Kickstarting open source music and doubling the number of scores for the blind

 Open Well-Tempered Clavier Bach to Bach
Image credits: MuseScore
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Serendipity was once described to me as looking for a needle in the haystack and finding the farmer's daughter. In the case of the Open Well-Tempered Clavier, it was rather trying to make an open source version of Bach's music and finding out that blind musicians face a critical shortage in the number of braille scores they have available to study. And, unlike every other time someone has come to this realization in the past 200 years, there is now actually something that can be done about it, using open source software.

Making open source music with open source tools such as MuseScore is the original goal of the Open Well-Tempered Clavier project, and that's what attracted Eunah Choi, a teacher in South Korea, to become a backer on Kickstarter. This led to a casual email conversation about the project, and the innocent questions "Are you a pianist?" and "Do you study music?" The answer that Eunah provided is touching and heartbreaking. You can watch for yourself as she recorded a video message of the email, but the short version is, she is blind, and there are not enough scores in braille to constitute a serious study of piano. Ultimately, she abandoned the dream of becoming a career pianist.

This revelation didn't sit well with me or with the MuseScore team. We had set out to make music accessible, and had obviously failed, for exactly the group of people who needed us the most. So we asked ourselves, "Can it be fixed?" The answer to that question is most definitely, "Yes!" MuseScore has long embraced open standards, such as MusicXML, and there are open source libraries, Freedots and music21, which attempt to convert MusicXML into braille that is suitable for reading on devices like the one Eunah uses in her video. Both libraries are unfinished products and require more development.

Armed with this new information, the Open Well-Tempered Clavier project extended its mission and set up new stretch goals on Kickstarter. Assuming adequate funding, the team will not only produce a public domain score and recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (the original goal), but also a braille version. We will then create a braille version of Bach's Goldberg Variations which we released in 2012. As a consequence of these efforts, we'll be able to make an accessible and free web service to automate the conversion pipeline of MuseScore and MusicXML scores into brailleand automatically convert the more than 50,000 scores in the MuseScore.com library.

Given that there are less than 20,000 titles currently available in braille format, the addition of 50,000 more titles is significant. Lowering the barrier of conversion for digital scores, and releasing the tools as open source software, guarantees that the number will grow and grow.

It is the responsibility of the sighted to provide copies of our cultural treasures in formats that can be read by the blind; open source software will help us uphold that duty.

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3 Comments

Luis Ibanez's picture
Open Source Sensei

Robert,

Thanks for the great article.
This is a truly inspiring project !

It makes me wonder whether there is a role here for 3D printers...
for example, printing plastic dots on paper.

Maybe these will be just 2.5 D printers...

robertDouglass's picture
Open Minded

Hi Luis,

I'm glad the project inspires you!

I'm sure it's possible to 3D print braille, but there are already embossing machines that put braille on paper. Furthermore, the modern way to read braille seems to be using one of the machines that Eunah Choi is holding in the video. That what she uses, in any case, to read music and text. So creating the physical representation of braille music isn't the biggest problem that needs solving. The problem is content.

Imagine that you're a blind pianist, and you can get around the keyboard just as well as someone who can see (this is completely realistic). You want to attend a music competition to further your career, but the list of required pieces includes music that has no braille score. Guess what? You're out. You can't even attend the competition.

We want to solve the problem by not only adding 50,000 new content titles to the repertoire, but by making an easy-to-use service for converting any future MuseScore or MusicXML scores into braille. But we need people's financial support or we won't be able to do the engineering needed.

That's why we've got a cool Kickstarter where you can pre-order CDs of the Well-Tempered Clavier, order a Braille embossed artwork, dedicate a Prelude or Fugue to someone you love, and even get a live concert performed for you.

Cheers,

Robert

Luis Ibanez's picture
Open Source Sensei

Robert,

Thanks for the clarification. I missed to appreciate the point that the difficulty is the amount of content (e.g. the conversion into an appropriate format), and not the dissemination of it, once it is converted.

The Kickstarter is definitely a great way to get there, and you are doing it with great style !

Luis