Created by Materia for OpenMind Recommended by Materia
Start Music’s Eyes. Beyond the Staff
06 November 2020

Music’s Eyes. Beyond the Staff

Estimated reading time Time 5 to read

Music constitutes one of humans´ most important artistic manifestations. Sight is often classified as the sense that we most enjoy using. The first is able to create visual universes, and without the second, musical universes that go beyond what is written on staves can be created.

The Italian Trecento

Italian music from the fourteenth century, referred to as Trecento, has quite a different history in comparison to French music developed at the same time due, above all, to the social and political differences that existed between the two countries. While in France the monarchy provided greater stability, and acquired increasing power, Italy was made up of city-states whose rulers competed with each other, leading to constant confrontations.

Italian music was mainly cultivated in cities such as Bologna, Modena, Perugia, and especially Florence, a cultural epicenter throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. It was a cradle for works such as the Decameron by  Boccaccio, and Paradiso degli Alberti by  Giovani da Patro. Thanks to these writings, it is acknowledged that music, both in its vocal and instrumental forms, was the main protagonist of almost all the activities of Italian social life.

Tale from the DecamerĂłn by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

It was during the fourteenth century when the art of the polyphonic song developed in Italy, intended for acute male voices with instrumental accompaniment, where the  madrigal, the  caccia, and the ballata were the most important genres

The most recognized figures from this period´s first generation of composers between 1330 and 1350 were: Jacopo da Bologna, Vincenzo da Rimini, Giovanni da Cascia, and Gherardello of Florentia. While a second generation of composers from 1350 to 1390 flourished and from it came Bartolino da Padova, Laurentius de Florentia, Paolo Tenorista and, of course, the most important figure of the Italian Trecento.

Landini, or the ability to see through music 

The most prominent Italian musician of the fourteenth century was Francesco Landini (born in Fiesole, Florence, circa 1335; died 1397). Due to smallpox, he went blind as a child although this did not prevent him from becoming a highly esteemed poet along the lines of Guillaume de Machaut or Philippe de Vitry. He was also a scholar, a teacher of musical theory and practice, and a virtuoso of numerous instruments. His skill and dexterity with the organetto, a small organ that he played with sweetness, determination and great skill, made him a unique and unforgettable organist. He was recognized as a musician and poet, and was an organist for the Florence Cathedral.

Francesco Landini, the Trecento´s most famous composer, playing a portative organ (15th century illustration Codex Squarcialupi). Source: Public Domain

In addition to being a performer, Landini also stood out as a composer. From his oeuvre, 154 works have been preserved (141 ballate, for two and three voices, 11 madrigals, for two and three voices, a madrigal canon for three voices and a caccia for three voices). The ballata, Francesco Landini´s most popular of the time, which appeared in 1365, first in two voices, then in three voices, displaced the madrigal´s popularity. With his work Piu bella donn’al mondo, Landini showed his compositional expertise, creating a ballata considered one of the most beautiful love songs of its time. The upper voice is the protagonist, while the lower one serves as an accompaniment (sometimes it can be instrumental), and they move in opposite motion. The rhythms and melodic steps are absolutely singable, ending with the composer´s signature turn (syncopation and third jump), which became frequent in the Trecento and was baptized as the Landino cadence.

Italy, however, wasn´t the only country who enjoyed great musicians who proved that blindness is not an impediment to developing an extraordinary musical career. Spain has also had blind musicians who have been able to see and feel beyond what is written on the staff.

Joaquín Rodrigo, a visual Spain 

Born in Sagunto, Valencia in 1901, Joaquín Rodrigo lost his eyesight a few years after he was born, around 1905, due to diphtheria. It is said that it was precisely this blindness that led him, and brought him closer to, the world of music. He was trained in a school for blind children, and there he already showed a talent for literature and music. At the age of eight he began his studies of music theory, piano and violin, and at sixteen he began with harmony and composition. But it wasn´t until the 1920s that he established himself as a leading pianist and composer, and a great connoisseur of the avant-garde and harmonic principles, which led him to move to Paris in 1927 to study with Paul Dukas.

JoaquĂ­n Rodrigo’s artistic, academic and creative activity led to his developing a very personal style, which was more than evident in the work that made him so famous, and whose world premiere took place in Barcelona in 1940, Concierto de Aranjuez.


Busto del compositor español Joaquín Rodrigo, con su mujer, la pianista Victoria Kamhi en el fondo. Situado en el parque de España de la ciudad de Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina.
Bust of the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, with his wife, the pianist Victoria Kamhi in the background. Located in the Parque de España in the city of Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina.

Through his choral and instrumental works, concerts, and film and theater scores, he paid tribute to different cultures of Spain, drawing inspiration from its history and poets, always with optimism and his personal touch.

He died in Madrid in 1999 leaving an irreplaceable legacy and an artistic heritage that it is necessary to disseminate and make known. Above all, his great heritage is also having been an example of an artist´s tenacity, effort, creativity and activity. Perhaps the main teaching that he transmits to us is how his love for art, and for music in particular, and his thirst for knowledge, spurred his eyes to provide him with a more diaphanous, clearer, wider and sharper vision of the world which we often lack, despite not being blind.

Musical worlds, universal perspectives

Although Francesco Landini and JoaquĂ­n Rodrigo weren´t contemporaries, they would have shared a turning point due to the legendary Louis Braille (1809-1852). At the age of three, while Braille was playing in the workshop where his father made harnesses, he had an accident that caused an infection in both eyes, leading to total blindness at the age of five. However, this situation did not prevent him from getting a scholarship at the very young age of ten to study in Paris. It was there where Braille created literacy for the blind, the first version of which was published in 1829, based on the system of “night writing” devised by the French army captain Charles Barbier. Given his passion for music (he was an organist at the Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs), he also developed a system of musical notation for the blind, Braille music. In the musical field his invention symbolized the before and the after point, for it was a real game changer for those who have always wanted to study and dedicate themselves to music, but their eyes did not allow them to read sheet music.

BBVA-OpenMind-Texto_en_Gregoriano-Texto en Gregoriano donde las palabras y la mĂşsica aparecen alternados
Example of a fragment of a Gregorian chant transcribed into Braille, where words and music alternate.

Although it may seem that the blind can´t be musicians, history shows that there have been quite a few musicians, and artists in general, who are blind, many of whom have stood out and have become relevant figures thanks to their contributions.

Now more than ever music is seen and understood as a language that is universal, sensorial, visual, and complete. It brings us closer to others and creates joint universes that allow sharing and communication across centuries, borders, and beyond differences, whatever those differences may be. 

Dra. Ana González Menéndez


Further reading…

-Coronas, P. (2006): The Pianistic Universe in Joaquín Rodrigo´s Work. (Bilingual Edition, includes CD). Ediciones Maestro. Málaga.

-Grout, D. J., Palisca, C. V. (1999): History of Western Music, volume 1. Alianza Editorial. Alianza Music Collection. Madrid.

-Michels, U. (2004): Music Atlas (volumes 1 and 2). Alianza Editorial. Madrid.

-National Spanish Organization for the Blind (2001): Braille Musicography. An Approach to Writing Music for Blind People. ONCE Bibliographic and Cultural Center. Madrid.

-Suárez-Pajares, J. (2000): Joaquín Rodrigo. Images from a Full Life. Iconography. Author Foundation. Madrid.



Comments on this publication

Name cannot be empty
Write a comment here…* (500 words maximum)
This field cannot be empty, Please enter your comment.
*Your comment will be reviewed before being published
Captcha must be solved