1999 Conference Proceedings

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William R. McCann
Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology, L.P.


From the earliest stages of his study of music, the blind musician confronts two basic challenges: how to study and learn pieces noted in conventional, staff notation, and how to convey his own creative ideas to other musicians by means of notation. Dancing Dots has contributed to the solution of the first problem with publication of the GOODFEEL Ö Braille Music Translator in 1997. Recently, our company has been focusing on a comprehensive solution to the latter challenge noted above.

In this presentation, I will review this challenge in greater detail, report on efforts of numerous blind musicians to answer it and describe our own contribution in this area. We'll take an excerpt from a sample piece of notation and try notating it with at least two of the commercial music notation packages described below. If our own development in this area continues to progress, we'll use our own music editor to notate the same example.

Defining the Challenge

The system of western music notation functions as a storage medium for the creative ideas of the composer/arranger. The symbols on the page, whether printed or brailled, represent the music, they are not the music! This system has served sighted musicians well for centuries. The challenge to the blind musician is to successfully transfer his own musical ideas from his creative imagination to that printed page so that a competent sighted player may faithfully recreate them.

Until the advent of the computer bringing music notation and sequencing programs, the blind composer had little choice but to dictate his composition painstakingly to a sighted copyist. This extra layer of complexity and potential miscommunication has discouraged many a would-be blind composer. Even when mistakes are not made or, at leas, are identified and corrected, the process of dictating this way is time-consuming and expensive! Mistakes are often not discovered until the piece is being rehearsed by an ensemble of sighted players. Correcting mistakes during the rehearsal wastes precious time which, instead, should be dedicated to building musical interpretation and group cohesion. It is my experience as a totally blind composer and arranger, that sighted players are strongly effected by the look of the notation they are reading. If the copying is sloppy, the players usually feel disrespected and tend to play in a half-hearted way. If the notation appears to be clear and neat, the musicians give it much closer attention!

Over the past couple decades many useful pieces of software have been created that focus the power of the computer on scoring music. As I will describe below, none of these programs has an acceptable level of accessibility despite the fact that a few enterprising and intrepid blind individuals have managed to get some fairly good results from using them.

In the section below, I will briefly describe each notation editor and its level of accessibility after defining the term ôNotation Editor.ö. During the workshop, I will demonstrate these programs using the same musical example.

What is a Notation Editor?

Notation editors are applications that facilitate creation of printed scores. Notation software programs are analogous to word processors. They plot graphical objects on the printed page. This kind of software is specifically designed to employ a standard computer printer to reproduce musical compositions. Users manipulate musical symbols by means of an on-screen editor modeled after the conventional five-line staff. Most of these programs have at least some sequencing capability. Most notation and sequencer software programs incorporate the use of both the standard PC keyboard and one or more MIDI input devices (e.g. piano-style keyboards). None of the notation software packages now commercially available offer an acceptable level of accessibility to the blind user.

Lime Notation

Lime has been developed by Professor Lippold Haken of the University of Illinois. It is now distributed as shareware from: http://datura.cerl.uiuc.edu/Lime/Windows.html

Lime is a low-cost, fairly simple music notation editor. Sighted musicians would almost certainly not publish works out of Lime, but it is a great way to get music scored quickly and its output is quite legible. Pieces can be printed on a desktop printer. Dancing DotsÆ GOODFEEL Ö Braille Music Translator can read and transcribe Lime files into music braille.

The menus of Lime for Windows can be read easily with a screen reader like Jaws for Windows. A blind user can independently record and play back melodies via an attached MIDI keyboard and internal sound card. However, no editing can be accomplished by the blind Lime user.

Score Ö from San Andreas Press

Score is a high-end notation editor which produces publishing quality results. In fact, many of the worldÆs leading music publishers do publish right out of Score.

Score's DOS-based user interface is tedious even to many sighted users. Although I have corresponded with a couple blind Score fanatics, Score's user interface is daunting to the blind user. Professor Paolo Graziani has developed a utility which disables Score's graphics mode so that a screen reader may read the text portions of the screen. Nevertheless, Score is a formidable challenge to the blind.

Score does permit import and export of ASCII text files which contain formatting codes and logical score information. Some blind users have taken good advantage of this feature.

Note Processor from Thought Processors

Note Processor, like Lime, produces very readable but not published-looking copy. Many blind people have learned to prepare printed scores with it since it can import text files coded in DARMS. DARMS is a textual representation of the logical information of the score. Note Processor reads these codes and prints the corresponding music.

The Dancing Dots Prototype Music Editor

Our prototype notation editor is completely non-graphical. It is friendly to screen readers. It allows the blind musician interactive control of the content of the score.


Although a handful of savvy blind musicians have printed scores with one of the commercial packages listed above, the majority of creative blind composers/arrangers are still locked out from using their computer to print scores. It is possible to print scores with these packages but there is no interactive way to know how things are notated and to make an independent, informed decision about any necessary changes. In most cases, only a small percentage of the editor's menu functions are accessible.

Much work remains to be done to offer the blind musician an equivalent set of tools to create notation with a PC. Dancing Dots plans to make a contribution to this effort.

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