The (in)accessibility of music on the Net

Music on the Internet as seen from a blind mans perspective

Trying to learn something about music on the internet if you are blind or severly visually impaired is an extremely hopeless thing to do these days. Its basically the same problem as with image descriptions a few years ago. If someone wants to present to you a short fragment of music, say a scale, or a suggestion for practicing or whatever, they usually just create an image and assume everyone can sight read music. The problem with this is that in the case of a static picture, there is absolutely no way to extract the underlying infroamtion if you cant see the picture yourself.

As explained above, this is basically the same problem we had (and partly still have) with so-called alternative tags in webdesign. As the visual nature of the internet progressed, webdesigners started to create nice looking buttons with shading and whatnot. However, they usually didnt (and still fail to sometimes) include any text description of their picutre, which leads to a blind user not being able to know what the button is supposed to mean. Sometimes, you can guess the buttons meaning by looking at the filename of the image, something like "next.png". However, this cheap trick doesn't work for music. You cant just guess the notes in a scale by looking at a image filename, and if you are blind, you can not read the image content.

What is required is a kind of standard that is analogous to the alternative tags in website images.

One currently available workable solution would be if people made the music content they are presenting on webpages available in MusicXML format. MusicXML is a structured XML dialect to express music. Such markup can be interpreted by specialized programs like FreeDots and transcribed to braille music notation, which a blind user can then read. Alternative representations like synthesized speech would also be possible if there were MusicXML files (or any other sort of non-image format) available.

However, the problem is that establishing a standard in this area is going to be very hard, if not impossible. Musicians are not always computer experts, and if they publish stuff on the web, they do it in a way that feels natural to them, i.e., they just put up pictures of the scores they want to present.

This article is ment as a call to interested parties to try and get the information out there. If you are publishing fragments of musical material on the web and you are using plain images, you are excluding all blind people on this planet from being able to read what you are trying to tell. Just try to imagine how the internet would feel to you if you were not able to read a single piece of music in there? I think you might get an idea how disappointing that would be to you. Please take the time and reconsider your music publishing behaviour and consider making it more inclusive!

Last Modified: 2008-06-23 13:08:27
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