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.
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,
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
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
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
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 DotsE-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
1754 Quarry Lane
Phoenixville, PA 19460
Voice: 610 783-6692, Fax: 610 500-5072
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.