Difficulties accessing standard-print music notation can be a barrier for blind and partially sighted musicians, but a range of solutions are available.
If you are looking for a physical copy of an accessible score, there are two main options: large print (also known as Modified Stave Notation or MSN) and braille music. Modified Stave Notation is a good option for partially sighted musicians, as it’s a format that can be customised to meet the specific access needs of the reader, allowing you to adjust the size of specific elements such as note heads or expression marks, as well as spacing, layout, line thickness etc. Braille music, as the name suggests, is a development of the braille literary code, and is a good option for blind musicians. We will be posting detailed knowledge hub articles about both formats soon, with information about how to borrow, buy and produce your own scores, as well as guidance for those wishing to learn braille music.
It’s now possible to buy or borrow a large range of sheet music online, and there are several options partially sighted musicians who want to access music digitally. Digital sheet music apps such as Power Music AF and forScore allow users to magnify digital music files and can be paired with a tablet or separate monitor to create a portable digital music stand. A Bluetooth page turner foot pedal can be added to help you navigate through the enlarged music handsfree. Both apps allow you to import music from online publishers or to upload your own digital scans.
Braille readers may read some music from a digital refreshable braille display rather than physically embossed pages of braille. This very much depends on the instrument and braille display in question – as most devices are single-line displays, this method is mostly suitable for instrumental music (excluding piano scores, depending on the braille music code). Digital scores can be converted into braille using online transcription tools such as MakeBraille or BrailleMuse or with software from Sao Mai Braille or Dancing Dots. We hope to cover this in more detail in future articles.
Another option for blind and partially sighted musicians is a talking score. Traditionally this would be a spoken recording of the score information (note, note length, expression etc), alongside short extracts of the music. Bill Brown’s Piano by Ear courses follow this format. It is also possible to digitally convert a .xml score into a talking score using websites such as The Talking Score project, which convert your score into a text file that can then be read aloud by a screen reader. Some musicians create their own talking scores by using screen readers in combination with scores uploaded in notation packages such as Sibelius or MuseScore. Different combinations work better than others: watch this space for more information.
Partially sighted piano learners may be interested to explore the alternative Ambrose PianoTabs format for notation, designed for musicians who find it difficult to access standard print notation. The hybrid format uses the familiar noteheads from standard notation but employs an innovative stave that is based on the keyboard layout. The website includes a free library of music in this format, plus free software to create your own.
Where else can I go for advice?
RNIB’s Music Advisory Service can offer advice on producing and learning from music notation in accessible formats. They can also provide suggestions for learning to play music by ear or memorising music. If you support or teach a blind musician, they also offer help in producing music in accessible formats.