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Music literacy and its role in the education of the visually handicapped: New technological solutions

Focus: School Years

Topic: Access and Information Technologies

Dr. Antonio Quatraro

Counselor for music and accessibility in education

Institution: BRM (Biblioteca Italiana per i Ciechi “Regina Margherita”) (Italian Library for the Blind)


We know from literature and from everyday experience that visually persons in general and totally blind in particular are good at music. We need not mention the organist F. Landino (XIII century), or the Polish pianist Paderevski (XX century), and more recently our TV stars.

In every school for the blind, since the foundation of the first one by Valentin Haüy (end of 18th century), music has played an important role in the curriculum. This is because music gave the possibility to a blind person to earn their life, as an organist, as piano tuner, or, more recently in entertainment halls (movies for example).

In recent years some very important psychological and pedagogical researchs show us that music deeply affects the global development of the child, especially of the visually impaired child. Therefore most special schools have in their curriculum music education including music literacy; this despite the fact that job opportunities through music are not as favorable as they used to be.

As far as mainstream education is concerned, music education is practically absent; we can indeed find music education in almost every school plan, but, when we look closer at what it this means in terms of school activities, we discover that it consists mainly in listening to music, or at the most in taking part to quiers, simple ensemble executions. We can assume that only a tiny minority of blind pupils can read music, much less than their sighted peers, and much less in comparison to their potential capabilities.

Some connection between music education and specific developmental areas are too obvious to deserve further explanations. It is here hardly worth while to mention the relationship existing between music education and a variety of skills related with the auditory channel, such as sound discrimination, sound recognition, localisation of object by their sounds, and the like.

Secondly it is more than evident how much doing ensemble music affects a variety of social skills such as taking one’s turn in an interpersonal interaction, playing role games, using one’s voice, breath, manual skills (chorous, flute, percussions etc.), with a finer awareness and self-perception.

We should not need further discussion to justify greater efforts to include it into our curricula, for we all know how important it is for blind children to learn correct postures, or social skills, in order to be socially accepted and to promote their integration in different groups (family, play, school, leisure).

Besides the above mentioned effects, we should consider a number of effects which are not so evident, but no less significant.

Music education affects positively the habit to put things and ideas following a certain order; for music, besides being a form of art, is based on the general principle of order. We could find musical situations which correspond to some important concepts and/or real contexts, such as quantity, spatial / time relationships, symbolic operations such as additions, subtraction, fraction, etc.

·       Music education contributes to understand some visual aspects of reality. Some examples: perspective can be described  (not perceived), by making use of musical patterns, musical examples and analogies: a sound which moves far from us gets weaker and weaker, just like an object, which looks smaller and smaller when it runs away from the observer.

·       Furthermore, some aspects referring to the cromatic characteristics of objects, such as colour, nuances, contrast, clear /dark, etc, can be brought back to musical effects. In this case two remarks should be done:

  1. describing an object, a scenario DOES NOT MEAN perceiving it.
  2. the emotional content of cromatic element is bound to culture, to personal preferences, to fashion and historical periods, so there is no strict correspondence between cromatic aspects and emotional experience described in musical terms.


We can look at music in many different ways; as an art, certainly, perhaps the most ancient one; but for the purpose of this paper, I wish to draw your attention on the fact that music can be considered as a language. In fact I could easily show that there is an alphabet (notes, rhythm, timbre). There is a way to combine these basic elements, just like a given language, which has an its alphabet, its grammar, its syntax.

We generally think of music education rather as the good habit to listen to music, or to play an instrument by ear. This happens more often when in the field of education for visually impaired children. Teachers, educators, professionals often report that their blind student participates to musical activities, and parents are satisfied with this statement. But, if we ask them what kind of activity the student actually performs, they just answer “he/she likes to listen, he/she can sing with good intonation, has an excellent memory, a good sense of rhythm”. If we ask them to describe practically what kind of activities the blind student performs, we often discover that he/she either listens to music, or takes part to simple ensemble executions, and that he/she does not do any reading or writing, although his/her peers do learn music notation. It is strange enough that Braille, since is creation, has been conceived to represent music, still almost everybody ignores that there is a Braille music notation; some do know this, but are far from taking it earnest.

Let us come back to the concept of music as a language. We must admit that playing an instrument, or singing by ear, without being able to read music, is like being able to speak a language, even one's mother tongue, without reading it. We know from history that oral tradition has proved to be very important for the widespread of culture, still everybody should be aware of the fact that ability to read and write gives us finer tools to mirror our thoughts, and gives us access to the highest expressions coming from the past, from different worlds, thus enriching our knowledge and our imagery. If we give our sighted students the opportunity to acquire a certain level of music literacy, we should give our blind students the same opportunities, following the principle of an inclusive education. But there is one further reason which should solicit us to aim at this objective, for as we saw above, musical experience with its cognitive and emotional contents, can partially compensate the consequences of lack of vision.


 We are facing some new difficulties with relation to music literacy. These are bound to a variety of objective and social factors, which could be listed as follows:




In recent years a certain number of projects / products are based on computer aided access to musical materials, but almost all of them consider only one dimension of the problem, that is the possibility to access to music produced by somebody else, that is to read / access to all sorts of musical materials.

In these last two years, after long researchs, PLAY2 has succeeded in putting together a product which closes the gap, and combines the possibility to read and to produce music without external help.

PLAY2 is an European project due to finish in october 2002, coordinated by prof. Nicotra (Italy) with partners from France, UK, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Italy. It is the outcome of multidisciplinary work carried out by technicians, end users and experienced institutions.


The BME must be regarded as an editor, which incorporates the main features we find in any commercial editor. The difference is that BME does not operate on literay elements, such as characters, words, lines text blocks, but on musical events, that is notes, chords, ties, etc.

BME does not need any additional special equipment, besides the normal ones used by blind computer users.

BME tries to make the best possible use of familiar strategies and tries to synchronize tactual, sound and vocal feedback, in order to facilitate the review process and in order to make it easier for the beginner to learn or to assimilate Braille notation.

Various input modes

The BME has two main input modes:

The Braille writer mode  simulates the mailiar six dot Braille writer, using sdf jkl.

The Slate and stylus mode simulates the slate and stylus technique, by using the mumeric pad in an appropriate way.

Coding of input data

BME allows the user to input data following the Braille code and the rules as defined in the International Manual of Braille Music notation. This way the user finds him/herself in a familiar situation and can easily review / correct his/her score. BME recognizes Braille music symbols and interprets them correctly.

Further input features

There are a variety of further input features, to allow the user to communicate with the external world. Much like normal editors, BME can recognize and interpret the most common formats in use for musical data, including NIFF, ETF by finale and MIDI.

Input from a Braille file

BME can recognize and interpret a file generated as a result of a scanned Braille page, but the most innovative feature is the possibility to recognize and to interpret an ASCII Braille file.

An ASCII Braille file is practically what we send to the printer to obtain the Braille copy of a digital file. It can be a literary text, a math file or a music file; in other words a music file appears exactly like any Braille file. BME can input an ASCI Braille file and interpret it, that is transform it into  audible music and gives the possibility to modify it, just like any other musical file. This could prove particularly useful both to a student (he can listen to the score and facilitate its memorization), and to his sighted peer, to view the content of the Braille file.

Data display

Generally speaking the presentation of data can be either simultaneous or sequential, according to the user's choice. We must notice that in some case a simultaneous presentation can be a very useful feedback for training, self-training, self-correction. Example: I listen to my dictation job, I read on my Braille display, I can switch to spoken music, to know exactly what kind of sign I am reading and listening to.

BME displays data in four main different ways:

  1. On a Braille display.
  2. Through a midi syntetizer.
  3. Through vocal messages  announcing every symbol and/or every significant musical element (spoken music).
  4. On a printer, that is either a Braille printer or a normal printer, using FINALE, a well known music editor.


Teachers and educators, but also parents might be interested to consider some of possible applications of BME:


A teacher, an educator should commit him/herself not only in bringing a specific discipline or a specific  skill, but also in working to promote models of individual and social life which aim at developing an environment where equal opportunities are not an exception but just the normality. To achieve this goal we need multidisciplinary cooperation between professionals from different areas, including education, technology and research, representatives of end users.

In our specific case a good teacher who is aware of potential skills of blind persons cannot limit his/her action to receptive activities (listening), but he/she must aim at putting the student in the condition to be himself capable of written production, just like any other student, and this means to achieve music literacy.

Integration, in school and in life, cannot mean doing the same things other do with same rhythm, following the same routes, using the same tools. Integration requires flexibility in designing and developing solutions, aiming at quality rather than  quantity, aiming at giving not the same opportunities to all, but equal opportunities to each member of the community, in order that each one can reach what we think a valuable goal for the generality of people, as far as he/she is or can be capable of.

Biblioteca Italiana per i Ciechi “Regina Margherita”

Centro di Documentazione Tiflologica

Via della Fontanella di Borghese, 23

00186 – Roma


E-mail: cdtinfo@bibciechi.it

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