Most people, all over the world, engage with music with little or no knowledge of music notation. It is not necessary to appreciate or enjoy music, and in most performing traditions, from ancient oral cultures to the latest electronic creations, notation has no part to play. Nonetheless, it is considered a central element in some genres – particularly Western classical music.
Since this style dominates the music examination system in the UK, and since most teachers were brought up in this tradition and seek to perpetuate it, notation is often raised as an issue of concern in the education of blind children, since, clearly, they cannot access print scores directly themselves. However, it is important to step back and consider carefully with the child the kind of music that they are interested in pursuing, and whether notation is likely to play a part in their evolving engagement with it. In any case, it makes sense to start by learning to play by ear, since good aural skills and a keen memory will be indispensable in using the braille music code in due course.
A system of braille music exists that was invented by Louis Braille himself. Like all braille, the music code is based on a system of raised dots which that are arranged in ‘cells’. These are groups of up to six dots that are arranged in two columns of three.
Since a dot can be present or absent, 64 different combinations are possible. Braille music is an ingenious scheme, that translates the huge amount of information presented in two dimensions in print into individual lines of cells. It functions rather like computer code: all information has to be transmitted in a linear form. Since only 64 different combinations of dots are possible, and there are many more than 64 discrete aspects of music that need to be conveyed, inevitably, any one cell can potentially mean more than one thing, depending on the context in which it occurs. Hence, learning and using braille music is inevitably more complex than print. Moreover, it functions in rather a different way in that ‘sight-reading’ is possible only to a limited extent, as at least one hand (and preferably two) are needed to scan the braille, and so are not available to play an instrument. Hence, it is used more as an aide mémoire than as a real-time source of information in learning and performance.
Nonetheless, for performers who wish to engage with Western classical music at an advanced level as performers or in an academic way, braille has a vital role to play, and children should have the opportunity to learn the code, should their musical interests and aspirations take them in one of those directions.
In Eleanor’s story, qualified teacher of the visually impaired (QTVI) Harry, introduces Eleanor to using a scheme he has devised that shows how note names in English (C, D, E etc.) relate to the continental system of solfège (do, re, mi, etc.), and so to the braille alphabet Eleanor's Story @ 05:00. He works closely with Eleanor’s singing teacher Alice to ensure that the symbols have an auditory meaning, as Eleanor learns to write and sing a tune she has been working on. This partnership greatly benefits Eleanor’s learning, and is a model of good practice. For the future, having a system of notation available to Eleanor will enable her to have more options as to how she learns and engages with classical music and, if she wishes, takes examinations. It is worth noting that every child with a visual impairment should be assigned a QTVI from their Local Authority to support them. A music teacher can make use of this support by asking their pupil’s QTVI for assistance with braille, or with any other issues related to the pupil’s education: the impact of their sight loss, and strategies for ensuring that the core and extended curricula are accessible to them.
Using assistive technology
Various forms of assistive technology are available that can make standard music programs accessible to blind people. They can speak out loud what is on the screen, or, in some cases, output MIDI information from scores to a braille embosser.
Many blind people, children and adults, use a combination of speech and braille to access information, including sheet music.
In Zoe’s story, we see her using the Sibelius scorewriter program, which she accesses using the screenreader JAWS Zoe's Story @ 05:20. Since listening to text is slower than reading it, JAWS has the facility to speed up the speech that it produces, which is how Zoe uses it. Other programs are available too, and the question of which to use often comes down to issues of compatibility. As Zoe remarks, at the time of filming, JAWS could not be used with the most recent version of Sibelius.
In Eleanor’s story Eleanor's Story @ 01:16 her teacher, Alice, who is partially sighted, uses an app on her tablet to enlarge music. Pedal switches are available to facilitate what would be ‘page turns’, which inevitably occur frequently when the size of the score is increased. This readily available technology has transformed the ease with which partially sighted musicians can access scores.