When I was given the task of designing a new large print music binder for my college pep band music, I spent a lot of time researching options for making music accessible for low vision and large print music. After a visit to the assistive technology and accessible educational materials offices located at my university, I realized that I didn’t need to use any specialty tools to make sheet music accessible for my needs- I just needed to use Microsoft PowerPoint, which is free for students at my university. Here is how to make music accessible with Microsoft PowerPoint or Microsoft Publisher, and how I make my sheet music accessible for low vision. This post assumes that a user has basic knowledge of cropping and resizing images, adding text boxes, and drawing shapes within these programs.
About my low vision/access needs
Low vision can be a fairly broad term, so it helps here for me to describe my specific visual impairment and accessibility needs. My vision loss stems from three different conditions called accommodative esotropia and Chiari Malformation, the combination of which forms the third diagnosis of decompensated strabismus. My eye condition is unique in that there is no “standard” for accessible materials, so I have learned to communicate my own preferences for accessible materials, including music.
For me, accessible music consists of the following characteristics:
- Notes and dynamic markings scaled to 250%, or the equivalent of size 24 point font
- Darkened/bold notations such as dynamic markings or key changes
- Using high contrast pens to mark on music instead of traditional pencil
- Availability of digital copies of music
Scanning in music
A majority of my directors have digital copies of music already available for all students, so I can easily download copies of music in high quality PDF formats. In situations where a digital copy is not available, I scan in music using my HP Sprout computer, a university scanner, or the Office Lens app on my phone at the highest resolution possible. I have no preference for which tool I use, it all depends on what I have access to at a given time- for example, I might use my phone to scan in music when I am playing at an outside venue and need a digital copy quickly.
- Common File Types For Vision Impairment and Print Disabilities
- Why Every Student Needs Microsoft Office Lens
- HP Sprout Review For Low Vision Accessibility
Use the snipping/crop tool
In order to enlarge the music to the size I need it, I use a snipping or cropping tool built into my computer or Publisher/PowerPoint to divide the music pages into halves or thirds, depending on the size of the music and the amount of notes on the page. Since I play bass clarinet, there are some songs where I am playing a very repetitive and simple rhythm, while there are others that are more involved or that had a smaller print size to begin with. The sections of music are stretched across the length of the page, or I use the image resizing tool to provide more precise measurements.
Choose a template size
I’ve played in several different ensembles over the years ranging from concert bands to athletic pep bands. Depending on the size of my music binder or folder, I use the following sizes:
- 11 x 14 inches for pep band binder, with music printed vertically
- 8.5 x 11 inches for extracurricular ensemble binder, with music printed horizontally
- 8 x 10 inches for reading music on my iPad, printed horizontally
- 11 x 17 inches for sightreading at band auditions or competitions, printed vertically
Digital or paper music?
When I play in smaller ensembles that play on a traditional stage such as concert band, jazz band, or other ensembles, I prefer to use digital music because it is easy to carry and balance on a stand. However, if I am playing somewhere where I need to wear sunglasses (such as outdoors or in my college pep band), I use physical copies of music that are organized in a binder for easy access. I go more into the reasons that I use physical copies of music in my post about the large print music binder
- Tips For Reading Music On An iPad With Low Vision
- My Large Print Music Binder
- Adapting Band Uniforms For Photosensitivity and Sensory Overload
One of the image tools available in PowerPoint and Publisher is the ability to increase the contrast of a page/image. This works best for pages that have no artifacting, such as wrinkles or shadows from other copies. I don’t have a consistent contrast setting that I apply, I just adjust each page individually until I find it is easier to read.
Draw accents larger
With the freeform shape tool, I can draw accents larger and make them more bold in appearance, which is especially helpful for stacatto notes. I will also trace over crescendo/decrescendo lines so that they are more bold, or increase the size of accent marks by overlaying the smaller markings with a text box.
While most of my music is in black and white, one of the tools that helped me when I was first learning clarinet was to give different colors to notes that were flat or sharp so that it was easier for me to avoid playing wrong notes (an idea that I give full credit to my first clarinet teacher for developing). Another one of my friends with low vision shared that their teacher would color code eighth notes vs sixteenth notes so that they were easier to identify, especially when playing music that involves an eighth and sixteenth note directly next to each other.
As for page color, I will give music that I am playing digitally a different background color such as yellow so that I don’t get as much eyestrain while looking at the page. For physical copies of music, I print them on a white background and on off-white paper, when available.
- Colored Paper and the Readability of Text
- Ten Ways To Reduce Eye Strain From Screens With Technology
Write dynamics in large text
For tempos and dynamics, I write out the letters and numbers in size 24 Arial font, as I have trouble distinguishing between mezzo piano and mezzo forte, which mean completely different things! I do this by adding a text box on the page, and add a solid white background to the text box if I need to cover any symbols.
Number and label pages
At the top of each page, I label the song name and the page number so that I don’t accidentally flip to the wrong page or start playing an entirely different song. For example, one of the songs in my music binder is labeled “Livin’ on a Prayer, 2/3” to show that it is page 2 of a 3 page song.
Other tips for creating accessible music with Microsoft tools
- When cropping pages, make sure that notes and dynamic markings are not cut off, as these are very important details
- Beginner musicians may benefit from having the number of flats or sharps in a key signature labeled in large text next to the clef (I.e 3 flats)
- Make sure that significant measure numbers/letters are in large print, as many directors refer to these during rehearsals
- For musicians using PowerPoint to create digital music for iPad, the PowerPoint application can be used to display music when performing or practicing, as it is easy to advance to the next page with a gesture
- Adjust margins as needed to make sure that the edge of pages is not cut off while printing