Marc Sabatella

Technology for music education

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Hi!  My name is Marc Sabatella, and I am a music teacher and a software developer (an active contributor to the open source music notation program MuseScore).  For several years now I have had a strong interest in making music education more accessible.  This started having taught a blind student in my music theory course back in 2010 and finding that the tools for communicating notated music back and forth between sighted and blind musicians were all but non-existent.  There are organizations such as MENVI that exist to help support blind musicians, but the actual tools and products available are still quite limited.

One of my colleagues at MuseScore recently shared an article about Bookshare and Benetech, which I was previously not familiar with.  I am wondering if there has been effort to incorporate music textbooks into Bookshare, if there is work on overcoming the technical hurdles inherent in dealing with notated music in accessible formats, and if there is some way I can get involved.  If there is someone in particular I should contact directly about this, that would good to know as well.

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Hi Marc,

As someone who studied music himself in college believe me when I painfully admit that Music is one area that Bookshare can't yet directly support.  Any music theory book where the theory is simply contained in text Bookshare does great with.  But as soon as musical notation appears in the text, either the notation is currently all images, or is actually removed from the book altogether.  Unfortunately we don't currently have plans for investing time in this area, at least not yet.  Our focus currently is on enhancing our ability to support Math in our books, finding ways to translate equations to formats that can be easily accessed.  

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I understand.  Let me redirect my question slightly, then.

I would say that addressing has become one of my primary goals in life, and I am at a point where I may soon be able to devote a considerable portion of my career to this.  My sense is the first step is to define what the appropriate DAISY support would look like, and then to implement a tool to deliver content in that format.  And finally of course, to actually produce books that take advantage of this - whether that means creating new textbooks or working with publishers to deliver existing books in this format.

I actually have some some pretty good knowledge and skills in all of these areas as well some good connections with others who are similarly experienced and motivated.  I am aware of a number of existing non-profits I could approach about applying for grants for this work, and I actually have some thoughts about creating a new non-profit for this and other related purposes.

In other words, I am extremely serious about wanting to find a way to participate in this effort, and am fully prepared to actually drive it myself as necessary.  My assumption is that if I can work proactively on this while you continue to focus on math, maybe by the time you are ready to consider music, I'll have something to offer.

All of that said, the question then is, do you have any recommendations on how I could possibly proceed?

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Hey Marc,

From the perspective of who else to approach who might be interested in this endeavor, I'm afraid I don't have any good advice.  

On the technical front I know there has been some great work at Optical Music Recognition and Braille Music but I don't know how far the work has gone to bridge the gap such that a piece of music could be immediately converted to accessible formats.  

I know personally I've often dreamed of a music app on a phone that someone could simply point at a sheet of music and it plays audio, or produces brailled music through a refreshable braille display, or various other ways individuals may access the content.  I'm not so sure that would necessarily have to be something that embeds itself into the DAISY or ePub formats, it could be it's own stand alone thing.  But that said I could also see a markup language similar to MathML used to inject music into text formats, which would allow reading tools to render and access the raw music notation.  

I guess as I type this I'm reaching the conclusion that there's two ways to approach it, build a library of accessible music like Bookshare did with accessible content, or find a system that allows people to make music accessible on the fly.  I think either option would be a great benefit to society.  

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Realistically, optical music recognition is still extremely hit and miss, and in any event, all the OMR does is make it easier to get printed music digitized into MusicXML - something that we can already do by hand.  Regardless of how the music gets into MusicXML format, you are still faced with the issue of what to *do* with that.  If the goal is to generate a standalone Braille score, there are so-so converters out there that can generate something that may or may not be useful.  And this technology *is* constantly evolving, so that I actually expect within the next 10 years it may become more feasible to point your phone at a piece of sheet music and have it converted to Braille automatically.  But still, the end product is then a standalone Braille score - only useful to that subset of blind musicians who actually read Braille music, and not anything that can be incorporated into a textbook, which is really my main concern here.

I would summarize the situation this way:

The world already known what a standalone Braille score looks like, it doesn't need someone to design that.  We do need better tools to help standalone Braille scores be created more easily, but there are already people working on that (and I may well be joining that effort as well).

What nobody seems to have any concept of right now is what an *accessible textbook that incorporates music* would look like.  Work cannot begin on creating such textbooks until there is consensus on what the format should be and how the musical content should be presented to the user.  This is what I am trying to get a handle on.  What I have learned over the years is that this does not seem to be anything that anyone else is actively working on.  Which is fine, I hope to make this my contribution to society :-)

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