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Refer this article as: Alexandre, M., Musicians and visual impairment: the INJA, Braille and music teaching in the 19th century (Part. 1), Points de Vue, International Review of Ophthalmic Optics, N66, Spring 2012

Musicians and visual impairment: the INJA, Braille and music teaching in the 19th century (Part. 1)

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Valentin Haüy and the founding of the INJA (Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles).

The first idea of systematic teaching for blind people was born in France. The first school was established in France and the method was then exported throughout Europe and America.

It is reported that when, in 1771, ten blind people kitted out in grotesque robes were paraded on a stage playing a tune on a variety of instruments, a young employee of the foreign office, Valentin Haüy, was so outraged that he decided to instruct blind people and get them to read properly. In 1784, after thirteen years of study and research, he tested his method on a young blind man named Lesueur. Initially Lesueur read by moving his fingers over mobile characters in relief which he arranged on a plank with horizontal slots. The same method was used when writing to dictation.

Fig. 1: Valentin Haüy (1745-1822) founder of the INJA in 1784 (Valentin Haüy Museum).

One day Lesueur found an invitation on which certain characters were indicated in relief and he showed Valentin Haüy that he could decipher several letters on this paper. Haüy immediately traced a few signs on the same paper using a penknife handle, and Lesueur recognised them without hesitation. Relief printing had been discovered! Haüy had a few books printed with relief characters; two sheets of paper were stuck together to enable reading on both sides of the pages.

This teaching method was seen as remarkably innovative by the institutions of the time, and other professionals wanted to witness the exercises carried out by Lesueur. The report published by the Science Academy, called on to judge this new method, was full of praise.

In 1784 the Philanthropic Society founded at its own expense a hospice for 24 blind people, where Haüy was appointed as teacher. The Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA) (National Institute for Young Blind People) was born. Later, a decree issued by the Assemblée Constituante (31st July 1791) created an educational establishment for young blind students which received, from Quinze-Vingts funding, an annual income of 13,900 pounds.

After moving many times, the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles was finally installed in premises built by the architect Philippon on Boulevard des Invalides in Paris, and was officially inaugurated in 1844, 60 years after the creation of the INJA by Valentin Haüy and 22 years after his death.

Fig. 2: INJA, Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles - Boulevard des Invalides - Paris.

After Valentin Haüy's retirement, new regulations (30th October 1815) assigned to the INJA the task of 'instructing blind children and giving them a useful craft'; ninety free places were created, a third of which were for girls. Scholars to whom grants were given had to be aged between ten and fourteen and the course of studies lasted eight years. The regulations allowed almost equally for intellectual studies, music and learning a craft. The music teaching prospered well and gained a real reputation. Piano studies made great progress and organ-playing was introduced.

Louis Braille's wonderful invention

In the years following Haüy's death (1822), an event of enormous importance took place in the Institution - the writing system using raised points was invented. The first idea for this form of writing was developed by a person from outside the Institution, a military man named Charles Barbier de la Serre. He tried to perfect for the visually impaired a machine invented for writing quickly and secretly, intended for use by army officers. Unfortunately there were many disadvantages to this machine, such as simplifying spelling, removing punctuation and the inability to reproduce figures.

A piano student then teacher at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles Louis Braille (1809-1852), who lost his vision at the age of three after an accident, modified and perfected the Barbier code before publishing his own method in 1829. He made writing much quicker by simplifying the characters considerably and also made it more rational by representing not the sounds of the spoken language but the letters of the written language. He also generalised it, introducing punctuation marks, figures and music notes.

His system was based on the formation of small points that could be read by running the index finger over the paper; writing was done by perforating the paper using a pointed instrument. This system has not been supplanted since being created by Braille.

Fig. 3: Louis Braille (1809-1852). 

In 2009 the French Post Office commemorated the bicentenary of Braille's birth with the issue of the stamp shown below, which includes Louis Braille's initials in the writing system he invented. The bicentenary was commemorated by blind people the world over.

Fig. 4: International Committee for the commemoration of the bicentenary of Louis Braille's birth.

The Braille alphabet

In the Braille alphabet, the first letter, a, is represented by one point, b by two points placed vertically, c by two points placed horizontally, d by three points in a triangle, etc. The first ten letters, through to j do not go beyond the first two lines and use a maximum of four points. The three other series use up to five points and are placed on three lines one on top of the other. Any letter marked with an accent is indicated by a special group of points; thus a is represented by one point, but à (with a grave accent) by five points: c is repre-sented by two points, but ç (with a cedilla) by five points, etc. The fifth and sixth series are used for punctuation. Two points placed vertically in front of another letter indicate that it is a capital letter.

The points are also used for calculations, by stenographers and for writing music.

Fig. 5: The braille alphabet (Source: Marly-le-Roi Institute website,

Musical Braille

- Notes

Musical notes are written following the alphabet, with the following equivalence, d = do, then e = ré, f = mi… Note that this equivalence is different from the one used by the Anglo-Saxons and the French to name notes: a = la, b = si, c = do…

Fig. 6: Musical braille (Source: Marly-le-Roi Institute website

- Rhythms

When no specific rhythm sign is indicated, notes are considered to be quavers. If one wants to write a crochet (lasting for two quavers) the point 6 must be added to the note.

To indicate a minim (four quavers), the point 3 is added.

For semibreves (eight quavers), the points 3 and 6 are added.

The many other rhythms require a specific and more difficult notation; this is also the case for octave and clef notation.

Do you recognize the following tune written in braille? (the key used is very close to the original, to avoid any alteration and make reading easier …). Here's a clue: the composer of this tune himself suffered from impairment to his senses. The answer is given at the end of this article.

Fig. 7: Do you recognize the following tune written in Braille ?


Music teaching at the INJA

Although blindness is not a factor in itself which gives blind people greater artistic abilities, they can indeed become good musicians, developing more acute hearing and, above all, a stronger power of concentration. They can also have sophisticated interpretation skills, almost as if their visual deficit is compensated for by keener hearing.

Music theory, as taught at the INJA, is not the same for blind people as it is in music schools for sighted people. There is more reasoning and less exercises, but the exercises that are done are analysed further and studied in greater depth. The teacher plays more complicated phrases on an instrument and the student has to analyse all the details. In these same classes, every day the students perform singing exercises with several singing parts.

- Playing an instrument

The piano is the instrument most frequently studied (using music written in braille). The student reads with his left hand every phrase to be played with the right hand and then reads, with his right hand, the part to be played by his left hand. The two parts that he has memorised are then played together. Students then play the piece for the teacher and gradually learn longer and more difficult pieces.

The organ is also studied; it is very important that good organists are trained which is why music theory and practical teaching are given on the organ located in the establishment's chapel. Lots of organists trained at the INJA have achieved a worldwide reputation; they will be the subject of a forthcoming article.

In practice, a blind musician cannot read music and play at the same time: it is impossible for him to 'sight read', and difficult for him to play in a chamber orchestra or full orchestra. A blind musician has to play from memory, with the exception of opera singers who, except when an opera is being staged, can read their music written in braille; sighted singers use their hearing, visual and tactile memory. Blind musicians compensate for their disability by memory of body position, which is essential, in piano playing for example. They do not have the visual example of their colleagues to help them learn, by studying their movements, the way in which to overcome a particular difficulty. Simple gestures must therefore be used, as they train alongside the others.

- The piano tuning-repair class

Another major objective of the professional musical teaching given is piano tuning. In 1836 a tuning-manufacturing class was started at the initiative of the industrialist Claude Montal, who went blind himself at the age of 5, and was a former student at this school. Montal taught maths at the INJA and was also a skilled craftsman, having studied in particular the mechanism and building of pianos. He even opened his own piano workshop and acquired a certain degree of popularity as an instrument maker. Thanks to the opening of this new class, lots of young blind people have been able to work in piano tuning-repair.

- Music teaching still holds a privileged position at the INJA

All students up to the age of 12 take 3 hours of music (theory) and 1 hour of piano playing every week. Specialist music classes are available for middle school students. Courses in instrument playing prepare students for entrance into national academies in organ and piano classes and 'music' options at baccalaureate level enable certain student to continue musicology studies at university.

The INJA also has a choir and a jazz band and the school year is punctuated with concerts attended by students and teachers alike.

Many people with visual impairment (often with albinism) or blind people still go successfully into work as piano tuners-repairers after taking a specific three-year course at the INJA.

To be continued…

Solution: the beginning of Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th symphony.

Director of Formoptic (Training and advice for opticians), France
About us


This article has been read 186 times
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Refer this article as: Alexandre, M., Musicians and visual impairment: the INJA, Braille and music teaching in the 19th century (Part. 1), Points de Vue, International Review of Ophthalmic Optics, N66, Spring 2012

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