Written by Julie Harrison, CSDB Music Therapist
A few years ago, our elementary school TSVI (Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments) Julie Vinikoor, approached me and my music therapy intern, Mia Hartley about creating a way for pitch to be used as a memorization strategy for her students learning braille letters. She noticed that many of her students that year had excellent affinity and memory for pitch. Indeed, most of her students had perfect (or absolute) pitch: They could identify a musical note without the assistance of a reference pitch. Studies have indicated that this skill may be more common in blind populations than in the general population (Hamilton et al. 2004; Vitouch, 2003).
We formed the Tonal Braille Team (Julie Vinikoor, Mia Hartley, Jamie Lugo, Sharon Kay and myself) to study the effectiveness, among eight students, of using musical pitch with the braille cell. We used six bells (pictured above) to represent the dots in the braille cell, and assigned fixed pitches to each of the dots. We created a procedure to teach braille letters using these pitches. This tonal braille strategy was successful for 7 of the 8 students. One of the issues that we encountered was that to use this strategy with bells, the facilitator must be able to sing on pitch, which isn’t always feasible, especially for teachers not trained as musical therapists. Dr. Keith Harrison helped us develop a voice-controlled Android app that plays the pitches of the bells, and displays the corresponding braille cell on the screen and on a braille display. Video of the app in action
If you are interested in helping us gather data on the effectiveness of this strategy, or if you would like to learn more about the app, please contact Julie Harrison, MT-BC at Jharrison@csdb.org or Sharon Kay, MT-BC at Skay@csdb.org.
Hamilton, R. H., Pascual-Leone, A., & Schlaug, G. (2004). Absolute pitch in blind musicians. Neuroreport, 15(5), 803–806. https://doi.org/10.1097/00001756-200404090-00012
Vitouch. (2003). Absolutist Models of Absolute Pitch Are Absolutely Misleading. Music Perception, 21(1), 111–117. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2003.21.1.111