Some Facts and Sources, Braille Music and Technology
Last updated 7/6/2018
This is a good place to start if you are looking for background on braille music and technology, as well as links to the most commonly consulted sites and services. Our resource list page has more offerings, especially on braille libraries and miscellaneous topics. We suggest newcomers try working first with the links on the page you are presently reading, so as to avoid pursuing searches that bring you results not needed at the start. The Resource Center is not currently involved with the latest in accessible solutions for using recording technology, so only brief mention is made here. You will find information on strategies for making print music easier to use by people with low vision on our Low Vision page. That page, along with discussing music enlargement with or without technology, also mentions Modified Stave Notation, talking scores, and the No-C-Notes method for music tictation.
Braille Music is a form of the six dot braille code. It was invented by Louis Braille at the same time he devised the alphabet. It allows blind readers, from elementary school on, to participate fully in music class activities, read and work through piano, band, or choral parts, study music theory, take sight-singing classes and analyze music scores. The code provides all the information a sighted person sees on a page of print music, including notes and their values, dynamic and expression marks, and fingering. A page of music in braille Looks similar to a page of text, rather than a music staff. because all the information must be given on a line that the finger can read. Each braille character is a combination of up to six dots, in a rectangular " cell" with room to hold three rows of two dots each. In music, the top four dots show the pitch of the note while the presence or absence of dots on the bottom show the rhythmic value. Special signs are placed before the note to show the octave. A measure is ended with a space. A voice student can read braille and sing at the same time. A piano student reads a few measures of one hand part while playing with the other hand, then reverses hands to learn the other hand part. The segments are put together until the whole piece is memorized.
A simple chart of the basic braille music symbols is at http://brenthugh.com/braillem/brmintro.html. as with any other braille code, there are rules governing the use of signs, and much practice must be had before one can become a braille music reader. A video and other information about braille music and how it is used is at http://braille.orgSearch for "Braille Literacy Resources" and then "music."
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, loc.gov/nls. The largest source of Braille music,in the United States, as well as adapted instructional materials and large-print music, is the Music Section of the National Library Service. The starting link to the Music Section is https://www.loc.gov/nls/about/services/music-services-individuals-blind-physical-disability/ You can reach the Music Section by phone at 800-424-8567, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org Registered Borrowers can request materials to be mailed to them, or can select from a growing number for download online from its BARD music area. Downloaded braille titles can be read on a braille display or printed on a braille embosser, and recorded mateerials can be played on an NLS-compatible player. While the materials themselves can only be used by U.S. citizens who meet specific elibibility requirements, anyone--teachers, for instance--can use the online Catalog to look up what is available. There is a link called "Catalog Search" on every page of the NLS site. It gives you several choices of catalogs. Most of the time we use the "Quick" version. You can bookmark the one you prefer if you use it often. factsheets, transcriber lists and code books, can be found on the Music Section's own web site, which is the same link as given above.
Any U.S. citizen who receives braille or recorded materials from an NLS cooperating network library is eligible to register for borrowing music material. Registration forms are available through the network libraries, or one may contact the Music Section directly.
Braille music is produced by transcribers working independently or through agencies, which provide music on loan or for purchase. A database listing most agencies' holdings is The Louis catalog, run by the American Printing House at http://www.aph.org/louis A growing number of sources, national and international, have music holdings. See our resource list pagefor web sites.
Arranging to have music that is not already available put into braille usually involves locating a certified transcriber who has the time to take on the assignment. Ideally, a student or school should build a relationship with a transcriber, who can prepare materials the school can provide in advance. The most current list of certified transcribers is maintained by the Library of Congress's Music Section and available on their web site. . The direct link is https://www.loc.gov/nls/braille-audio-reading-materials/music-materials/circular-no-4-braille-music-transcribers/ The National Braille Association maintains a list of transcribers and agencies nationwide, which may be found on their web site http://www.nbp.org, maintains a list of transcribing agencies nationwide. Although most of the agencies listed produce literary braille, some may have a staff member knowledgable in the braille music code and may be a resource for people in their local service areas. Skilled transcribers are much in demand and their specialized work is greatly appreciated.
One may wonder, knowing that we will be discussing braille music technology later on, why experts who transcribe music manually are as essential today as they ever were. The main reason is that the underlying procedures for turning music into braille are not as clear cut as converting literary text, which is done without much intervension at this point. There is a human factor involved in interpreting how the print music should be presented to a nonvisual reader. Whereas when a sighted person is handed a score, it may be fairly easy to skim over the page to find the pieces of information needed for a particular purpose. There may be too much of that information to make sense on a braille page. The transcriber makes decisions on how best to convey the parts that the braille reader will need. If it is an exercise in a theory book that requires the student to do a particular task, it might be important to align the elements the student will need to compare. Before beginning an assigment, the transcriber may ask several questions about how a piece will be used, whether, for instance, the musician is interested in the whole score or just his part. Consideration may also be given to grade level, to make sure that there is not an over-abundance of braille symbols that would intimadate a younger student and are not necessary for learning the music itself.
A good way for sighted people to learn what's involved in transcribing music, or get enough of an understanding of how the braille music code works through hands-on practice, is to take the correspondence course, Braille Music Basics, from the Hadley School for the Blind. The actual process of becoming a braille music transcriber involves taking a correspondence course from the Library of Congress and passing the certification exam.
The braille music code can be learned by people of any age, but it is generally recommended that learning wait until the student is already a fluent reader of contracted literary braille. Beyond that, such considerations of how and when the code should be learned--whether separately or along with an instrument, or after lessons in the instrument have begun--will depend on many circumstances. Some of these include the students' needs, abilities, and preferences; the amount of time available to both a student and teacher in the midst of other school activities; and whether lessons are being taught by a vision teacher who may or may not know how to read music, a teacher cognizant of the braille music system or a general piano or instrumental teacher who does not know braille. A teacher does not need to know the braille code in order to help a motivated student gain fluency in reading music. However, a plan should be in place. It needs to be understood that a student is going to need time to learn the basics of the music code before being able to make full use of it in the regular music class. We again mention the Braille Music Basics course available from the Hadley School for the Blind As a good way for sighted people to get some background and experience. Today, there are a number of places parents and teachers can turn to to discuss the particular situation and find people and strategies that can help. See the section on support on this page.
We often hear from piano teachers, who find suddenly that they will be working with a blind student. Piano teachers will be happy to know that several of the method books, such as the Alfred and Bastien series, as well as the Suzuki books, are available in braille, on loan from the Music Section of the Library of Congress. These must be borrowed in the student's name. As mentioned, however, before jumping into those books, it is a good idea for the student to learn at least the rudiments of the braille music code from books designed to teach it. Also, many of the tables and graphics designed for visual learners do not come over very well even in the most carefully rendered braille versions. The teacher may decide to skip the early books and work on specific simple pieces.
The hadley School for the Blind http://hadley.edu offers "Braille Music Reading." This is a structured course that lays good foundations and gives students the ability to read basic music. It is meant for adults or those of high school or college age, no younger than fourteen.
For customized learning, a student may arrange to work with a teacher if there is a particular goal or objective, such as to prepare for a high school or college theory course.
Some places to look into for customized instruction are
The National resource Center has worked with students and still can, but often is in a better position to help locate other teachers. It no longer runs its residential Summer Institute. See the full resource list for camps and other music learning programs.
Several books for learning the braille music code are available. They range from simple introductions to a full course in braille and print from Dancing Dots. All the books are available on loan from the Music Section. of the Library of Congress. If they are to be used extensively, they can be purchased from the sources listed along with the book titles below. When ordering from the Music section, you can request a copy both in braille and in print, so the teacher will have what the student is reading. The print editions must be borrowed in the student's name. As a general introduction, we highly recommend "Who's Afraid of Braille music" by Richard Taesch and William McCann, an inexpensive purchase from Dancing Dots, or National Braille Press, and "how To Read Braille Music" by Bettye Krolick, also available from National Braille Press. If a teacher is ready to put a regular and consistent amount of time into working with the student on the elements of the braille music code, then the Dancing Dots course books may be ideal.
A staple we use, and from which generations of students have learned, is the Primer of Braille Music by Edward W. Jenkins, available on loan from the Music Section or for purchase from the American Printing house for the Blind. None of the books require that the teacher know braille, though it helps to have a thorough understanding of how the braille code differs from print music.
Another thing music teachers with beginning students should keep in mind is that there are many activities they can do with a blind child before working on the braille reading itself. It is essential for the student to understand and be fluent with the fundamentals of music, including distinguishing rhythmic values in patterns. It is recommended that students know the note names as letters, number in the scale, and solfege names, and start recognizing intervals. The introductory books outline some exercises, but the teacher can be assured he or she can fill the early lessons with plenty of activities just by drawing upon common sense and creativity. Many students have problems with rhythms, especially when there are different values or dotted notes in a measure. Clapping, marching, and creative exercises to help with proportions and pattern recognition make reading and writing music much easier in the future.
It should come as no surprise that the digital age has opened many new possibilities for musicians and students who are blind and the people who prepare music for them. Developments have been astounding, but in some ways, slower, than one might expect, as transforming the graphical music system into braille and giving blind people the same fluency notating it that their sighted peers take for granted is a challenge that has covered many decades. Actually, there are a number of challenges. Before putting music through software that can translate the music into braille, there is the matter of finding the best source of the music that will produce the most accurate results. Going the other way, there must be reliable systems blind people can use to get their musical ideas or theory assignments into standard print notation for fellow musicians and teachers.
In this section we will look at the software that has been the mainstay for students and music educators since the 1990's and the methods that have developed around it to deal with the tasks mentioned. Then we will look at some of the developments taking place today.
Braille translation software makes it possible for school personnel who do not know the braille music code to produce band parts and specific assignments for their students. The most widely used system for doing this is the GOODFEEL (R) Braille Music Translator from Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology, Phone (610) 783-6692, web site http://www.dancingdots.com
With the GOODFEEL® suite of software, there are three ways to create scores that can be automatically converted into the equivalent braille music.
It is best to contact Dancing Dots directly, because there are many options at different prices to consider. The company offers a demonstration version of the software and can also arrange for a potential user to experiment with the full package for a predetermined period of time. There are also subscription options designed to allow a student or school to use the package during the months of a course or pay on an annual basis.
All customers receive an hour of free telephone training to get up and running. Teachers or those responsible for preparing the music to be put into braille should take advantage of training opportunities, preferably on-site. As with manual transcription discussed above, there are do's and don'ts, plus considerations about the way the music will be used and how readable it will be for the student, that might not be ovbious.
An ability long sought by blind musicians and students is to have a way to write music on a computer and have it come out in standard notation others can read. One of the most refined systems for access is Lime Aloud, which comes in the GOODFEEL suite from Dancing Dots. Unless one goes to a specialized school that has the ability to teach something else, Lime Aloud is the best way for most students to go. More information is at http://dancingdots.com/prodesc/limealoud.htm
People have been experimenting since the mid 1980s, and there are many who adhere to older methods for good reason. Ray Charles was one of many who used a set of scripts for JAWS called Sibelius Speaking. That went away when newer versions of Sibelius came out and the older ones could no longer be supported on newer computers. Here we will list some of the options people use today and developments that may have a big role in writing notation in the future.
It has been found that notation programs are not only useful for writing music, but can also be used to read it, if the music is in a computer file. The student can use the arrow keys to go through it and hear symbols spoken note by note.
Several additional projects are mentioned on our resource list page, under the heading "Music Technology and Miscellaneous." Many were developed by professors and others to make it possible to get tasks done, such as translating Music XML to braille, or other means of rendering music, and have remained on web sites in case they can help others.
One good resource is a blog called The Accessible Music Notation Project. Maintained by Marc Sabatella, this provides news about developments for access to MuseScore and also has articles and a resource list. Many of the links given are to systems for producing music from text files following a code, such as ABC.
Music XML is a mark-up language that has become standard for use by music publishers. Equally important, All modern notation software, such as Finale, Sibelius, and MuseScore, now has the ability to export files into Music XML format. . These programs may save music in their own proprietary format as a default, but they can easily export the file to Music XML format. the Lime notation software that is part of Dancing Dots' braille and low visions systems, readily receives Music XML as input and can produce braille or magnify print . Many students have gotten through music classes by asking their teachers to email them copies of the work sheets they have prepared for their classes into Music XML. For the best results, some teachers run their files through plug-ins for their software made by Dolet, https://www.musicxml.com/
Despite the ease of using Music XML for digital conversion tasks, the most popular format for the electronic exchange of print music on the Internet and in the classroom is for the music images to be stored in portable document format, PDF. PDF has become the standard way to store pretty much anything--text, pictures, music, for visual output on a computer screen with little effort by the end user. The problem for blind people is that because it is presented visually, getting a digital version out of it presents many of the same challenges as one has with scanning. The files are easier to work with than paper, however, and because they are so attractive to publishers and educators, they cannot be ignored. For better or worse, publishers often see providing PDF versions of books (such as theory books' coming with an accompanying CD-ROM) as their answer to complying with accessibility requirements. How successful a blind person will be in converting pdf files will vary. The conversion process usually requires that the file be sent to a "virtual printer," to turn the PDF file into a TIFF image that OCR music recognition software like Sharp-Eye in the Dancing Dots Suite will be able to read. There are also utilities that allow for a PDF file to be converted into either Music XML or hear as audio. One such program is PDFToMusic Pro Href="http://www.myriad-online.com/en/products/pdftomusicpro.htm">http://www.myriad-online.com/en/products/pdftomusicpro.htm New printing and conversion products keep coming out. It is best to ask for a recommendation at the time one needs them. Considerations are not only how well a product functions, but the accessibility of the user interface. Dancing Dots and musicians who do this work on a regular basis are the best to ask.
Google searches bring up thousands of sites containing music files, from solo instruments to scores, rehearsal back tracks or choral parts, in such formats as audio, MIDI, or PDF. Like anything else on the Internet, quality varies. The intended uses for the files and the accessibility of the web pages themselves are all factors to consider in a music search. Our resource list page has a few that students and listserv members report having used successfully.
If you are in search of a metronome or instrument tuner, your best resource will be the listservs for blind musicians. Whether you are looking for units that fit in a pocket, computer software, or cell phone apps, changes occur rapidly, with models that were inaccessible becoming more so, or vice versa. There used to be a distinct difference between a metronome and tuner, but now the products called by either name may have features of both, possibly being better at one task than another. The ones we have heard most frequently about are listed on our resource list page. We have not tested any of these ourselves.
With pocket metronomes, access may not be an issue if you are looking for something to hear a regular two-beat rhythm and don't have to be exact about speed. If you do need to get the tempo at a consistent number every time, access may be more of a challenge. Models that have a single up/down button which one holds until the correct number comes up can be frustrating. (The metronome feature on electronic keyboards usually work this way.) Many users prefer units with a dial that has detents or clicks at two-beat intervals. A pointer can be marked to allow setting close to the desired tempo. A listserv member mentioned one model made by Wiltner, which features a switch to turn it into a chromatic tuner, adjusted by the same dial. By knowing the pitch on the tuner that corresponds to the tempo, one can find that pitch and switch back to the metronome. It is best to try out units at a music store. If portability is not a priority, many people still use the old wind-up clock-style units, or the electric ones with a pointer hand. It is fairly easy to put tactile marks at specific places.
If the rythms you work with are more complicated, you might consider software that will run on a laptop. >
Cell phone apps have different degrees of accessibility. An additional issue is that some may not produce enough volume.
Regarding tuners, many people feel that while it is now the way to go to use an electronic device, the piano, tuning fork and pitch pipe are still viable options. We recognize that many people will need electronic Electronic tuners, especially when playing with groupps, but many find that the adaptations that make the tuning process slow and potentially inaccurate. Again, the listservs are your best sources of help.
The National Resource Center is best at answering questions relating to college music study, since most of our experience has been with the challenges of people in that age range. We can often connect people with students of past Summer Institutes or teachers from that program, or others who have contacted us who have expertise in a particular area.
There are a number of groups that are glad to help with music education and beyond. One of the best sources of information and help for students, teachers, and musicians of all ages and abilities is the Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired, MENVI, http://www.menvi.org A free membership organization stemming from the work of the Braille Music Division of the southern California Conservatory of Music, it connects members with an advisory committee of experts in the field, has a membership directory, and a discussion listserv. The listserv is particularly useful. Discussions range from teaching to how to deal with such challenges as studying choral conducting or performing in an ensemble.
There are several other listservs discussing music issues, some related to the blindness consumer organizations, as well as private endeavors. Two popular ones are Braillem, which discusses braille music issues, and Midimag which deals with technological developments. Dancing Dots has two lists for users of its products and courses. See our Resources page for subscription information.
The software discussed so far addresses ways of exchanging music from a notational point of view. But as the end result of music is intended to be something to be heard, there is the whole aspect of working with music as sound compositions--melodies and accompaniment and the sounds themselves. Software to do that kind of work is grouped in categories of music editing, sequencing, or recording and sound editing, to name just a few terms--the kinds of applications sound engineers and musicians use to produce a finished composition, and what is taught in school in music production courses. Again, the challenges of keeping up in this area has been decades long and obviously successful, as many blind people use sound production equipment in their hobbies, school courses, and have careers centered around working with music and sound. The National Resource Center is no longer active in terms of experience or keeping up with the latest in the industry, especially with regard to systems using the Macintosh and mobile platforms. Locating resources remains largely what can be found out through networking, listservs, and people who know others in the industry. One such listserv is Midimag, at http://www.midimag.org We will try to provide some tips and strategies that may help if you are thinking about this for the first time, and our Resource List page offers a few other sources. The main idea we hope you will come away with is that there are workarounds. Music students entering college, or taking advanced music courses in high school, should be prepared to expect that the software used by their classmates may not be accessible. This is not a matter of failure to comply with disability legislation, but rather the plain fact that much of the music software conveys its information to users in visual graphics and realistically, finding solutions to convey that same information in a textual form will be slow to be worked out or pretty much impossible. But just as there are standard file formats that allow exchange of notation files between different programs, the sound editing world also has standard file formats, such as MIDI and Wave files. In many music production courses, the teacher may agree that the end result is more important than what software is used. A disabled person can use software he or she is comfortable with, the files produced can be converted over to the format used by the rest of the class.
The sequencer still recommended for school use, in the Windows Platform, is Cakewalk Sonar, used in conjunction with CakeTalking. CakeTalking gives access to Cakewalk SONAR, a professional MIDI sequencing and audio editing program used in many recording studios. Music is played from a music keyboard to the click of a metronome, and multiple parts may be added. Then a microphone is used to record audio tracks. All can be edited, speeded up, parts "punched in", and enhanced with effects. All major functions are accessible. Although Designed for studio musicians, the CakeTalking scripts make the program simple enough for elementary school children to enjoy the thrill of composing music. Dancing dots markets the CakeTalking scripts and is licensed by Cakewalk Music Software to sell Sonar version 8.5, which Cakewalk no longer sells directly. Contact Dancing Dots regarding compatibility and accessibility of system components. For those who cannot afford or who do not need all the sophisticated features of Sonar (note that the newer and less costly versions of Cakewalk products are currently not accessible), there are a number of free sequencers available.
QWS (Quick Windows Sequencer) was developed by a partially sighted musician and is used by many blind musicians. It does not require scripts. It is a free download from http://andrelouis.com/qws/ There is a QWS support list off the web site with very helpful people ready to answer questions.
QWS does not have facilities for recording and editing audio. Information about the premier sound editor Sound Forge is at (see http://www.snowmanradio.com for information about scripts and compatibility) , but there are several free or low-cost editors to choose among, easy to find with a search engine. Among those having many enthusiasts in the blind community are Goldwave (requires scripts), Audacity, and the multi-track audio editor and sequencer, Reaper (http://www.reaper.fm). The ReAaccess Scripts for Reaper are currently at http:www.reaccess.com.
CiscoVision.org offers a course on audio editing. Information is at CAVI's Wiki site.
As the Macintosh has become the computer of choice for the music industry, blind students ask what the options are for them on this platform. Both the Mac and IOS mobile devices, such as the iPad, have built-in screen reading, in the form of Voiceover.
The biggest positive going for the Mac is that, thanks to the mammoth efforts of blind musicians and advocates, the well regarded program, ProTools, is accessible (The Windows version is not). ProTools is standard software found in recording studios and schools, and many professional blind musicians and music students are using it. There is a ProTools Access listserv. To subscribe, send mail to email@example.com.
Another strong positive is that Garage Band works well on the Mac and mobile devices, and could be a good place for a hobbiest or more experienced musician to start for multi-track recording.
As far as we know, none of the programs dealing with music notation will work for a blind Mac user. This may change when the multi-platform MuseScore becomes fully usable. And while opinions vary, many blind people still find Windows machines more practical for non-music applications. If one needs what the Macintosh offers but still needs to use Dancing Dots software, which is Windows based, one possibility would be to get a Mac that can run Windows and JAWS or the NVDA screen reader. Users should look carefully at the keyboards on such computers, to make sure they won't have problems when using such a machine in the Windows environment.
The National Resource Center is not involved with Macintosh accessibility issues. Those who want to stay updated on the ongoing work of blind musicians in this area , as well as get educated advice on the music and nonmusic aspects, are invited to contact the Blind Mac Users Group, BMUG, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of the other pages on this site cover the information presented here, albeit in different ways or in mor detail. The resource list page begins with many of the categories here, but with more entries; then it goes on to suggest resources on subjects not covered here, such as music in large print and audio scores, courses, schools, and summer programs, organizations and listservs, metronomes, tuners, and sources of braille music in other countries. We also highly recommend the music page on the web site of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, RNIB. The address for that is http://www.rnib.org.uk/music.
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