On Tech & Vision Podcast

A Celebration of Sound and Song: Music Tech Shines the Spotlight on Musicians with Vision Loss

Marcus Roberts, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and even Louis Braille (who invented the Braille Music Notation system still used today) prove that musicians who are blind or visually impaired have made profound impacts on our musical landscape. However, to get their work to us, musicians who are blind have had to structure complex workarounds, like relying on sighted musicians to demonstrate complex scores; memorizing long pieces; or only performing when they can have a Braille score in front of them, shutting them out from opportunities that fall to those who can sight read, since Braille scores have often been time-consuming and expensive to produce. However, new technologies in music composition and production are making composition, nuanced scoring, and Braille printing easier than ever, bringing musicians and composers who are blind to centerstage to share their sound and song. 

Podcast Transcription

Risdon: The piece actually came out of an improvisation. I was doing a recital for Advent at my wife’s theological college at the time, and I thought, what shall I play? 

Roberts: James Risdon is a musician. 

Risdon: I picked a beautiful old English Carol called the Coventry Carol and started just playing around on it in the manner of a musician from centuries past, you know, just improvising and noodling around, and eventually came up with a few ideas I like. I’d put them into the concert. That was a pretty nerve-wracking experience. 

Roberts: James plays the recorder, an instrument with a long history, then a centuries-long period of neglect, and now a resurgence that began in the 1900s. 

Risdon: I’ve never done a piece in a concert before that was to such a great extent improvised. A few people liked it and were very generous, and said it was nice and I should write it up. And that’s how it came about, really. 

Roberts: This is his original song, Lullay and Lament

Risdon: Bye bye, Lullay, are the words in the Coventry Carol, which sort of sang out to me and I improvised the sort of shepherd’s lament, if you like. It’s very precomposed. There’s a lot of music in there which doesn’t fit the sort of regular 4-4 bar of music. So, the piece was inspired probably 10 years before. Back in 2002 I used to play a sport called gold ball. 

Roberts: As a child, James lost his vision due to Leber’s congenital amaurosis. As an adult in 2002, he was in Slovakia for a gold ball tournament. His team got knocked out early.

Risdon: So we had half day to wander around the local town of Levoca, I think it’s pronounced, and we went to a castle. And on the way up to the castle, I could hear music. So, I asked our guide if we could just nip into where the music was coming from, and we ended up in a still very smoky hut which smelled of wood burners and cigarettes and coffee. 

And on the table were laid out loads and loads of handmade flutes – sort of folk flutes.  They look a bit like penny whistles with the sort of six finger holes on the front, but not a thumb hole on the back. So, they’re kind of like recorders. I can play that. I’m not an expert whistle player, but the system is pretty much the same. I picked up a few. I thought these are superb. So I bought two and one of them was two pipes bound together by two brass brackets and it meant that you could play chords so you could have a drone going as well as playing a tune. 

And one of the things that the maker was telling me is that they were particularly penetrative sounds for playing across the valley. So, if you’re a shepherd and you want to call across to your neighbor or the shepherd in the next field, you could call this across the mountain and the sound would carry on the wind and it would cut across the other sounds on the hillside if there were any. 

And I found it a very romantic image. So, when I came to write this piece it inevitably started with some imagined shepherd’s pipes across the valley and you can almost hear them echoed back at times in the music. There’s some echoes written into the music and that’s where it came from. 

Roberts: I’m doctor Cal Roberts, and this is On Tech and Vision. Like shepherds calling to each other across the valley, music connects us, and while people who are blind or visually impaired have found ways to play – think Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles. Even Louis Braille was a noted musician before he created the Braille music system. They’ve had to overcome serious hurdles. And structure complex technical workarounds to share their art with the world. 

Today’s big idea is how amazing new technologies reduce creativity barriers for musicians and composers who are blind or visually impaired so they can take advantage of new opportunities to compose and perform, and can reach us and move us with their music.

McCann: Hi, my name is Bill McCann and I’m founder and president of Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology. 

Roberts: Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology is a suite of software, plus educational resources and training that helps people who are blind to read, write and record their music. And Bill, who is visually impaired, was inspired to build Dancing Dots based on a challenging performance in his real life. 

McCann: I studied with a wonderful teacher here in the Philadelphia area. I studied trumpet with him, and he knew I liked to compose tunes in kind of jazz/pop vein.  He said, we’re having a festival. Why don’t you arrange one of your things? We have jazz band. We’re going to have a string section, we’re going to have extra brass, harp. 

So, at that time, again, I didn’t have this technology, I had a friend. A good friend who we went to high school together. He was one of those copiests who had a great hand and then he adapted, went to Finale, and became an expert with Finale. 

Roberts: Finale is the industry standard in music notation software, but it’s not currently accessible for users with visual impairment. 

McCann: So, I went to his house. My friend Vince and I sat down and played in my ideas. And Vince took care of scoring it. We printed all the parts out. We go to the rehearsal, we have 45 minutes to rehearse my piece. And long story short, some people had an extra measure and I thought it was a miscommunication because there were sections to the piece and I thought Vince understood what I wanted and he thought he did, too, but we missed it and most of those 45 minutes, probably over 30 minutes were spent with people running around the stage with pencils and so there was a little stress. And I said, I will never put myself in this position again if I write something and I am asking other people to play it and they ask me questions or there’s something I am going to know before we meet exactly what I want and what I have. And while we meet, I’ll be able to answer their questions quickly and correctly.

And the performance did go off and people liked it. Nobody threw anything. They applauded. But I knew how much better it could have been if we had a little more time to rehearse. 

Roberts: So, those of us who don’t compose music, what we think composers are doing is taking a pencil and on music paper, drawing notes as they hear a song or I think of a song, right? Is that how it’s still done today? 

McCann: It certainly can be. My wife’s a professional musician, she sighted and she is a harp student. She’s a harpist and she’s learning to use Lime these days and playing around with music notation software. But she’ll say to me, which is so much easier if I had a piece of staff paper. And that’s where it all began. But then, in the 80s, we started to see programs like Score and Finale and others and Lime, even.

Roberts: Musicians today benefit from a range of accessible music technology and software for creating music and preparing materials in adaptive formats. For example, Lime is music notation editor software that allows users to build a score by manipulating musical symbols like noteheads and clef signs. Then, the score appears on the screen and conventional staff notation. The Lime score can then be automatically transcribed to Braille music code by the Dancing Dots Good Feel software, vastly decreasing the amount of time needed to produce Braille music scores. 

Or, composers who are blind can use the Lime Aloud to dictate music directly into Lime. After the piece is notated in Lime, it can be produced in standard or Braille formats, whatever the bandmates need. 

McCann: But to come back to your question more specifically, what are those guys doing when they’re writing manually or with the computer? Basically, they’re getting into symbolic format their musical thoughts. They’re taking what they’re thinking about and what they’re hearing in their mind’s ear. And they’re presenting it symbolically so that other people can recreate it. It’s a symbolic representation of somebody’s thoughts about what they’d like to hear. And of course, the fun part of music is being able to read that and recreate it. 

Human beings apply their own experience of life, their own emotions, their own creative powers to that music. For me, that’s one of the fun parts about music is OK, so Bach heard it this way, but you’re hearing it this other way. If Bach were here, would he be happy or would he not? But he’s not here, so let’s listen to you. 

Cooke: When I was teaching I realized there was a relative lack of hymn music for first and second-year performers. 

Roberts: Chris Cooke is a pianist and harpist who is visually impaired and arranges hymn music to sell at her website playhymns.com. 

Cooke: I love hymns and I’m very passionate about playing them, writing them, singing them, and so I kind of specialize in creating duets for any instrument combination. So, when I got the Dancing Dot software in 2016, my creativity just exploded. It was so amazing to be able to write music again. I arranged a duet, printed it out really quick, took it to church and the lady and I played it. And you know, that was an awesome experience too, because to print something off and bring it to your performance. And I knew the song because I arranged it. She read the duet part and we played it for service and it was great. So, having the chance to be able to do that, you know, so the duet that we played was hot off my printer and went with me and we played it. And it was great to be able to share music in that way because of the technology in the Dancing Dots’ program that enables me to put the music into the computer. 

Roberts: So, help us to understand, what is Braille music? 

McCann: Braille music goes back to the roots of the Braille system. Which were, as you know, were developed by Louis Braille. He loved music and he wanted to be able to express music. So he took those six dot patterns, and if you have a set of six of something, the unique combinations of that set of six things would be 64. So we have 64 possible characters that we can represent with six dots. And so out of that he was able to make a system that had all the letters of the alphabet and the punctuation marks and numbers and so forth. 

But when it came to music, for our listeners may not know, a Braille cell has two columns with three dots each. So down the left column you have 123, on the right column you have 456. So that makes two columns or three rows of dots. So he worked out a system where he would combine the top four dots to represent the seven degrees of the Western scale Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, or so, la, si if you like, and he arranged them so that those seven characters would be telling us the pitch and then the bottom two dots, three and six on the bottom row of the cell would indicate the duration. And because he intuitively understood that the human finger does not take in the amount of information that human eye can take in it’s doable, but you’re gonna spend a lot of time scrubbing around left, right, up, down.

So, whereas print music has five lines, in Braille music we have what are called octave signs. So, in Braille music we always have to show the octave sign at the beginning of the piece, there’s no need to learn all these different clefs. I want you to play 4th Objective C and here are the dots and now it’s your job to play it. 

Roberts: So one of the appeals of Dancing Dots and the software that you have created is that it takes away one layer of the translator that no longer is it the musician telling someone what to write down, but you can go directly from the musician to the score. 

McCann: Yes, well most of the end users are taking a score that someone else entered into our software for them, either by importing XML or directly typing notes into Lime. Or, it also comes with a music scanning application called SharpEye. But, one way or another they got all that information into Lime. And so, from a reading perspective, the blind person can now independently read it. They have what Louis Braille gave us, which is a piece of paper with the notes on it. But it’s not just the notes. It’s the notes, it’s the duration. It’s the nuance of the score. Where should I get louder? Where does the composer or the arranger of this music want me to accent notes? Where do I play them detached? Where do I slur them together? 

And, as a blind person, I can say this for myself. Often we end up following sighted people or following somebody. Braille music gives blind musicians a chance to become leaders. First of all to become independent. To learn it yourself and decide how you want to interpret all of these symbols. Not just the notes you heard, but those accents and slurs and ties and dynamic marks and whatever. But it also, if you practice and you have talent and you’re interested, you could become the leader. It also applies to when we want to be the creative person. When we have an idea that we want to express and get it out of our head into musical format, whether that’s playing it into Lime and then clicking on the print button and giving somebody – here’s my print chart, I’d like you to play this. Here’s your part, harp part, the trumpet part, the flute part. Or, whether it’s dealing with a blind harpist or a blind flutist. Blind trumpeter. OK, I’m just going to run through GOODFEEL, send it to my Braille printer and here’s your part. 

But either way I am able to tell people specifically what I want them to do, and again, not just the notes I want you to play and their durations, but all the nuance of a good score. 

Roberts: So what technologies have converged to make music easier and more accessible for musicians with vision loss? 

McCann: There’s something called MIDI that you may have heard of. MIDI really came along in the 80s, so MIDI is what, 40 years old or more now? And MIDI was a protocol that would allow machines to communicate. It stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.  So, a MIDI connection, say from your computer to a keyboard, in fact, that’s why you can connect a hardware musical keyboard to your computer with Lime is because it sends MIDI messages back and forth. And the software interprets it. You get the notes I just played are now on the screen and print notation, and on my Braille display in Braille. 

The kind of precursor to MIDI was that player piano. The MIDI file is not notation based, it’s performance-based. It basically says here’s a list of notes. Here’s when they got switched on, here’s when they got switched off relative to a pulse we call ticks per quarter, but it’s the same idea.  So MIDI really grew out of that whole player piano idea and went on to, let’s say greater heights, because MIDI technology can be used now to coordinate a performance among multiple instruments. 

Roberts: Another technological development that made the whole process a lot easier, a new file format. 

McCann: Well, the biggest thing to happen to us in the music industry as a whole is a format called MusicXML. And MusicXML has been, in my opinion, the best thing to happen to blind musicians since Braille music itself, because it’s one of those examples of something that started out as something that solved the problem for musicians in general that also just happened to be wonderful for us. The music XML is a way to take a score from your application of choice. 

Roberts: MusicXML is a file format created by Michael Good for Recordare LLC in 2004.  It allows musicians to share scores across applications.

McCann: The problem has been that there are dozens of these programs – the top couple, one called Finale and one called Sibelius.  So, you have just made your arrangement for jazz band in Finale and your friend has Sebelius and he’s going to edit it for you.  Until MusicXML, your friend either had to get a copy of Finale and learn how to use it, or sit down with his copy of Sibelius music notation software and just re-key everything back in.  Which is pretty tedius.

So, with MusicXML, you finish your work in Finale, you click on the button that says export to MusicXML.  You come up with jazzbandarrangement.xml.  You give it to your friend. 

He runs Sibelius. He clicks on import. He pulls it into Sibelius and he sees exactly what you did, and he has all the notes, all the rhythms, all the nuance of the score. And then he can take it and and go from there and apply whatever touches he needs to make to it. 

Yes, Music XML has been the thing, but it’s becoming more and more accepted in wider musical circles, and you can more and more often find an XML version of a score, whereas until then you’d find maybe a PDF version. Or some other format, but not XML. So that’s kind of a, let’s say electronic curb cut idea for sighted people. 

But what that meant was that all we had to do was add a music XML import to our own notation software or component of our suite called Lime, like lemon and lime. And Lime can import your music XML file and once it’s in Lime the work we’ve done to integrate lime with our GOODFEEL Braille music translator means that it’s immediately accessible in what we call a talking Braille score in a multimedia appreciation of a score so that you can see the Braille music on your Braille display. You can hear the music playback. And you can hear the screen reader describe each note if you like. 

Roberts: James is a Dancing Dots user, but when he was composing Lullay and Lament for his 2015 album Echoes of Arcadia, he used a different system of software. 

Risdon: I think only when you use a piece of technology for yourself in your day-to-day work and it becomes a part of whatever workflow you’re using, you don’t really fully appreciate what it can do you. You can have a conceptual, theoretical understanding of it, which is what I have, but not the practical experience. 

So what I did I, I put the piece into GoldWave. Actually I’m quite a big fan of GoldWave audio editor. Just go find it easy to use. It wasn’t too expensive. I’ve used Audacity as well, which is a free program, but I sort of prefer the interface with GoldWave. And I sort of took out a bit of the hiss and I took out, you know, edited the recording down into just what I want. And I find then I can move around it in very small increments. So if I want to sort of play back a little bit while I’m notating it, it’s quite easy to do. 

So what I did actually, I’m a big fan of Duxbury Braille translator, so I used Duxbury to not only translate print documents into Braille, but also to create Braille documents from scratch and I use it for writing Braille music. So, I created this score entirely in Duxbury actually, and I’ve still got the copy on my computer of the finished piece. It’s about 7 pages in Duxbury and one of the things I need to do now is put that into print. 

McCann: Hi everybody, this is Bill McCann speaking. I’m the founder of Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology and you are listening to On Tech and Vision. It’s a program I really appreciate because we’re talking about the ideas behind the technology. That’s what you’re listening to, and I’m enjoying that idea myself. 

Roberts: And if you’re still listening this late in the episode, we assume it’s because you like what we’re building here at On Tech and Vision. If that’s the case, we have a simple ask for you. Take a moment and share our show with two people you know who also might appreciate it. And rate us and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Your support means a lot. Back to our episode.

Roberts: I was curious. Does the music technology that exists now allow for parity between musicians who are blind and sighted musicians? 

Risdon: I don’t think it can give me parity because I still need to sit down and learn the music from scratch where other people can – What time is it now? Here in the UK, it’s about 2:30 in the afternoon. If I could see someone could conceivably ring me up at 3:00 o’clock and say, oh, we need a deck for this concert this evening in whatever hall, can you come and do it? And I’d say, oh, yeah, fine, I’ll come and do that, and I could sight read my way through the gig. 

I’d say it’s vastly increased what I can do, and it’s vastly increased the range of work I can do on the lead time I need for a gig. I used to require sort of months to guarantee getting the score in Braille and then learning it. Now I can say if you get me the score today, I can have it in Braille over the weekend, I’ll have a look at it and come back to you. That’s amazing. That’s totally game-changing, life-changing, life-enhancing – everything. It’s difficult to say how much of a transformation GOODFEEL has made on my life since I found it, but I don’t think you could call it parity because it can’t do the impossible. 

Roberts: Chris agrees. 

Cooke: You still have to do a lot of preparation beforehand. You still have to have a lot of lead time to get music even scanned into a piece of software, which we can’t really do if we don’t have any vision because we can’t correct the errors in the music. If it’s a scan that’s almost right, but there are a few errors, the program will complain and say that there are some errors and you need to fix them. Well, if you don’t know what they are, because you can’t see what happened. So I think not quite. It’s so much better than it was with the advent of XML files.  

Still there is the whole thing of how much does it cost and how can we use free to nearly free tools to get done what we want to do? Things are much better, but I feel like the issues of preparing the music in a timely fashion on a budget are what’s going to hold most people back. I think it’s just getting from print to an accessible format is where we need to get to in a more accurate fashion, accessible fashion.

Roberts: So, what will the future of music technology be for musicians who are blind or visually impaired? Bill has a visionary idea. 

McCann: Say you were seized with an idea and you wanted to get it kind of in notational format. If you wanted to take it and sing something that could immediately be converted into conventional music notation on the five-line staffed, some of these applications that are doing that is one called AudioScore, I think. So yeah, all of these technologies are beginning to converge. If you really follow kind of the logical outcome of someone sitting there and getting inspired. It’s what we call the MIDI to brain connection. We’re not there yet, but you could sit and think the music in your head. To think at, say, a computer. And that music materializes in the form of a score. That would be really fun stuff. 

Roberts: You’ll just have to think the music and it’ll be transcribed. Tell me more about what you see as the future, maybe short term future maybe long term future, of making music. The composition of music, playing of music. Enjoyment of music more accessible and more universal. 

McCann: One of my dreams was and is that I could sight read music. I could do what my wife does and professional sighted musicians I know or talented amateurs, for that matter. I have to memorize the music. Again, unless I’m singing, when I’m reading Braille music, I really have to memorize it so that I can recreate that performance or that piece.  Again, I’m not just memorizing the notes, I’m memorizing everything that’s on that page because the Braille Music system is really well defined. 

OK, so my dream. As a blind person would be to be able to sight read music.  Well, how in the heck am I going to do that? Well, over the years, over the last few decades, I was following Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita. And his mantra really was, we do not see. with our eyes. We see with our brain. Our eyes just collect the information and send it to our brain. 

Roberts: And we have explored this technology on our podcast series in the past. 

McCann: Your listeners may remember it. He called it the Brainport and it’s and when I came across it maybe about 10 years ago, they still hadn’t received their approval from the FDA, so it was still an experimental device. But when I talked to Doctor Paul Bach-y- Rita, I said, I love what you’re doing. What if this thing could show me Braille dots on my tongue. And what if those Braille dots were Braille music symbols? That means I could sit down at my piano. And play a tune without ever having seen it before. 

And so we got some money from the National Science Foundation and we made a prototype and we did just that. I have a video of a friend of mine who’s blind, sadly also now passed away, no longer with us, but he sat down. And we sent him the dots on his tongue and he was able to play the melody. Unfortunately, the people at the Science Foundation who reviewed my application, and they write things in very academic terms, but I’ll tell you what basically after reading what they wrote is, here’s what it said. Bill, this thing is way too expensive. It’s too slow and how many people is it really going to help? 

So, we didn’t get the next round of money and I had to go on and do the next thing in my life and I haven’t come back to it. But I still have this dream that this is doable. And as you know in the meantime they did get their FDA approval, so maybe writing the next grant or persuading the next funder would be a little easier. And if I get a chance, maybe I’ll make it work. 

But I teach a lot of students, and what I like to say to them is what I truly believe. Well, if you have to be blind or visually impaired, you have chosen a great time in history to be blind or visually impaired. Because as you know, there are just so many cool things that we already have and so many things coming down the pike that it’s really an exciting time.

Roberts: For his part, James really enjoyed the process of composing his album Echoes of Arcadia, and wants to develop even more great music with the technology. 

Risdon: I’ve set aside 2023 as a year I’d really like to kind of develop some more expertise in the area and also get to grips with similar technology that would help the process. 

Roberts: Thanks to Dancing Dots, Chris has found herself just where she needs to be. 

Cooke: All of that is possible because I have these pieces of software. If I want to go back to teaching privately, I have no problem with that because a lot of times it’s easier for me to create something than to find an accessible version.  It provides me the creative outlet that I seek to be able to create and present music and share music. And I love creating so it makes everything possible. It makes this creative outlet for a deep sense of passion about music and sharing with others. It makes that all possible. 

Roberts: Music is a time-bound art form. Good musicians bind melodies and basslines to structures like 4/4 and 3/4 time and write songs that, like a whistle across a valley, cut through the din to move people. Dancing Dots and similar music accessibility softwares are transforming the music world for musicians and composers who are blind or visually impaired, enabling them to not only participate more fairly with sighted peers, but also to become leaders and innovators in this most expressive of art forms. And maybe in the future they’ll be able to do this with their minds. 

For now, they can more easily share their songs with the world. Songs that represent their self-expression, their creative ability, their nuanced and complex ideas about humanity. On that note, and without further ado, Bill McCann on vocals singing a Bill McCann original: The Glorious Dream.

Did this episode spark ideas for you? Let us know that podcast at lighthouseguild.org. If you liked this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. I’ve Dr. Cal Roberts I’m tech and vision is produced by Lighthouse Guild. For more information, visit www.lighthouseguild.org I’m tech envision with Doctor Kalra. Which is produced at Lighthouse filled by my colleagues Jane Smith and Anne Marie Ohern. My thanks to Pod fly for their production support.

Did this episode spark ideas for you?  Let us know at podcasts@lighthouseguild.org.  And if you liked this episode please subscribe, rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. 

I’m Dr. Cal Roberts.  On Tech & Vision is produced by Lighthouse Guild.  For more information visit www.lighthouseguild.org.  On Tech & Vision with Dr. Cal Roberts is produced at Lighthouse Guild by my colleagues Jaine Schmidt and Annemarie O’Hearn.  My thanks to Podfly for their production support.

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