Music and Low Vision -- Strategies for People with Macular Degeneration, Retinitis Pigmentosa, and Related Problems, Students who are Partially Sighted, and those with Print-related Disabilities Who Don't Read Braille

(Update in progress, May 30, 2018)

Introduction

photo of a large sheet of paper with music on a music stand.
A "big page", magnification 2x, made from a single page of regular music at a copy center. The pole of the music stand on which it is sitting appears at the bottom of the picture.

They call music the universal language. It is enjoyed and made by people of any age and background and often is the vehicle for removing the barriers for acceptance among others. At the National Resource Center we often get calls from people who have taken the role of music in their lives for granted, until confronted with the barrier of vision loss. They are looking for ways to read sheet music, to have the security of their music in front of them as they play the piano, or find the continued social fulfillment of being active participants in an ensemble. The story we hear most is how what started out as the simple expedient of taking pages of music to be blown up at a copy center is no longer working, because the pages are either so large that they won't fit on the music stand, or not enough of the music can be seen at one time. There are also the school-age students who are partially sighted, who have music activities in school or want to be a part of a choir or band. The nature of low vision being what it is, one solution does not work for everybody.

We began this web page many years ago to highlight the exciting technical solutions, usually involving enlarged music on a computer screen. Such systems, as in the photos below, have indeed made a great difference in people's lives. We will show you what we know of that has been done and the potential for developments in the future. We also want to be sure some attention is given to some of the old stand-by solutions, such as large print, and recent developments notation software, such as MuseScore, makes possible as hardcopy called Modified Stave Notation. We also know many people who are looking for ways to learn music that do not involve vision or reading from braille. For those, we provide information on the No-C-Notes music reading method and a method under development for computer users called talking scores. For any of the solutions involving technology there are the questions of how much money one is able to spend, how much computer savvy one has, and the amount of help that will be available for preparing the music for reading.

Computer-enlarged Music

A girl plays her clarinet, reading the music enlarged on a computer screen mounted on a music stand.


Enlarged music produced by the Lime Lighter from Dancing Dots.

The goal is to create music large enough and close enough for the player to see, and then have a means to move to the next set of measures, usually by using a foot pedal. The musician must have access to additional controls to move backward and forward to any part of the piece needing to be rehearsed. What we have today comes out of the work of people looking for solutions for themselves or a family member. Not only have they inspired the development of professional packages offered for sale, but they stand ready to share their experience with others who would like to put together their own custom systems. More about these innovators later. For now, it should be said that from the inquiries we get, what people would like to see now would be systems developed for mobile devices to which a large screen could be attached. Some work has been done there, but there is much room for innovation from companies and individuals alike.

Lime Lighter, The Packaged System Ready to Use

One solution which is proving to work well for students and seniors alike is the Lime Lighter from Dancing Dots. As shown in the picture above, it displays Music notation magnified from 1.5 to 10 times original size. The push of a pedal scrolls to the next measure or system. Several models are available to meet different music situations. One is mounted on a custom Manhasset music stand, and has a touch screen that permits the user to put markup in the music as one can with paper; another has a light-weight screen that can be set on the music rack of a piano or keyboard. Lime is the name of notation software. Customized to this system for low vision users, it can display notation that has been scanned or which is in the file format called Music XML, which can be generated by programs such as Finale. It is important to bear in mind that some work will be required to prepare the files, especially if there are passages that are to be repeated; the forward scrolling of the music prevents jumping back without pause, so the repeated passages must be written out.

One big advantage of the Lime Lighter is that the system is ready to go, out of the box, set up beforehand to the requirements of the user, and support is available. These services and the components make this system more costly than others one can put together, however, it can be well worth it for the musician or school looking for something easy to assemble and the assurance of training and support.

Even if the Lime Lighter does not meet your particular needs or budget, an understanding of the concept of how it works provides good background for anyone investigating computer-enlarged music. The page on the Dancing Dots web site devoted to Lime Lighter has demonstration videos that may help you determine whether the Lime Lighter, or systems one can put together, will work for you.

The Legacy of Tom Green

Picture of a recorder ensembleThe late Thomas A. Green (front), at a workshop of the Albuquerque Recorder Society, using the computer system he developed.

This page is dedicated to the late Tom Green, who developed one of the first practical computer-driven music reading systems. A retired physicist, he had as one of his chief pleasures playing with others in a recorder ensemble. Not wanting to give up this pursuit when macular degeneration started affecting other aspects of life, he took magnification on paper as far as it would go, and then turned to the computer. The system he developed used a Windows laptop, the Finale music editor, a foot switch, and his own set of macros. Mr. Green wrote a book length tutorial which he made freely available, and sponsored the original Low Vision page on this web site. That led to several families putting his system together primarily for their children to use in school bands. Mr. Green's exact system would be difficult to replicate today, because of all the updates to Windows and Finale. However, other families have been inspired by his work and have assembled systems using the hardware and software of today. All the people who have done this are more than happy to share their knowledge.

Home-made Systems

photo of girl playing the Euphonium in a living room, in front of a home-made music system.  All components can be seen, including the foot pedal.

Ken Olsen made this system for his niece. You can read about it and watch him demonstrate his MagniPy Low Vision Music Reader on the Maker's Box Blog His e-mail address is 648.ken@gmail.com

Another person who is more than happy to guide people through the building of a system is John Hebert. John used Mr. Green's tutorial several years ago to assemble a system for his son. He then imported the system to the Macintosh platform. He reports that the Mac version is much simpler to assemble, and is much more portable, rugged and stable. See John Hebert's letter on this in a later section. His e-mail address is john.hebert@ge.com

All of us in the field consider the number of options for those with low vision to read music inadequate and encourage further development. We hope new systems will become lighter in weight and as compact as possible, while still providing the low vision user with enough screen area for viewing. We also hope for lower costs and less need for file preparation.

Beyond the initial cost of the components and setup, there are often continued costs if new music must be scanned and prepared. John Hebert's article explains about the editing he needed to do for his son's band pieces, to deal with repeats and other aspects of the music that become more challenging when rapid movement between passages while playing must be attended to beforehand. There are transcribers able to do this sort of work. Dancing Dots is one resource for finding such a transcriber.

The sections below include both our own compiled material and links to pages on other web sites. They not only feature products you can buy or build with the help of their developers, but also provide sources of the traditional large-note scores and methods developed for those for whom print or braille music is not an option.

Contents for the collected material on music and low vision - Music Reading Solutions, Products, and Articles

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Section 1: Lime Lighter Music Reading System - Web Site of Dancing Dots
Section 2: Letter from John Hebert about his Macintosh-based system
Section 3: Ken Olsen's MagniPy Low Vision Music Reader, external link to the Maker's Box Blog
Section 4: News of Other Software and Projects (coming soon)
Section 5: Sources of Large-note Music and Other Resources
Section 6: Modified Stave Notation, customizing Music for Individual Readers, External Link to the Royal National Institute of Blind People
Section 7: Website of No-C-Notes, a Dictation Method for People with Print-related Disabilities
Section 8: Talking Scores, External Link to the Royal National Institute of Blind People
Section 9: Article, Suggestions for Enlarging Music on Paper, by Thomas A. Green
Section 10: Article, Tom Green tells the story of developing his system (Also on the Articles page)

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