Dancing Dots
Where Music Meets Technology for the blind
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Dancing Dots serves blind musicians and their educators through technology and training
Introducing the GOODFEEL Braille Music Translator

by Bill McCann

Author's Note: I wrote the following article in the fall of 1997. Much of the information it contains is still relevant but it refers to version 1.0 of our GOODFEEL® Braille Music Translator. In early 2002, we began shipping GOODFEEL version 2.6. Dancing Dots continues to improve GOODFEEL. Check for the very latest news on our GOODFEEL page.

Ever since Louis Braille invented his system for representing music, blind musicians have been faced with the challenge of obtaining scores in the Braille music format. Countless hours have been spent converting the musical ideas represented by conventional staff notation into Braille. Nevertheless, the quantity of material accessible in Braille represents but a small percentage of that available to the sighted musician. Sighted musicians can "sight read" an unfamiliar piece while blind musicians (with the possible exception of singers) must spend time memorizing the music. Transcription turnaround times measured in weeks, months and even years, put the blind musician at an even greater disadvantage.

In this article, I'll discuss this problem further and relate some of my personal journey toward finding one computer- based solution called GOODFEEL. I'll describe Dancing Dots' newly-released GOODFEEL translator and our automated transcription service based on it.

The problem became all too familiar to me almost immediately after receiving my first trumpet on my ninth birthday. No one on the staff of St. Lucy Day School for the Blind (where I was a student at the time) knew Braille music, so my mother called around and finally found me a teacher who could introduce me to it. Only problem was, this teacher was a violinist! But she had a rudimentary knowledge of the brass instruments and had a firm basis in music Braille. After acquainting me with the basics of Braille music and trumpet playing for about six months, my teacher moved out of the area, forcing us to start all over again. This time we found a teacher who actually played the trumpet, but he had never taught a blind student before and knew nothing of Braille music. Since then, I have never again studied with anyone who knew the music code. I picked up a lot along the way thanks, in part, to resource materials I borrowed from the Braille Music Section of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. (These materials are still available today. Contact the NLS Music Section at 1-800-424-8567.)

Throughout my formal music education, I had the luxury of the services of volunteer transcribers. But even these dedicated women took weeks or sometimes months to return scores to me. I became pretty good at brailling things for myself and just learning things by ear when necessary.

After receiving my bachelor's degree in trumpet performance from what is now known as the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, I spent a long year being a freelance musician-- teaching privately, composing and arranging, playing every church, club and party that would have me, and being much poorer than I liked! I decided to find something that might better support my lust for independence. In 1981 I began an intensive, ten-month course in computer programming in a center based at the University of Pennsylvania. What's now known as AbiliTech, did then what it continues to do: train people with disabilities to program computers. I successfully completed my course, and in 1982 I accepted a position at the Sun Company in Philadelphia. I spent almost the next ten years maintaining and developing software for their employee information systems.

Without question, I had entered this field for the money, but I started to see some exciting applications for this computer stuff! In the mid-80's, I began to hear about software that allowed sighted musicians to use the computer to prepare printed scores. I asked myself, "If it's possible for print notation, why not Braille?" I kept thinking: "Somebody's going to develop this Braille music translator." But nobody did!

By 1991 it was time to make a decision: remain at a good job with a good company to follow a career path which interested me less and less, or, leave to pursue the dream of making that translator myself! My employer was inadvertently helping me with a deadline date for that decision. Employees who volunteered by the end of the year could take a generous severance package. After lengthy consultation with my Creator and my wife, I decided it was time to go for it! As part of my severance package, my former employer offered me a seminar in career transition and resume writing. I took courses in C programming and grant writing. I spent a good deal of time at the library researching funding sources. But the best guidance came from my cousin who had started his own business a few years earlier. He directed me to the Wharton Small Business Development Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The SBDC assigned me a consultant, a Wharton graduate student, and located two energetic and talented undergraduates who needed a final project to work on. They helped me write a business plan and complete an application to the PA Ben Franklin Technology Center.

In July of 1992, Dancing Dots received its first funding from BFTC. The principal of my grade school Alma Mater, St. Lucy's, offered me a spare office in which to work and, before I knew it, people were calling me an entrepreneur. I began work on a prototype of what was to become the GOODFEEL translator. Many organizations assisted me along the way, and they are listed at the end of this article.

Some Definitions

And now, what about all the techie stuff? OK, let's get technical for a bit! Before describing the translator itself, I will offer a few definitions to serve as background:

MIDI (musical instrument digital interface): A standard music industry method for storing and exchanging musical data in and between computers and electronic musical instruments. MIDI is the name for both a communications protocol and a file format. MIDI files serve as a standard interchange format for music in much the same way as ASCII files do for text.

File formats: Various schemes to digitally encode related kinds of information.

Sequencer: The musical equivalent of a word processor. This MIDI-based software allows input, editing, and reviewing music. For example, music can be played back on a MIDI keyboard through a hardware MIDI interface device. Think of it as the digital equivalent of the player piano with the MIDI keyboard being the specially designed piano, the sequence being the piano roll, and the MIDI interface being the player piano's mechanism. Examples of DOS-based sequencers usable with screen reader software are Sequencer Plus, Cakewalk, and Texture.

Print notation software: Software specifically designed to employ a standard computer printer to print music. Users manipulate conventional print music symbols by means of an on- screen editor. Most of these programs have at least some sequencing capability. Most music notation and sequencer software programs incorporate the use of both the standard computer keyboard and one or more MIDI input devices such as piano-style keyboards. Due to their inherently graphical orientation, none of these types of applications permit an acceptable level of access to the blind user despite the fact that a few intrepid blind musicians have learned to make some limited use of a couple of them. GOODFEEL is compatible with output from the Lime Notation software described below.

Lime (for Windows 95, Windows NT and Macintosh) is used in music education programs in the U.S. and abroad. Users of Lime can build a score by manipulating graphical musical symbols such as note heads and clef signs. The score appears on the screen in conventional staff notation. The work can be saved as a file which is passed to GOODFEEL. GOODFEEL reads the file and determines the Braille music equivalents.

Presently, Lime cannot be used independently by a blind musician. However, sighted teachers, colleagues and assistants could certainly use Lime to prepare scores to be brailled by GOODFEEL. These helpers need not be braille music readers! There are definitely many, many more people who can use Lime and GOODFEEL to prepare Braille scores than the few dozen who are certified by the National Library Service as Braille music transcribers.

Lime is now distributed as shareware. You can download a fully-functional version from: http://cerlsoundgroup.org.

What is GOODFEEL?

GOODFEEL 1.0 (presently a DOS application only) reads files created by sequencers (MIDI) or the Lime notation program and translates their contents into the equivalent music Braille. After loading the Lime or MIDI file, you can decide which parts to Braille. Each MIDI track or Lime voice equates to a GOODFEEL part. You can instruct GOODFEEL to ignore any individual part. You can group two or more parts together. This feature is handy for linking right and left-hand keyboard parts or for merging two or more MIDI tracks that have notes for the same instrument. After title page information is entered and other printing options set, GOODFEEL brailles the transcription. Each transcription is simultaneously written to an ASCII text file for subsequent review and/or revision.

Dancing Dots released GOODFEEL 1.0 during the summer of 1997. It runs under DOS or can be run from a Windows 95 DOS box. Schools and school districts have ordered GOODFEEL to help them transcribe band parts and other materials in a more timely fashion. I am particularly pleased that some of our first customers have been organizations and individuals who want to expand the services they provide to include music braille transcription. We have been offering our own automated service for almost a year now and the response has been so great that we may soon exceed our capacity to respond quickly. Having others around the country and around the world who are engaged in this work will result in quicker turnaround for the consumer.

The translator has been used to successfully transcribe band parts, piano exercises, hymns and original compositions. We continue to offer our transcription service. We accept printed scores, MIDI or Lime notation files for transcription for a per-page charge. All multi-part pieces are produced in bar-over-bar format.

Version 1.0 can not yet transcribe lyrics but the software does have its own grade 2 translator for title page and other text information. Lyrics are on the top of the list for features to be added. GOODFEEL 1.0 does not support percussion notation nor does it handle figured bass, short-form chord symbols or accordion notation. We will rely on our customers and potential customers to help us prioritize the list of features to be added in future releases.

If you plan to send us a file for transcription, be sure to request copies of our brief articles on preparing files for GOODFEEL. By following these guidelines, you will obtain the best results. For copies of these and other articles about GOODFEEL and Dancing Dots, including sample transcriptions, and to get the very latest news, visit our web site at: http://www.dancingdots.com.

GOODFEEL and Braille Literacy

It is my hope that GOODFEEL will precipitate a renewed interest in the use and teaching of braille music. In particular, I want to assist the blind student who is studying with sighted music educators who do not know the braille music system. I want these teachers to understand, first of all, that there actually is a system of music braille! Secondly, I want them to know that they have the same responsibility to their blind students as to the sighted: to teach them to be literate musicians. Far too often, we have all heard certain music educators say something like: "Well, Johnny has such a good ear, he doesn't need to learn braille music." My response is: "If Johnny's friend Joey who is sighted, has a fantastic ear for music, do you not allow him to see the print score!" Nonsense!

Braille music gives the blind musician access to the information the composer considered of importance; not just the pitches and rhythms but specific information on how to perform them. The score tells musicians where to play louder and softer, where to pause, where to leave a tiny bit of space between the notes (staccato) and where to play the notes in one smooth line (legato). The blind musician, informed by the score, has a much better chance of acting as a leader rather than a follower in an ensemble.

GOODFEEL 1.0 is a first step on the journey to full automation of braille music transcription. No doubt, there are still a number of things it cannot yet do; lyrics and short-form chord symbols for example. Still, GOODFEEL now stands ready to satisfy unmet needs for braille music.

Through our work, we want to honor the memory of Louis Braille and his great gift to the blind. We want to give the literate, blind musician access to the same information available to the sighted musician: the unfiltered, written message of the composer.

For further information, contact:

Bill McCann, President Dancing Dots
P.O. Box 927
1754 Quarry Lane
Valley Forge, PA 19482
Voice: 610 783-6692, Fax: 610 783-6732

E-mail: info@dancingdots.com
Home Page: http://www.dancingdots.com

Organizations assisting Dancing Dots include: Associated Services for the Blind of Philadelphia; Ben Franklin Technology Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania; National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Education Foundation; St. Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments; US Department of Education; Wharton Small Business Development Center.

Copyright 2002, 2005 Dancing Dots