Music for the masses
Reading music scores is not an easy task for blind people because the scores are either limited in number or difficult to get a hold of. An EU-funded team of researchers, however, has designed and developed a demonstrative service that enables blind musicians to access and use Braille music scores that are found in libraries and transcription centres. The CONTRAPUNCTUS ('Preservations and unification of new and existing Braille Music digital scores for a new access methodology') project received almost EUR 4 million under the 'Information society technologies' (IST) Thematic area of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
Louis Braille, a blind Frenchman, devised the Braille system in 1821, with the objective of offering blind people a method for reading and writing. His system was also used to transcribe musical scores into a tactile code. From a logistics perspective, the transcribing and reading of Braille music is much more complex than that of Braille text. The main problem is that the linear format of Braille proves difficult when trying to decipher musical elements such as chords. Experts believe less than 15% of printed music has been transcribed into Braille.
The CONTRAPUNCTUS project targeted the use of digital technology in order to establish an enriched and standardised digital format effectively facilitating transcription of music into Braille. The end result is user-friendly access to scores for the blind. CONTRAPUNCTUS offers blind musicians a growing digital library where they can download scores.
'The music page in Braille has been like a city with lots of blank walls and very few signs,' explained Dr Antonio Quatraro of the Italian Library for the Blind (BRM), the coordinating body of CONTRAPUNCTUS. 'CONTRAPUNCTUS has enriched this page with all kinds of information concerning every musical element — a note, a rest, a tie, fingering, etc. It used to be a labyrinth where you could go in but might never come out. Now, with our system, you can always find your way around.'
The CONTRAPUNCTUS consortium, comprising 10 partners from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and the UK, provides a new digital format for encoding all aspects of a musical score in a standardised and easily accessible way using RESONARE software, a textual editor that processes Braille music texts.
The project partners say the resulting Braille Music Markup Language (BMML) reorganises written music into a highly structured, easily searchable database. Musicians can use the Braille Music Reader (BMR) to read any BMML score.
'BMR can describe musical elements from individual notes to changes in tempo or dynamics in spoken form,' Dr Quatraro said. 'As you read through the music on your computer, the notes are played to you as written. That's important, since a commercial recording cannot be as accurate as the printed score, just as a spoken story cannot convey its spelling and punctuation.'
Other key elements include the fact that the computerised Braille display can read any part of the enriched score by touch, and the enriched Braille score can be printed. Commenting on the ease of the system, Dr Quatraro said: 'It's as if you had driven all your life on a bicycle, and now you have a car.'
The CONTRAPUNCTUS partners have set up an online portal permitting access to a Braille score library. Interested users can download the software for free from the project's website. 'It's as if we had a hidden treasure which nobody could access,' Dr Quatraro said. 'But we found the key that unlocks the treasure created by generations of transcribers.'