Braille Byzantine Music Notation
Writing Byzantine Music for the Blind
When the House of the Blind was established in Athens in the beginning of the twentieth century, the teachers associated letters of the braille alphabet with letters of the Greek alphabet and taught this to the blind students. The students also learned the braille music notation used in Western Europe. Although this notation enabled them to transcribe music written in staff notation into braille, they had no way of transcribing music written in Byzantine notation, which is the primary method for writing ecclesiastical music in Greece. Two people addressed this problem: Demetrios Chrysafidis and Father Dositheos.
Demetrios Chrysafidis tried to solve the problem by converting Byzantine music melodies first into staff notation and then into the braille music notation of Western Europe. For example, he equated a one-beat note on Nee with a quarter note on Do. Furthermore, he added to these quantitative symbols the qualitative symbols of Byzantine music: the vareia, the omalon, the antikenoma, the psefiston, etc., as well as symbols for modulants.
This method of writing music seemed quite easy to them that lived in the House of the Blind, since it did not require that they learn another notation in addition to the European braille music notation that was already taught. Chrysafidis was appointed as the teacher of Byzantine music at the House of the Blind for many years, where he taught his version of Byzantine music to the students there.
Father Dositheos, on the other hand, approached the issue of writing Byzantine music in braille differently. Let me first say a few words about Father Dositheos. He was born in Attalia in Asia Minor in 1912, and his name was Pantelis Paraskevaidis. When he was three years old, he lost his vision due to meningitis. Two years later he also lost his mother. As if these two calamities weren’t enough, a greater calamity followed: At the age of ten, he was exiled from his homeland due to the exchange of populations following Greece’s war with Turkey. Thus he became a refugee and lived with his relatives in Greece. Soon afterwards, he joined the House of the Blind, where he learned Greek braille and European braille music notation.
His love for the Church was so strong that when the church bells rang on Sunday, he would weep because the children at the House were not allowed to go to church. Whereas today, there is a chapel in the courtyard of the House, but the children don’t even attend the services.
Soon after learning braille, he began working on a way to write Byzantine music notation in braille. He wanted a system that would correspond completely to the Byzantine music notation used by sighted chanters. He did not want it to be different because he believed that the interpretation of written music depends on the notational system used. He saw that Byzantine music notation needed to be converted into braille so that both the blind and the sighted would have a common notation and thus have a common ground for understanding, working together, and communicating. Thus, with the help of God and his own brilliance—for he was a great genius—he managed to translate all symbols of Byzantine music efficiently into braille by the age of fifteen.
Two years later in 1929 he went to the Holy Mountain, where he became a monk and was given the name Dositheos. [The Holy Mountain is an ancient monastic community of twenty monasteries on a peninsula in Northern Greece.] There he perfected his system of braille Byzantine music notation and began transcribing music books into his notation. When he returned to Athens eight years later, he presented his notational system to his blind colleagues. One would have thought that they would have enthusiastically embraced his work that was so important and so needed. Unfortunately, however, the people in charge of the House of the Blind and the Lighthouse of Blind had no understanding of Byzantine music. Other blind chanters, who had already begun using Chrysafidis’s system, were not willing to learn another system and claimed that it was difficult and impractical. In our opinion, such claims are erroneous and detract from the credibility of people who make them. When the blind make such claims, it is as if they themselves admit that they are mentally inferior to their sighted colleagues.
Nevertheless, a committee was formed to judge which notational system would be used to publish music books. However, the fact that Chrysafidis’s books had already begun being published while Father Dositheos’s books were excluded even before the committee met, reveals the bias that prevailed. The committee decided in favor of Chrysafidis’s notation, but it is significant that all the members of that committe later admitted their mistake and learned Father Dositheos’s notation.
It is unfortunate that they did not consider that both notations could coexist and that they thought that one had to be adopted to the exclusion of the other. The correct approach would have been to view Chrysafidis’s system as merely a transcription of Byzantine music in braille staff notation (which already existed) and to view Father Dositheos’s system as the braille version of Byzantine notation—the musical notation approved and used by the Church of Greece—which did not exist yet in an accessible format for the blind. Just as the sighted have both the staff notation of European music and the Byzantine notation of Orthodox ecclesiastical music, so should the blind have both. The rejection of his notation was grievous not only for Father Dositheos but also for all blind chanters.
Chrysafidis’s system is the standard braille music notation used in Europe with additional symbols for the qualitative symbols and modulants of Byzantine notation. In contrast, Father Dositheos’s system is unaltered Byzantine notation represented with braille characters. Chrysafidis’s system (and staff notation for the sighted) presents melodies as a series of absolute pitches, and therefore a chanter knows exactly what each note should be, even if the previous note was sung incorrectly. Dositheos’s system (and Byzantine notation for the sighted) presents melodies by indicating the tonic and the scale, followed by a series of relative changes in pitch (i.e., up one step in the scale, down two steps in the scale, etc.). Therefore, a drawback of Dositheos’s system (and of Byzantine notation for the sighted) is that if one note is sung at an incorrect pitch, all following notes will also be incorrect—at least in theory. I say “in theory” because in practice an experienced chanter will almost immediately recognize his mistake and will be able to correct it, even if he is sight reading a piece that he has never heard before. This is because all melodies in Byzantine music follow particular patterns, which are known as its “formulaic rules.”  Therefore, this drawback of Dositheos’s system is only an issue for inexperienced chanters.
However, a serious problem of trying to use Chrysafidis’s system (or staff notation for the sighted) to represent melodies written in Byzantine notation is that Byzantine notation is a descriptive notation whereas Chrysafidis’s system (and staff notation) are a definitive notation. In other words, a melodic phrase written in Byzantine notation presents merely the dry, dead skeleton of a melody that needs to be interpreted for it to come to life. If this skeleton is converted into Chrysafidis’s system (or into staff notation) and chanted as is, it will be a dry imitation of what the true melody should be. But even if an interpretation of that skeleton is written out using Chrysafidis’s system (or staff notation), it forces a chanter to use only one particular interpretation of the melody, and thus he is deprived of his freedom to choose from other interpretations. Furthermore, writing out all the details of a particular interpretation in Chrysafidis’s system (or in staff notation) requires numerous eighth and sixteenth notes, which clutter the score and render sight reading difficult. 
Another great advantage of Father Dositheos’s system is that it enables blind chanters to work together with sighted chanters. Since they are both dealing with the same musical symbols and texts, not only can they chant together, but also the sighted can teach the blind and the blind can teach the sighted.
For example, Father Dositheos himself was taught by sighted chanters. After converting many books into braille, he was able to teach dozens of sighted students. He was even able to dictate his compositions to the sighted, who eagerly wrote them down and published those masterpieces. His most famous students were the Thomades and Danielaioi brotherhoods of the Holy Mountain, who today are revered as the most genuine bearers of Byzantine music tradition. At every opportunity they mention with great pride and reverence who their blind teacher was.
Father Dositheos was also a gifted composer. His talent is evident from the fact that when the Great Lavra [the oldest monastery on the Holy Mountain] needed someone to compose music for the service of St. Athanasius the Athonite according to the Athonite style of chanting, they chose Father Dositheos. Likewise, when the monastery of St. Symeon in Kalamou wanted someone to compose music for the service of St. Symeon in the style of Iakovos the Protopsaltis, they decided to ask Father Dositheos. To honor Father Dositheos for all his musical offerings, Father Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis the hymnographer wrote a service for his patron saint, St. Dositheos.
Even though Father Dositheos never taught at a school for the blind, he had many blind students who became distinguished for their ability to teach others and to interpret Byzantine music faithfully according to tradition. Unfortunately, for fifty years Father Dositheos’s work was neither published nor taught in schools. Whereas Chrysafidis’s system was published and was available to every blind person interested.
As time passed, however, the problems with Chrysafidis’s method became more and more evident because blind chanters using it could not work together with the sighted. Some people claim that if the blind were to learn the theory of Byzantine music, they could still use Chrysafidis’s method and collaborate with sighted chanters. But that isn’t so simple, due to the inherent differences between staff notation and Byzantine notation. Besides, a mere theoretical knowledge in a liturgical art is quite different from the practical knowledge acquired through years of experience. This explains why many blind people who knew only Chysafidis’s system, even after chanting their whole lives, could not write a simple “Kyrie Eleison” till the day they died. They were limited to chanting whatever Chrysafidis wrote in the 1930s and whatever was published by the Lighthouse in the 1950s. Thus they remained cut off from all the classics of Byzantine music as well as from any new compositions. A few of our colleagues did try to write some music by listening to recordings and writing down what they had heard. But this method fails to transmit the music in a reliable and genuine manner, since the amount of interpretation to include in music written with Chrysafidis’s system is a subjective matter. In other words, if two different people listened to a recording of a cherubic hymn and wrote down in Chrysafidis’s method what they heard, one might write the melody with only eighth notes, quarter notes, and half notes, while the other might be full of triplets and sixteenth notes.
One could say that Father Dositheos’s system is all that a blind chanter needs, since one can use it to learn, teach, and collaborate with others. Furthermore, the process of transcribing music into this system is not at all subjective but completely accurate, since every symbol in printed Byzantine music corresponds to a symbol in braille Byzantine music.
Another problem for those who used Chrysafidis’s system was a lack of books. Some basic hymns were published by the Lighthouse in 1951. They were not reprinted, and later copies were not made because it would have been very laborious to produce them with a slate and stylus. Not only were there few books available, but even the books that were available had many hymns missing. For example, the music book for August only had music for the sixth, fifteenth, twenty-ninth, and thirty-first of August. Even then, it didn’t have all the music necessary for those days. So a blind person who wanted to chant in a church service on some other day would either have to be constantly composing his own melodies or else let a sighted person chant whatever he didn’t have. As a result, the blind chanter would become completely dependent or avoid chanting on days that were missing from his books. Or, even worse, a blind person might not even want to become a chanter, knowing that he would always have to rely on other people.
Then people began to recall that Father Dositheos had already written out all that music in his own system, and they ran to him for help. “Father, we need the Hymn of Cassiani!” or the Kekragaria of Iakovos or the weekday cherubic hymns of Peter Peloponnesios, etc. He would say, “I am devoted to serving every blind person,” and despite his own poverty, he would go wherever he was called—sometimes even by taxi—to teach or to deliver copies of his music to his colleagues. In this way, he acquired many blind students. And as I mentioned already, he would give his students not just copies of his music, but more importantly he imparted to them the knowledge to transcribe music into braille on their own.
One of Father Dositheos’s students, Giannis Perdikouris, was a chanter for more than fifty years. After learning Father Dositheos’s system, he began transcribing into braille some books that Father Dositheos had not transcribed yet, such as the Doxastaria by Panagiotis Kiltzanidou and Georgios Violakis. Another student of his, Giannis Demetropoulos, received a chart from Father Dositheos that shows the conversion from print Byzantine music to braille Byzantine music, gave it to his wife, and together they transcribed many important compositions into braille.
In the final decade of his life, I had the exceptional blessing to meet him and to become his closest disciple among the blind. It all began one day in July of 1980, when I needed some help before I would chant at the feast day of my village, so I visited Father Dositheos at his house. I was astounded at how much work this man had done. His entire house was full of books, and there was only a small space in the corner where his bed barely fit. Then I said to myself, “Since the blind lack so many musical compositions and since Father Dositheos has them all, why not have them published?” After helping me prepare for the upcoming feast day, he gave me some lessons with his system. Then he gave me a conversion chart and told me, “You can show this chart to your wife or to any other sighted person who isn’t even a chanter, and with it they will be able to dictate to you any composition in print Byzantine music, and you will be able to write it down in braille.” And it worked! In fact, whenever my wife encountered a symbol that she didn’t know the name of, she told me with which dots it is written in braille. Likewise, whenever I wanted to dictate a composition of mine to the sighted and couldn’t remember the name of a symbol, I would show it to them in braille and they would immediately find it in the chart and understand. In this manner, I wrote the entire Heirmologion of Ioannis Protopsaltis by dictation from my wife and my eight-year-old sons, whom I later taught Byzantine music. From then on, Father Dositheos came often to my house where he said he felt very much at home.
In 1986, he was already 74 years old. We began discussing what would happen to all his books after his departure to the Lord. We agreed that an association should be established that would keep his books available for printing and teaching. So we formed “The Association of Blind Chanters of Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music in the New Method“  (which was later abbreviated to “The Association of Blind Chanters”). Father Dositheos passed away on March 29, 1991, the day before Lazarus Saturday.
After his repose, the Association began the task of printing his works. There were many obstacles: technical problems, economical issues, lack of expertise, etc. After much labor, we managed to acquire a computer and a special embosser, and we became computer-literate. Five years later, we began typing into the computer the Heirmologion, the Anastasimatarion, Mousike Kypsele for the entire year, the Triodion, and the Pentecostarion. We further enriched those books with many musical compositions of Father Dositheos for special services that were missing from the books in print Byzantine music. Thus, our books were even more complete than those of sighted chanters! (But since then, his compositions for special services have been transcribed into print Byzantine notation and published.) We also managed to put into the computer all the other non-musical liturgical books, such as the Menaion, the Triodion, etc. Most of these books have already been printed and distributed to all who need them.
Our Association is proud because:
We think it is very sad that Byzantine music is not taught today at the KEAT center of training and rehabilitation of the blind. We seek that a teacher be immediately acquired to teach Byzantine music. This would bestow many spiritual blessings on their lives, and it would bring them into contact with the invaluable treasures of Byzantine music and ecclesisastical poetry. Furthermore, it would give them the ability to strenghthen significantly their economic welfare. Even if they do not become full-time chanters, just becoming a part-time chanter would help them greatly. In addition to all these reasons, through chanting a blind person has great opportunities to create friendships with wonderful people. Thus he becomes more social and breaks away from the isolation in which he might otherwise have been trapped, and all this is within the realm of the Church. As an aside, we would also like to point out the dangers of the law that mainstreams blind children into public schools of the sighted, because in such schools the blind children run the risk of not being taught many subjects (including Byzantine music) due to a lack of specialized teachers.
I would like you to know that we members of the Association of Blind Chanters want to follow the example of Father Dositheos, and thus we are at the service of all blind people:
In conclusion, regarding the two systems of writing music, the opinion of our Association is as follows: just as the sighted have both staff notation for writing European songs and musical pieces, and Byzantine notation for writing Byzantine hymns and folk music—and both notations are useful, neither being superfluous—likewise for the blind there is Chrysafidis’s system, which is based on staff notation, and Father Dositheos’s system, which is Byzantine notation.
In closing, we ask that any interested blind person with any need should contact our Association at the following telephone numbers: (+30) 210-962-2002 or (+30) 210-960-2109, or by email: mbassias at yahoo dot gr. Ask for me, Manolis Basias, the president of the Association. [Mr. Basias knows English.] We will do whatever we can to serve you.
We at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery have created an online tutorial in English for anyone who wants to learn braille Byzantine music notation. We have also posted several books in this notation that may be downloaded for free. Click here to listen to a recording of Father Dositheos chanting. For additional details about his life, you may read these "Recollections of Father Dositheos."
 This is a slightly abbreviated and paraphrased version of the presentation made by Mr. Basias, the president of the Association of Blind Chanters, on November 2, 1998 at a conference in Athens. We have posted online the Greek text of his original presentation (in unicode monotonic Greek): It is also available in monotonic Greek braille (in ASCII code). This English adaptation of his presentation was made by Hieromonk Ephraim and is available also in Word format. return to reference
 The words “New Method” do not refer to the invention of Father Dositheos. The “New Method” is the precise term for the contemporary form of Byzantine music notation, which was invented in the early nineteenth century by the “Three Teachers”: Chrysanthos of Madytos, Gregorios the Protopsaltis, and Hourmouzios Hartophylax. This “New Method” is a revised and easier version of the “Old Notation” of Byzantine music. Soon after its invention, the “New Method” became almost the sole method used for writing Byzantine music and has retained this status ever since. For this reason, when people use the term “Byzantine music notation,” they are usually referring to this “New Method” of writing music. return to reference