The following article originally appeared in the Manchester Guardian, February 15, 2011. It is reprinted here because the technology described is especially valuable for blind or visually impaired musicians.
Louis Braille is famous for the alphabet he created nearly 200 years ago for blind and partially-sighted people. Less well-known is the fact that he was a talented cellist and organist, which led him to also produce a system of recording music in braille.
Each piece of music is two or three times the bulk of a printed score and production is laborious and slow. Scores were generally only available on demand and most had to be created manually – often by charities or volunteers – using a braille typewriter.
But now, when music scores are published, the braille edition can be produced at the same time, thanks to Lydia Machell from Leeds.
Machell, whose squint in childhood delayed her usable eyesight until a series of operations ended successfully at the age of six, has developed software that converts musical symbols into dots. The score can then be printed out on a braille printer, meaning that music scores are now more easily available to visually impaired musicians.
Machell's innovation came after a spell distilling complex classical pieces into mobile phone ringtones after apprenticeships in music, computers and publishing respectively. She was pondering other uses of the software when she took a lift and noticed the small braille dots by the floor buttons.
Last year, Machell launched a website, branded as Prima Vista, with an unprecedented range of samples to download, to run off on a braille machine or to be printed at source and posted to arrive within a few days. The response from users was immediate.
"It is making a real change," says Clare Gaillans, a blind teacher at the Royal College of Music. One of her partially-sighted pupils, 17-year-old Maya, is happily working her way with guitar and voice through songs from Glee, the American high school TV comedy whose material is on the Prima Vista playlist.
Tomoko Endo, a pianist and postgraduate student at the RCM, no longer has to wait her turn at the embossing machine that turns out scores for blind and partially-sighted players such as herself. Running her slender finger along the lines of dots that decode a complex run of quavers and semi-quavers in a Schumann concerto, she says: "Reading the braille is only the beginning. Then you have to memorise it. But this system is giving us so much more, so quickly."
Top of Page