Dotted Notes – Part 2: Key and Time Signatures

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Welcome back to Dotted Notes. Today, we will be taking a look at how time and key signatures are handled in braille music,  as well as briefly touch on some basic rhythm notation as it applies in metronome markings.


Time Signatures


Time signatures are typically placed at the top of the first page, centered below the header and title, composer, and instrument of the piece if provided. They are also preceded by any expression markings, and by the number of sharps or flats for the key signature of the piece, the formatting of which will be provided below. Note that to indicate a change in time signature between measures, simply write the new mark with a blank cell on either side between the two measures.


If expressed numerically, the time signature consists of two numbers. The first number is written in the upper half of the cell, and shows the number of beats in a measure. The second number, written in the lower half of the cell, shows what note value will be assigned to a single beat.


For instance, Example 1 in the downloadable handout found at the bottom of this article shows a 4/4 time signature. The first symbol of the mark is made up of dots 3-4-5-6, which in the context of a time signature is just a regular number sign. Next is a regular 4, which indicates that there are four beats in the measure, followed by a dropped four in the lower half of the cell, indicating that each beat will be given the value of a quarter note.


Finally, the symbols for cut time and common time consist of a two-cell mark, which include the letter c preceded by dots 4-5-6 for cut time and dots 4-6 for common time. Examples 2 and 3 show the symbols for cut time and common time respectively.


Exercise: Exercises 1-5 found in the downloadable handout are different time signatures. Identify each, and check your answers against the answer sheet provided.


Key Signatures


When dealing with key signatures, we first need to know the sharp and flat symbols, which are identical and share the same rules both when used in a key signature and in indicating accidentals, as will be explained in a future article. Example 4 shows a single flat (dots 1-2-6), and example 5 shows a single sharp (dots 1-4-6). To indicate a key signature with three or less sharps or flats, the symbol is simply repeated as many times as the number of accidentals. Example 6 demonstrates this with a key signature that contains three flats. If there are more than three accidentals, the signature is written as a number immediately followed by the type of accidental. Example 7 shows a key signature that contains 5 sharps.


When indicating time and key signatures in the heading at the beginning of a piece, both key and time signatures are written together without being separated by a space. Example 8 demonstrates this as it would be written in the heading for a piece in 4/4 time in a key signature with four flats.


Exercise: Exercises 6-10 in the downloadable handout are examples of time and key signatures as they would be found in headings at the start of a piece. Identify them, and check your answers with the answer sheet provided.


Metronome Markings


Though pitch and note values will be covered in the next article, it is important to get a basic understanding of how these rules work to understand how metronome markings are written. In braille music, the pitch of the note is expressed by using the two uppermost rows of a cell (dots 1, 2, 4, and 5), and duration is indicated in the bottom row (dots 3 and 6). A note of indeterminate pitch is represented in braille by the same symbol as a C, so we will look at how rhythmic values are shown using this symbol as it will appear in metronome markings.


First, our note is written as dots 1-4-5. A quarter note is indicated by adding dot 6 to this, a half note by adding dot 3, a whole note by adding both dots 3 and 6, and an eighth note by adding neither dots.


Because of the limited number of symbols possible with the six dot configuration of a braille cell, each rhythmic value also has a secondary meaning. This is one of the more confusing aspects of braille music and it will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent articles, but for now know that this exists and it’s merely a matter of learning to read things according to the context they are in. A 64th note is the secondary meaning for a quarter note, a 32nd note for a half note, a 16th note for a whole note, and a 128th note for an eighth note. Examples 9-12 show a quarter note, a half note, a whole note, and an eighth note respectively. A dotted note is represented by the note value that is to be extended immediately followed by dot 3, as shown by the dotted quarter note in Example 13. A double dotted note is shown by a dot 3 in the two cells immediately after the note that is to be extended, as shown by the double dotted eighth note in example 14.


Metronome markings are written as the note value that will be used as the reference, immediately followed by an equals sign written as dots 2-3-5-6, and immediately followed by a number that represents the tempo to be used. Example 15 shows a metronome mark of quarter note equals 60.


Finally, any tempo mark is written before the metronome mark in regular literary braille, and is separated from the braille music that comes after it by a space. We’ll put this all together in Example 16, which shows a piece in 6/8 time in a key with three sharps, and with a tempo mark of andante and metronome mark of quarter note equals 80.


Exercise: Exercises 11-15 in the downloadable handout contain tempo, metronome, key, and time marks as they would appear in the heading at the beginning of a piece. Identify each and check your answers with the answer sheet provided.


Final Thoughts


It may not seem like much, but if you’ve made it this far, you are well on your way to being able to read music. There’s a lot here to unpack despite it being literally just the surface, so stick with it until all this makes sense and you’ll be set to go on with future articles.


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