Some Facts and Sources, Braille Music and Technology

Updated 3/15/2013

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. More information for people with low vision is on our Low Vision page.

Braille Music

Basic Information

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 do 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."

Sources of Braille Music

The largest source of Braille music in the United States is the Music Section of the National Library Service, Library of Congress, phone 800-424-8567, e-mail nlsm@loc.gov Registered Borrowers can request materials to be mailed to them, or can select from a growing collection of more than 4,000 titles for download through the Braille and Recorded Download (BARD) system. Downloaded titles can be read on a braille display or printed on a braille embosser. 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. The catalog is at http://www.loc.gov.nls Search for the link "Quick Search of the Online Catalog." One enters a composer and piece in the author and title fields. Additionally, circulars and factsheets, transcriber lists and code books, can be found on the Music Section's own web site, http://www.loc.gov/nls/music Besides braille music scores, the NLS Music Section has instructional materials in recorded form (now also available for download on BARD) and also a large-print music collection. 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.

Certified Transcribers

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. Lists of transcribers may be found on the Music Section's web site http://www.loc.gov/nls/music and also that of the National Braille Association, http://nationalbraille.org National Braille Press, 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. 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.

Braille Music Translation Software.

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 Other systems are sold by Opus Technologies, phone (858) 538-9401, Web site http://www.opustec.com

With the GOODFEEL® suite of software, there are three ways to create scores that can be automatically converted into the equivalent braille music. Both blind and sighted users can enter music directly using the Lime notation editor software. Scores in the MusicXML format created in programs like Sibelius and Finale can be imported. A music OCR program is included for scanning scores that can be saved as MusicXML or NIFF format and imported into the Lime software. Scanned music generally requires some editing before it can be translated into braille. Correcting the inevitable scanning errors requires viewing the original score so sighted users are best suited to this task. Once the music has been translated, the braille output can be embossed or E-mailed to the student. It is recommended that people doing this type of work have training, as one need to know how to avoid pitfalls that could affect the readability of the output.

Learning to Read Braille Music

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.

Distance Learning

The section after this one lists some books for learning braille music, which still provide the best type of learning for a younger student with a teacher, or an adult with access to a teacher to work with periodically. However, there are a number of agencies and individuals that can work with motivated students through correspondence, by phone, or online, usually through Skype.

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 runs its residential Summer Institute. See the full resource list for camps and other music learning programs.

Braille Music Learning Books

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 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.

Technological Solutions for a Blind Person to Acquire Music

Enterprising musicians and students have been exploring accessible solutions that will allow for having access to printed music in the mainstream. These usually involve working with computer files in various formats rather than scanning. While there is nothing hard in the procedure of scanning, and sometimes we are lucky enough to have something come out beautifully on the first try, results will be inconsistent due to the graphical nature of music and the inability to use editing tools to make corrections that require manipulation of the visual image. The situation improves if the music is already in a file.

Class exercises Using Music XML

Many students have worked out successful arrangements where the professor e-mails a Music XML version of the file which was made for producing the print work sheets for the class. Most standard notation programs, such as Finale and Sibelius, have an option to export files into a standard format called Music XML. This format can be read by the Lime Music editor in the Dancing Dots GOODFEEL suite. Once it is in Lime, it can then be translated into braille. At this time there are some limitations in Lime's ability to handle more complex files in Music XML, but it may work well enough for simple theory work sheets and band parts.

MIDI Files on the Internet

Another format Lime can work with is MIDI. A Midi file does not have facilities to convey elements such as dynamics, but it may be good for music situations where these are not important. MIDI files are readily available on the Internet. How successfully a file from the Web can be converted is dependent on how well the file was constructed to begin with.

Music As PDF Files

Today, the most popular format for the electronic exchange of print music is for the music images to be stored in portable document format, PDF. Not only do PDF files abound on the Internet, they are also produced by publishers. Sometimes publishers make files of sheet music and textbooks available to those requesting accessible versions. More and more often, A CD-ROM of PDF files is included, standard, with the commercial product. A theory book may come with a CD-ROM with the music as PDF, for instance. Again, just how well the PDF file can be converted into braille will depend on a number of circumstances, but once one has figured out what the parameters are for success, converted files can be used to supplement those that must be specially transcribed. Just like scanning, not all the conversion may be possible to be done by a blind person completely independently. Quite a bit can, however. The conversion process usually requires that the file be sent to a "virtual printer," to turn the PDF file into an image that OCR music recognition software like Sharp-Eye in the Dancing Dots Suite will be able to read. The image is sent to the OCR software, as though it had been scanned. Accuracy should be better than with a scanned file, but there may still be problems. There are also utilities that allow for a PDF file to be converted into music one can hear. 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 roducts function, but the accessibility of the user interface. Dancing Dots and musicians who do this work on a regular basis are the best to ask.

Finding Music Files on the Internet

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.

Help and Support

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.

Technology for Blind Musicians

The music technology now accessible for blind musicians and students falls into two broad categories--software that works with notation, either print or braille, and software that allows people to produce and manipulate music as sound, such as for recording studio work.

Notation Software

The notation software we teach most often to our students is contained in the GOODFEEL(R) package from Dancing Dots. This is a suite of programs which includes Lime, a music editor, and scripts called Lime Aloud that make it accessible with JAWS; Sharp-Eye, a music scanning program, and the GOODFEEL Braille Music Translator, which can translate properly prepared print music files into braille. These programs are used in different combinations to meet various needs. Our students most often use these programs to create theory assignments in print, using Lime and the Lime Aloud scripts to enter and print their work, and then the GOODFEEL Braille Music Translator to produce a braille copy.

The GOODFEEL system is often purchased by schools and colleges, allowing for certain materials to be prepared on-site. Contact Dancing Dots directly to learn about the various options and prices. Teachers and others who plan to use these products to produce music for a student should also consider that time will be needed for training and should talk with Dancing Dots about this as well.

The program Sibelius, popular in schools and used in the music publishing industry is used by blind people, especially when more complex music arranging is called for. Some people have found it useful for reviewing scores already in Sibelius that are not available or are too cumbersome in braille. Scripts called Sibelius Access make Version 5 accessible with JAWS; work continues on access to version 6. Version 7 has some accessibility features that make parts of it usable without scripts and with other screen readers, such as NVDA, however, the work to develop scripts for version 7 continues, in order to achieve a more complete degree of access. Information about all the scripts can be found at http://www.musicaccess.co.uk, under the link for Sibelius Access. This is also the place to subscribe to the Sibelius Access listserv, where users network and share news.

People often ask us about the differences between using Sibelius, which is a mainstream product, and Dancing Dots' Lime Aloud, which is part of the GOODFEEL package. While Lime Aloud has some limitations, it is designed for use by blind people, whereas the combination of the highly sophisticated Sibelius and the challenges of using it with a screen reader, require motivation and patience to master. One major factor has to do with braille, especially for those who use braille displays. With Sibelius, braille is not available to the user until after the music inputting stage is accomplished and the file saved--One exports the file as Music XML and then imports it into Lime and then GOODFEEL. With Lime Aloud, a user can read the music on a braille display, in realtime, as it is being entered. For those who want to have the music under their fingers as they enter it, Lime Aloud has some advantages.

Music as Sound.

We will restrict this discussion to products we tell our students about that will help them meet the requirements of music production courses, such as sequencers and sound editors. Many of the players, sound library, and CD applications their peers use outside of class, such as Media Player, Winamp, Itunes) are accessible, some with the use of special scripts. It is best to consult with other blind people about software they use.

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. For that, we personally like Sound Forge (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.

Technology in School

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 the solutions have not yet been found to give blind musicians access to most of the music software used in the mainstream. The most popular program for notation, Finale, is not accessible; access to Sibelius is possible, but requires installation of scripts still under development and a significant amount of training. In schools where Finale or Sibelius are used, we recommend that blind students do their work on their Windows computers. Use of Sibelius may bedcome more practical as 0work on access scripts continues. For now, we recommend these only for those who are advanced with computers and who have teachers willing to work along with them. The easiest solution right now is to use Lime Aloud from Dancing Dots, which is part of the GOODFEEL package. Students can write, revise, and print out music assignments directly, using the Lime Notation editor in the Dancing Dots GOODFEEL software suite. If the teacher wants the music as a computer file, the student can export the project created with Lime into a standard file format called MusicXML, which the teacher can then import into Finale or Sibelius. For the situation where a teacher has prepared music handouts on the computer for distribution to the class in print, the blind student can ask the teacher to provide these files in MusicXML. Newer versions of Finale have the ability to export files into MusicXML, which the student can read with Lime on his own computer. If the school uses Sibelius or an older version of finale that lack this export feature, plug-ins are available to make the conversion possible. Information about the methods of sharing files can be found on the Dancing Dots Web site.

The same holds true in the area of sound editing. Using one or more programs including SONAR with CakeTalking, Sound Forge, GoldWave, and other sound editors a student or professional can achieve the same results as with Protools, and files may be exchanged.

With any of the above-mentioned software, please feel free to call the Resource Center, especially with regard to its use by students.

Macintosh Platform, Pro Tools, Garage Band, and Mac User Groups

As the IOS operating system is pretty much everywhere and most music schools expect students to be using Macintosh machines, blind students ask what the options are for them on this platform. IOS devices 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 ptaccess+subscribe@googlegroups.com.

Another strong positive is that Garage Band works well, and could be a good place for a teen ager or more experienced musician to start for multi-track recording. So far, this seems to be where the positives end. Other recording programs, commonly used, such as Logic, have little to offer in terms of accessibility. As far as we know, none of the programs dealing with music notation will work for a blind Mac user. 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. 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 as yet 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 info@blimug.org.

Where to Go From Here

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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