)
  • musescore which is a better accessible progam that produced excellent music xml files.

If the user buys musescore software, it will give him/her the access to 10000 scores in music xml or mp3.

MakeBraille also works in the other direction: if you give it a well formatted braille document, you get a PDF with visual music translation. This is interesting for a blind music teacher of sighted learners.

Math and scientific notation

In print, these are also standardised symbols, but in braille there are different notations.
Spain uses SMU = unified math code.
The code is unified for Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries.
It is a typical braille notation, not text based.
They can emboss on braille paper but there is no software that translates the braille code into visual math symbols
For six dods braille they do it manually. They don’t convert from Latex or Mathtype.
For 8 dots braille there is an editor called Edico. It allows to input visual scientific symbols and the software translates it into braille. A teacher can create an exam for the student. the teacher does not have to know the code. The software gives a visual output of what the student has typed in braille.
Edico is a free stand alone software that you can download from internet. It does not need an internet connection to work. Files can be exchanged between users.
The code can be used for university studies in sciences.

There is nothing that limits this code to be used only in Spanish speaking countries. But they would need translated documentation to learn the code.
While the visual symbols are the same, it is unfortunate that we have a unified Spanish math code, a math notation in Unified English braille, the Nemeth code and several other regional braille codes.
Will countries want to give up their national habits and adopt one of the existing notations?
In french there is also a braille code but they are thinking to work directly in Latex. Just like braille, Latex is also a linearised notation and it becomes more international.
A similar evolution can be seen in Germany and Austria.

Phonetic alphabet

Again an example of print symbols that are visually not language specific. How do we present those symbols in braille?
Spanish speaking countries developed 50 years ago their own code for transcribing phonetic symbols.
Also the visual symbols in Spain were different from the international ones.
Then came the international phonetics alphabet: a standard for visual symbols for phonetics, IPA Braille came also in place by the English speaking countries.
Spain decided to drop their system and adopt IPA braille.
Except for a few visual phonetic symbols that are also visually specific for Spanish (They are not part of the IPA). For those +-12 symbols there is a specific braille variant.
IPA braile is clear and flexible. There are rules on how to extend it to include more symbols.

German speaking countries also try to adopt IPA braille and it is nearly finished.

Royal National Institute of Blind People – RNIB produces an IPA braille manual. It includes the tactile print symbols together with their braille variant.

Contracted braille

Contrary to the three previous topics, contractions are braille and language specific.
Dutch (Belgium and the Netherlands): no active standard, no books are produced in contracted braille and no teaching of contractions. People who learned it in the past can keep using it for personal notes. No braille tables or conversion software available.
Spain: stopped using it but they try to rethink it and make it better and easier.
Germany: uses contractions because it saves paper and more information fits on a braille display.
In Germany they mostly do not use the extension .brf, but
.brl. .brf is used, when You convert with Duxbury!

Contracted braille can’t be read by most non native speakers.
That is why Spanish braille experts decided not to use contractions to label medicine boxes, even if space is limited.
Hard copy books and .brf files in grade 2 are very common in the English speaking world. It is a pity that those materials can’t be exchanged with many interested non native speakers who are not familiar with the contraction rules.
In Germany the braille library offers the digital braille books also in non contracted format. Software is available to do the conversion. It remains more work to format both formats and you need to store 2 separate .brf documents.

With digitalisation the use of contractions can be a personal choice (screenreader braille table). We should not forget this flexibility in the e-braille discussions.
For most languages, the contraction rules existed prior to digitalisation. It is difficult to write perfact two way translation software.

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