Braille Byzantine Music Notation


Writing Symbols of the "Old Notation" of Byzantine Music in Braille

The Chrysanthine notation of post-Byzantine liturgical chant (commonly called "Byzantine notation" and also called the "New Method of the Three Teachers"--one of whom was Chrysanthos) is a descriptive notation, not a definitive notation. In other words, the notes merely describe the general contour of the melody. Therefore, in order to chant this notation in accordance with the oral tradition of Byzantine music (which is what the written melody attempts to describe), one must embellish it. These embellishments are not arbitrary deviations from the written melody, but they are specific interpretations that are executed by all traditional chanters. Many melodic phrases have more than one traditional interpretation, and different traditional chanters tend to favor certain interpretations over other interpretations.

Thus, the problem with Byzantine notation is that chanters without sufficient exposure to the oral tradition of Byzantine music will chant it dryly, note-for-note, which is also called "metrophonia." In other words, they will not know what interpretations are implied by the written score. Or even worse, an inexperienced chanter might try to embellish the melody in an arbitrary manner that is foreign to the tradition of this sacred liturgical art.

To address this problem, some composers have attempted to write out these embellishments analytically using many digorgons and trigorgons (i.e., sixteenth notes). Although this does solve that problem to a certain degree, it creates three other problems:

1)    Chanting music with many trigorgons is quite difficult.

2)    Analytically written music forces the chanter to interpret a phrase in a very particular manner, even though other interpretations may be equally valid and perhaps even preferred by that chanter.

3)    Intermediate chanters will usually not be able to associate an analytically written phrase with the same phrase as it would be written in older books in which musical phrases are not written out analytically. Thus, when they use those older books, they will not know how to interpret them. 

In 1982, Simon Karas found a way to address that problem of chanters failing to add the embellishements implied in Byzantine notation, and his solution does not have the aforementioned three drawbacks of analytically written music. He recommended adding eight symbols to Byzantine notation, which would remind chanters at what points in the melody a particular kind of interpretation is implied. The only drawback to this recommendation of his is that chanters would need to learn eight more symbols. 

Experienced chanters rightly point out that they themselves do not need such written reminders, and thus many of them argue that they are superfluous. They tend to forget, though, how many people lack their experience and could therefore benefit from these reminders. Yet even experienced chanters could benefit slightly by using music containing those reminders if they have a choir, because those symbols can be used to specify a particular interpretation of a phrase that has more than one way of being interpreted. For example, an experienced chanter would execute kentemata above an oligon above a psefiston in several different ways, and if there are others chanting the melody with him, they won't always correctly guess which interpretation he is going to use. As a result, they will sometimes chant something different, and their notes will clash.

The eight symbols Karas recommended adding to Byzantine notation (i.e., Chrysanthine notation), were symbols of the "Old Notation" that Chrysanthos had omitted from his "New Method" in 1814. Although these symbols had been used in the Old Notation, Karas attributed new meanings to most of them. The eight symbols were the following:

1.     Piesma (or "Piasma" or "Double Vareia")

2.     Oxeia

3.     Isaki

4.     Tsakisma (or "Tzakisma")

5.     Lygisma

6.     Tromikon

7.     Strepton (or "Ekstrepton")

8.     Parakletike


In Byzantine notation for the sighted, each of these symbols has its own unique shape. But to incorporate them into Braille Byzantine Music notation, we recommend using the following braille characters:

1. Since the Piesma is also called a "Double Vareia" (since it is written in Byzantine notation for the sighted as two small vareias beneath a note), the most logical choice in braille would be two write it as two consecutive vareias (dots 35, dots 35) placed before the note it affects. 

2. To indicate an "Oxeia" (which is written as a slanted oligon) dots 2356 should be inserted before any note containing an oligon. For example, a plain oxeia would be dots 2356 followed by an oligon (dots 156). An oxeia with a klasma would be dots 2356, dots 135. An oxeia with an ypsele would be dots 2356, dots 2456. When an oxeia is used as "support" (just as an oligon may be used for "support"), dots 2356 are placed before that oligon for support (dots 16). Although dots 2356 are already used in Braille Byzantine notation, they are only used in martyrias and fthoras, which means that this character cannot be confused with something else. 

3. To indicate the remaining six symbols, we recommend the following new rule: "Whenever the braille letter "K" (dots 13) is placed in the melody, the following braille character represents a symbol of the Old Notation, which affects the following note." Using the letter "K" will not lead to any ambiguity, since the braille letter "K" is only used in martyrias and fthoras. It is also easy to remember, since "K" happens to be the first letter of Karas's surname.

We recommend the following combinations, since they are easy to remember:

a)    Isaki: "KI" (dots 13, dots 24)  ("I" for "Isaki")

b)    Tzakisma: "KZ" (dots 13, dots 1356) ("Z" for "tZakisma")

c)     Lygisma: "KL" (dots 13, dots 123) ("L" for "Lygisma")

d)   Tromikon: "KT" (dots 13, dots 2345) ("T" for "Tromikon")

e)     Strepton: "KS" (dots 13, dots 234) ("S" for "Strepton")

f)      Parakletike: "KP" (dots 13, dots 1234) ("P" for "Parakletike")

Using the letter "K" in this manner has the further advantage that it allows for a total of 63 different braille characters to be used in conjunction with it. Six of them have been designated meanings above, but the remaining 57 combinations may be used by musicologists who need a way to write in braille the dozens of other symbols of the Old Notation (e.g., the Kylisma, Pelaston, Syrmatike, Ouranisma, Kratemoyporro, etc). 


As of today (August 19, 2010), the Association of Blind Chanters is evaluating these recommendations. They hesitate to begin using these symbols for the following reasons:

1)    They make the long list of symbols to memorize even longer.

2)    They increase the number of braille cells occupied by a melody, which means that slow readers of braille might have difficulty reading them fast enough to read music in church.

3)    They are not as unobtrusive as they are in Byzantine notation for the sighted.

4)  Most members of the Assocaiation of Blind Chanters are unfamiliar with the musical interpretations associated with these symbols.

Click here to return to our main page about Braille Byzantine Music Notation.