1.1 Music and the blind

Visually impaired people are commonly associated with specific social roles. A typical association is the “blind=musician” one. Literary tradition associates the blind with the figure of the ‘vate’ of the singer-poet (aedo). In past times, many non-sighted people used to work in the field of music (from church musician or choir member to composer), nowadays the visually impaired also works in scientific and arts fields.

1.2 Education

Visually impaired people can learn music by heart and play it by ear, or can receive specific tuition, that enables them to read and write music, using the Braille method. In the latter case, the learning process is called music literacy: the visually impaired is put in the position to use music language, and to mentally grasp such language to produce music. We have to consider the benefit deriving from music literacy, in terms of the development of the different personality aspects: character building, cognitive and relations sphere, manual ability and creativity. In addition, studying music allows the non-sighted to have access to concepts that are typical of the sighted world, such as chromatic contrast, shades, background, etc. Such considerations, along with the fact that music is the only art form which can be, which can be fully mastered by the blind, justify the efforts undertaken by teachers and researchers in order to ease music production and keep alive the interest in music among young and less young visually impaired people. At present there are some difficulties that, as a matter of fact, forbid the access of the blind to music studies, such as:

  • Braille music notation is very different from the ordinary one. For this reason it is difficult from stave notation teachers to take a beginner, especially if he/she is very young.
  • Braille music transcriptions are very expensive and take a long time to be done. In addition they are not always easy to decipher since the Braille alphabet is not suitable to represent in a comprehensible way, complicated text structures (harmony, relations between parts, important and less important signs, harmony, etc.).

1.3 Weaknesses of the traditional system

When studying music, the visually impaired can choose from few learning aids and limited utilization strategies, based mainly on the Braille system, with the possibility of permanent writing (be it paper Braille or paperless Braille).

If one takes into consideration, on the one hande the special ways in which tactile perception works and on the other, Braille notation characteristics, it is possible to comprehend that blind students is disadvantaged, not in terms of concept understanding or application but in the carrying out of mechanical actions. For example:

  • reading of complex music texts
  • global vision of the text, in order to pick up its structure
  • quick perception of those elements which needs particular attention (similar voices, repeated elements etc.)
  • manipulation of notational material (reading, notes on the side, etc.)

1.4 A code for the New International Manual for Braille Music Notation

The Braille code presents a defined structure: precise distances among the dots, number of dots (6), their layout (in a vertical rectangle) height, shape and dimension of the single dot in relief. The introduction of the Braille line allows to slightly increase the number of dots for a single Braille combination, from 6 to 8. Reading an 8-dot Braille text slightly increases the time needed to identify combinations, without compromising it. The Braille display is made of one single line. This makes more difficult to view the page vertically but it avoids confusion among the lines.

1.5 The choice in symbols to be used

The number of possible combinations is limited to 64 (63 + space). It is impossible to create a code having a one-to-one correspondence, displaying every symbol of the traditional alphabet. As every instrument, which can be used for different functions, the Braille system, born in France in the 19th century, was first adapted to the national language of the country adopting it. In this way, whereas most symbols remained those of the French alphabet, others (e.g. the letter “w”) had to be added later. It follows that the same combination might represent different letters depending on the national alphabet used; e.g. for the German Scharfes S “§”, the Braille combination 2346 was chosen. However the same combination number represents, in the French Braille system the letter “è”.

1.6 Braille as a language

Because of the restricted number of symbols, in comparison to the concepts to represent, it might be beneficial to consider the Braille system as a proper “language”. In this case, it is necessary to employ the same techniques used when translating a language into another. If one wants to transcribe into Braille a complex text (such as a music score), it will be necessary to employ the typical Braille resources, which are different from resources available for the printing techniques.

1.7 The music code

Braille Music language has gone through a continuous evolution since its creation by Louis Braille. Such evolution, as it is highlighted in the “New Manual of Braille Music Notation”, is essentially due to the research of new solutions on behalf of transcribers and teachers, aiming at a more accurate description of the original score and at the same time an easier way to read and memorise music. Music pieces wrote a century ago are very different from those produced today, because of the constant evolution of the Braille language, which has evolved independently in every country. Important stimuli for the publication of the “New Manual of Braille Music Notation” by the World Blind Union consisted in the international need of the blind to be in the position to fully benefit from the IT system which allow to manage and store Braille music in electronic format. Nowadays visually impaired musicians are no longer asking their national library just to provide them with paper texts or electronic formats, but also, thanks to on-line library catalogues, are starting ordering from the Internet. A standard electronic format is therefore needed for archiving Braille music pieces. One of the main reasons why the Braille music system has gone through several alterations is because of different ways of writing music in stave notation. Braille music reconciles different requirements, such as:

  • Adherence to the original text, also with respect to some graphic elements (spaces in between lines, dimensions of notes);
  • Clear transcription;
  • Distinction between symbols present in the original text and interpolated symbols, in order to guarantee a better and clearer Braille version;
  • Compression in order to save space and used symbols;
  • Ease the case of the reading process as much as possible, especially in the case of beginners.

1.8 Local traditions

As it has been outlined above, the adoption of the Braille system by the different countries produced independent traditional sub-systems. The Braille system has the same characteristics of a proper language, therefore the same situation might be represented in different ways, in the same way as for a translation into a different language. Braille music transcribers have to combine the need for clarity with compression and completeness of information, and with the introduction of IT based services, it is possible to obtain a flexibility hard to imagine up until some time ago, with answers to the needs of different types of users (professionals, amateurs, beginners, etc.).

1.9 Results

At present the BME user can employ the national keyboard to write music in a line with 6 keys, or with one hand only using the number keys. A sighted person can follow the non-sighted person and convert his/her work with the FINALE program. The visually impaired student can use the BME music editor for a series of actions which transfer to the PC a number of mechanical functions such as marking, analysis, selection of voices and parts of text. The didactic value of the software remains complete, since students are helped in the conceptualisation, memorisations and elaboration of didactic contents; functions which are difficult to carry out when reading the paper music score.

1.10 Educational implications

From an educational point of view, it is important that close and positive relationships occur between success, motivation and positive emotional environment in a classroom. Good results encourage children to attempt new adventures and to set new goals. A prompt and adequate communication between teacher and visually impaired is the basis on which to build effective school education. In the case of traditional music studies, such basis is heavily affected because of the following dynamic:

  • music writing is difficult to learn for the blind;
  • it is difficult to teach music to blind people, if not only by ear;
  • for the composition teacher it is difficult to follow the young pupil when he/she carries out his/her homework;
  • visually impaired children rarely find an adequately prepared teacher in ordinary schools who can answer their questions when asked;
  • nobody can assess correctly the work done by a visually impaired music student.

In this way, the number of visually impaired young people and teenagers who are attracted by music diminishes, not because of lack of capabilities. The Contrapunctus proposal is a partial solution to these problems and, as a matter of fact, constitutes an answer to the insufficient and poor instruments available today to the blind musicians.