2000 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2000 Table of Contents

THE DANCING DOTS MUSIC EDITOR A Non-graphical Approach to Scoring for the Blind Musician or Dyslexic

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

THE DANCING DOTS MUSIC EDITOR A Non-graphical Approach to Scoring for the Blind Musician or Dyslexic William R. McCann President 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 expressed 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 ® Braille Music Translator in 1997. Recently, our company has been focusing on a comprehensive solution to the latter challenge noted above. We will present our new Dancing Dots Music Editor, a non-graphical interface designed primarily for the blind musician and others who cannot read conventional staff notation such as dyslexics.

In this presentation, I will review this challenge in greater detail, report on efforts of numerous blind musicians to answer it and our own research in this area.

We’ll take an excerpt from a sample piece of notation and try notating it with a few commercial music notation packages. We will compare that process with using our new, non-graphical editor to accomplish the same task.

Statement of Purpose and disclaimer The purpose of this workshop presentation and paper

is to present some options for the creative blind musician who wants to score his musical ideas with a maximum of independence. It does not pretend to be an exhaustive review of all options available to the blind composer. It’s scope is limited to PC-based applications with which I am familiar! Through its presentation, I hope to foster a lively discussion of present options and future development.

The presentation will be limited to four commercial music software packages: Cakewalk (Cakewalk Music Software), Lime (Professor L. Haken), Sibelius (from Sibelius Music Software), and the new Dancing Dots Music Editor. I also am aware that some blind musicians have been using scoring programs with which I am completely unfamiliar including Note Processor and Music Shop Mac-based).

I will show these four programs and discuss their accessibility to me as a blind user in the areas of: data entry, review and editing, print quality and overall usefulness.

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 "Notation Editor.". 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 mainstream notation software packages now commercially available offer an acceptable level of accessibility to the blind user.

Cakewalk Pro Audio

Cakewalk is one of the most popular music applications on the mainstream market today It has a high degree of accessibility for the blind user although the level of access varies widely among screen readers and braille displays. I use it with Jaws for Windows and some custom scripts.

Cakewalk has a rich set of functions such as multi-track sequencing, digital audio recording and editing, and music notation. I will focus on it’s Event View and Step Recording functions. Nuances such as dynamic and articulations are not accepted in this mode of input but can be added in later in Cakewalk’s Event List View.

After the score has been entered and auditioned, it may be printed by means of Cakewalk’s Staff View. Select the track or tracks to be printed. Use alt-v, s to display the Staff View. Once in the Staff View, no further editing is possible for the blind user. All that can be accomplished is to type ctrl-p to open the Print Dialog. The score will be printed on most desktop printers.

Print Quality

A most unscientific review of Cakewalk’s output by sighted musicians with whom I am acquainted revealed that Cakewalk’s notation is not completely aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It does, however, convey the musical meaning fairly well. Sighted musicians seem uncomfortable with some of Cakewalk’s default choices on spacing. These choices may be overridden in the editor under the Staff View, but this editor is totally inaccessible to the blind user.

This solution is useful but not comprehensive. As will be seen in the demonstration, it is fairly simple to build your score with Cakewalk’s Step Record mode. For example, type "q" for quarter note and then play one or more keys on the MIDI musical keyboard attached to your PC’s sound card. Cakewalk accepts the value and moves the focus to the next logical input point. So, if you enter a quarter note in 4/4 time, Cakewalk shifts to the next beat and waits for your next command.

You must be sure that you’ve "armed" the current track for recording first.

By using Cakewalk’s Step Record mode, the blind musician can build a highly detailed score note by note or chord by chord. Cakewalk offers keyboard shortcuts for rhythm such as "H" for half note, etc. To execute the Step Record feature, enter alt-r (Real-time) and then s (for Step Record).

Lime Notation

Lime has been developed by Professor Lippold Haken of the University of Illinois. It is now distributed as shareware from:

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 Dots’ GOODFEEL ® 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.

As the reader will note below, our first release of the Dancing Dots Music Editor will permit all editing to take place within our non-graphical editor. The finished work will be exported to Lime or other editors for printing.


Sibelius, from Sibelius Music Software based in the UK, produces publishing quality output at an affordable price. At this writing, its interface is not friendly to the blind user. Dancing Dots and other interested individuals have made recommendations to the manufacturers of Sibelius on ways to improve access but it remains to be seen if these recommendations will be taken in future releases of Sibelius.

The Dancing Dots New, Non-graphical Music Editor

Our new notation editor is completely non-graphical and friendly to screen readers. It allows the blind musician interactive control of the content of the score. It is the first music editor designed primarily for the needs of the blind. It’s interface facilitates navigation and editing in an aural environment. The software accepts input from both the qwerty keyboard and a MIDI musical keyboard attached via MIDI cables to the PC’s sound card. All navigation is accomplished with a combination of cursor keys or user-assignable hotkeys.

Future releases of the Dancing Dots Music Editor will have an integrated scoring feature. Presently, the finished work is exported to Lime or other notation editors for printing.


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. With the introduction of the Dancing Dots Music Editor, Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology has taken an entirely new approach to addressing this problem. We hope that a easy-to-use, non-graphical editor will encourage more creative blind musicians to score their musical ideas for sighted players.

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2000 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings

Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.