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Braille Music for the 21st Century

Over the past 10 years, technology has grown in unimaginable ways. We can download nearly anything at the click of a mouse, we can instantaneously talk to our friends overseas through our computers, and we can carry around a whole world’s wealth of knowledge in a device the size of a deck of cards.

Fortunately, this exponential growth of technology has also impacted braille production. Today, blind individuals can access braille in electronic format: a file that can be read on a refreshable braille display, something like a braille laptop, or be sent to an embosser for printing. But what about braille music? Like other braille production, traditional braille music transcription is a meticulous process, where not only the note names, but also the length of the note, the accidentals (if any) and the octave of each note is expressed in braille characters. Having a quick way to transcribe print music to electronic braille music would not only lessen the burden on music transcribers, but it would also (and more importantly) reduce the gap between resources available to sighted and blind musicians, both in terms of time and quantity. Has the technology boom helped the production of electronic braille music?

The answer is yes, and around the world there has been an array of various attempts and degrees of success at what we might call automated braille music translation.  A German group from Leipzig have an in-house system called Da Capo.  An Italian group had, for a time at least, developed software with the name Dodeci. In Japan, there is BrailleMuse, which works with music XML files, as does a recent development from Austria called FreeDots. The latter is freeware and is not in development at present. An Australian product called Toccata came out at least ten years ago, but has not had significant software development since.  Only two companies have shown sustained, and commercial, success, each with a very different business model.  The older of the two is Dancing Dots, based outside of Philadelphia and founded by Bill McCann.  Prima Vista Braille Music Services was established by Lydia Machell and is based in Leeds, England.

Ms. Machell began as a data developer for a bank and has worked in music publishing, arts administration, and has dabbled in computer programming. In 2010, she developed software that can translate digital music scores written in, or with, Sibelius (music notation software) into digital music braille files.  After a little clean-up, these transcriptions can be downloaded to a refreshable braille display or sent to an embosser for printing, and, of course, actual use. That is, be read.

Machell’s software was inspired by plug-ins that translate digital scores to ring tones for cell phones. She wrote her own plug-in that takes the information inherent in a digital written score and converts it to a digital braille file. This is essentially automated braille music translation.

With the ability to convert Sibelius files to braille files, Machell has negotiated with several major music publishers who use Sibelius and secured the rights to convert their scores to braille — most recently, Oxford University Press and Boosey and Hawkes. This opens up large expanses of music literature to ready availability in braille.  More details about Prima Vista may be found at http://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2011/feb/15/braille-music-blind-people-video and www.primavistamusic.com.

Dancing Dots founder, Bill McCann, also has a background in music and computers. Beginning in 1992, he and his company have developed a software suite consisting of three programs: SharpEye (music scanning and recognition software), Lime (a music editor), and Goodfeel (the braille music translator).  Together they convert print music to braille by scanning the print, importing it to Lime and translating it to braille via Goodfeel.  The combination enables blind musicians to scan, edit and translate hard copy print music into braille music.  They can also notate their own compositions or arrangements, as well as convert electronic music files from Sibelius, Finale, or other notation package using music XML music interchange format. More about Dancing Dots can be found at www.dancingdots.com.

The Music Section has acquired transcriptions from both Dancing Dots and Prima Vista Braille Music Services and looks forward to continuing such acquisitions.

For the visually impaired, there has also been another, recent and good outcome from Machell’s Prima Vista Braille Music Services. This is what we call “large print music”.

Or, as the British might say, “modified stave notation.”

Ms. Machell can take the Sibelius files used for braille transcription and readily adapt and enlarge them to accommodate low vision readers. Thus, from one file, both braille and large print can be produced.  She calls this service “Vista Scores.”  And it will certainly score well with the Music Section as it looks to increase its large print collection.

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