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Notes from ‘Inclusive Design in Harmony’. Part 1: overview

Introduction: what was ‘Inclusive Design in Harmony’?

Sound Without Sight teamed up with Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Google, and Creative United to curate a unique hybrid roundtable. This event pulled together the best minds from across the music industry, together with the voices of disabled musicians, to create a realistic blueprint for the future of inclusive design and developments, aimed at enabling greater access.

The aim was to bring together groups who all work in this space, but may not have a full understanding of all the work going on across the sector, and may not have a direct dialogue with the diverse communities who use their products and services.

The event facilitated a whistle-stop tour of the current state of accessibility and inclusion, and the current work being done, in key areas of music:

  1. Creation: composition, recording and production
  2. Performance: instruments, notation, collaborating in bands and ensembles
  3. Release: engagement with the industry, artist development, self-promoting

The event aimed to spark a collaborative action plan, focusing on how technology can be developed to break down barriers to participation and how inclusive design can be embedded as standard.

We are very grateful that Google saw the value in hosting and supporting such an event, and we are very much hoping that it will prove to have been the launchpad for exciting ideas and projects that will meaningfully open the world of music to many more people in the future.

Screenshot from the Google Meet stream, showing the in-person event camera on the left and online panellist thumbnails on the right.
The event took place in-person at Google’s Accessibility Discovery Centre in London, and online via Google Meet and YouTube.

Why was the event needed?

Of course, there are already talented musicians with additional access requirements spanning many genres, but it is often difficult for the public to discover their work and therefore for the musicians to make the jump from casual hobbyist to professional.

RNIB recently conducted research in collaboration with Opinium to get an idea of the UK general public’s perception of disabled musicians:

  • Seven in ten (69%) Brits find it important that artists from a diverse range of backgrounds are represented in the music industry.
  • A similar number (63%) consider that disabled people face more challenges than everyone else when building a career in the music industry.
  • Only 3% could think of a blind or partially sighted professional musician who had started their career in the last 10 years.

There is a clear need to improve inclusion within the industry so that all talent can shine through equitably.

What were the main topics explored during the event?

1. Inclusive design of music technology products

Attendees first discussed the inclusive design of music technology products, covering topics such as:

  • What are the biggest barriers to access within music production right now?
  • How are companies currently focusing their inclusive design efforts?
  • Could it be possible for companies who are generally in competition to collaborate on the topic of accessibility?
  • The role of the user community in collaborative development
  • What might an accessibility standard look like?
  • How can the community help influence and define a more standardised approach?
  • The need for a physical R&D “centre for excellence” where the community can try out equipment and instruments.
  • What can mainstream designers can learn from bespoke instrument design and adaptations?
  • Are there any accessibility solutions in the wider technology sphere that haven’t yet been adopted by the music technology industry?

2. Identifying and communicating about the inclusive design of hardware, software, and instruments

Conversation moved to the topic of identifying and communicating about the inclusive design of hardware, software, and instruments:

  • How can musicians with additional access requirements better understand whether products are suitable?
  • How can we ensure there is more information about inclusive design available at retail?
  • Would an accreditation scheme be of value? How might this work?
  • Could a simpler scheme be trialled by software-only vendors?

3. Examples of good practice

Attendees gave their recommendations of the most inclusively designed music technology products available right now.

4. Accessing performance and ensembles

Representatives from the National Open Youth Orchestra, Able Orchestra, and Paraorhestra spoke about inclusive practices in their ensembles. Attendees also discussed the dangers of labelling opportunities as “fully accessible” and the tendency for accessible opportunities to involve experimental repertoire and instruments.

5. Musical collaboration

Using digital tools to enable real-time collaboration with other musicians, whether that is jamming, practicing or producing remotely.

6. Accessible formats for music notation

Attendees discussed the formats that people require, how can technology help to improve availability of these formats, and whether MusicXML is a future-proof format.

7. Artist development and industry access

Attendees discussed the need for inclusion to be considered and built in across the board, so that musicians with additional access requirements can progress through the industry.

We explored how barriers can be removed from pathways into the recorded and live music industries, and shared other work happening around the industry to support inclusion.

We also discussed the potential difficulties of social media marketing and self-promotion for artists with additional access requirements, along with the importance of supportive online communities.

8. How can we sustain this kind of conversation beyond events like this?

Summary: what were the main takeaway points?

Music technology and instrument design

It was inspiring to hear about the great work that music technology companies are doing to improve inclusivity in their product design. However, the efforts of companies are generally in different areas and the accessibility of music products industry-wide is very patchy. Companies generally use their own approaches to inclusive design, which means that users are rarely faced with a familiar user experience when they purchase a new product. Musicians often need to learn how to use a particular product’s accessibility features and find workarounds so that they can use a piece of technology in their setup. Although two similar products may be described as accessible, the way that users are expected to interact with them may be very different.

A strong case was made for better collaboration between music technology designers, who may otherwise be considered competitors, as all music-related products need to be able to work together, with a familiar user experience for people who have additional access requirements.

There is also a clear need to define inclusive design principles or guidelines to improve accessibility standards across products. This would also ensure that the topic of accessibility is easier to engage with for smaller developers who do not have the resources to undertake extensive user research.

To achieve this, business-to-customer collaboration will be essential, not just collaboration between companies. This is because different communities may have conflicting access requirements; it’s possible that what makes a product accessible for one community may make a product less accessible for another. The sheer diversity of need means that it’s difficult for any single manufacturer to fully explore all design considerations alone.

Better communication is needed between manufacturers themselves and their user community so that all parties are aware of the work being done, how it links together, how knowledge can be combined further, and how current work relates to the shared goal of including the widest base of musicians possible. The importance of forums for ongoing consultation and transparency was clear. This sustained collaboration is key for ensuring that the community can influence inclusive design practices. ‘Inclusive Design in Harmony’ was a perfect example of how effective this collaborative approach can be, but an industry-wide structure needs to be created to allow this to happen effectively. The importance of peer support within communities was also noted, which would only improve with such a structure in place.

Furthermore, there was a strong desire from musicians for there to be physical environments (R&D centres of excellence for inclusion) where equipment and technology could be explored and tested by the community. This would allow:

  • direct feedback from users to influence design.
  • users to try the accessibility of products before buying.
  • collaborative knowledge to be held somewhere that allows everyone to learn together and keep raising the bar.
  • an effective hub of expertise that can move the industry on, and everyone in it, whether they are on the performance side, the retail side, recorded music, or other.

Product information and support

It is currently very difficult for users to understand whether their needs have been considered in the design of a product before buying, as accessibility information rarely makes it onto product pages. Likewise, retail staff and product support teams are rarely able to answer accessibility-related enquiries. Therefore, it is important that clearer information about the accessibility of product features is available at music retail and on product pages and documentation.

To supply this information effectively, it is important that an industry-wide taxonomy of terms, and a standard way of conveying this information, is agreed. The discussion highlighted the complexity of the issues when dealing with a very wide range of access needs. However, for each product, it should be possible to define which features are or aren’t accessible, and to who. Above all else, it is the responsibility of manufacturers to be clear about what their products do, and who may not be able to access all features, rather than waiting for the community to work this out.

It was also noted that many of these issues would naturally be alleviated by having more people with additional access requirements working in design roles and positions of influence at music technology companies.

Artist development and industry access

The importance of starting points for people who are exploring music for the first time was discussed, as it is currently difficult to get beginners with additional access requirements into music in the first place. If beginners and young musicians do not feel able take the first steps due to barriers, then this can knock confidence, immediately set them back behind their peers, and make them less likely to engage with music throughout their lives. 

It was also raised that high-tech solutions may not be appropriate for children with complex needs, low-tech solutions are useful too. There needs to be an inexpensive accessible instrument that will allow children to develop and play to a high standard.

Knowledge about and availability of accessible scores were also cited as a barrier to participation. More work needs to be done to promote the need for accessible formats. Publishers and exam boards should follow accessible engraving guidelines and make their scores available in MusicXML format, which can be more easily transcribed to accessible formats later.

Beyond barriers experienced early on, inclusion needs to be consistently built-in at every step of an aspiring musicians’ journeys, to ensure that they can progress and develop their creative practice. It is difficult to talk in isolation about inclusion within music technology, instruments, performance opportunities, artist development, or industry pathways, because all these need to be accessible together for meaningful inclusivity.

Improvement is needed across the music industry, especially around recognising the intersectionality of issues and needs being addressed. Else, there is a danger of ‘cliff edges’, where musicians’ development is invested in at a particular stage, but this support suddenly falls away. This can currently be the case for aspiring musicians who benefit from youth-targeted support up to the age of 18 or 25 but struggle to continue into a career beyond this. This would also ensure that musicians with additional access requirements can be more mobile through different roles in the industry, which is a necessity for the modern freelancer.

There is work to be done with industry gatekeepers and talent streams, such as record labels, festival curators, and BBC Introducing, to ensure that their services are accessible to and inclusive of musicians with additional requirements.

There was also a call for support with social media and self-marketing, which are essential skills for developing artists, but can be difficult for disabled musicians to access.

What’s next?

  • Contact email addresses will be shared between all consenting panellists today, allowing conversations to continue.
  • All the recommendations made during the event (technology, instruments, ensembles, opportunities, etc.) will be posted this week.
  • In the coming weeks, we will publish detailed notes and actions, along with the recording from the event for anyone who wishes to catch up on all the conversation.
  • Later this year and beyond, we hope to curate further panels, to diver deeper into specific topics.

Appendix: who attended the roundtable?

The hybrid event brought together a wealth of experience, including artists, representatives from music technology companies, charity organisations, and the music industry. Please see the list below. The stream of the event was also open to the public, and we have collated community questions in a separate article.

Key partners

  • Jay Pocknell (Music Support Officer, RNIB; Sound Without Sight)
  • Christopher Patnoe (Accessibility and Disability Inclusion Lead EMEA, Google)
  • Mary-Alice Stack (Chief Executive, Creative United)
  • Robin Spinks (Head of Inclusive Design, RNIB)

Musicians

Music technology designers

Non-profit organisations

Music industry

Research

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