Braille Music Notator

I’m thrilled to announce something new today that has nothing to do with Sparky the Music Theory Dog (though I’m sure he’d approve): Braille Music Notator, an online system I’ve been working on since early last year. It’s still in development — I’m calling it an “alpha” version because there are still a few features I’d like to add — but it’s at the point where I could use some more folks tinkering with it.

What is it? Well, there are a few utilities out there — free and otherwise — that will translate a music score from a program like Finale or Sibelius into braille music notation, and they work pretty well as far as automatic translation systems go. But even if a translation system is advanced enough to avoid sometimes hilarious mistranslations, the result still often feels clunky and inefficient.

The idea behind Braille Music Notator is to encourage us sighted folk to learn a little braille music — it’s really not that hard — so that we can create legible, well-designed braille scores from scratch. The utility provides a work area for you to build the score, but it displays the characters using familiar music notation rather than the raised dots of braille. (You can switch between viewing the characters as braille or as music symbols, if you wish.) So while no knowledge of braille or braille music is required to use the system, you will find yourself learning as you use it! Once you’ve constructed the score, you can save it to your computer to work on it later, or export it in a format which can be sent to a braille embosser to produce an actual physical score.

Although the system is designed for sighted musicians — the primary interface is very visual — it is also completely accessible to users who rely on a screen reader like VoiceOver on Mac OS or JAWS on Windows.

While I know that for some, existing translation systems work just fine. But my hope is that more sighted music educators will see the benefit of learning more about braille music notation — not just to make it easier to create materials for their visually impaired students, but to be able to teach more effectively and comprehensively.

Check out Braille Music Notator here! You can either dive in (I tried to make it pretty intuitive!), or check out the Users Guide first. If you rely on a screen reader, you may wish to begin with the Quick Start for Screen Reader Users. And above all, let me know what you think. Thanks!


Send In The Hemidemisemiquavers

Thanks to Australian composer, professor and fellow computer geek Matthew Hindson, I’m excited this morning to announce a version of my theory pages localized for British and Australian musicians! This is the first (and, admittedly, easiest) translated versions of Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People that are currently in progress, thanks to the efforts of an elite cadre of volunteers. If you’d like to help, we’d love to have you… let me know!

I’ve also posted a few corrections to pages in the original English (ahem… American) version. More pages to come soon!

Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People (British & Australian version)

Whoa I Guess a Lot of People Like Music Theory

Between appearing on Hacker News in October and on Classic FM last week, my theory pages have been getting quite a bit of attention, which has been fun. It made me think I should go back and make all those corrections and updates I’ve been meaning to make!

So I did… I fixed a bunch of errors on a ton of the pages across the board, and I’ve added a sheet on Species Counterpoint in Three Voices. So if you haven’t done so recently, feel free to download the latest version of your favorite page (or the whole collection so far).

More sheets are coming soon!

The Manta TR1 & Mira

Just as with cars, I tend to use computers until they die. So laptop upgrades for me are generally times of wonder and amazement as my new computers represent, to me, some six or seven years of technological advancement.

Such was the case this summer, when I replaced my 2006 MacBook Pro with a new 2013 model with a Retina display and a solid state hard drive. And like with every other upgrade, I love everything about the new machine.

Until, that is, I went to give a Keynote presentation for a class. I consider myself something of a guru with Keynote, with participants coming up afterward to ask not only about the topic of the presentation but about the presentation itself. Of course, Keynote itself works beautifully, and the Retina display makes everything look absolutely stunning, but with the new model, Apple decided — no doubt as a space-saving measure for the increasingly compact designs — to omit the infrared port.

The reason this was a problem is because I used an Apple Remote to control my Keynote presentations, and it worked beautifully. The simple design of the Apple Remote includes just what I need: controls for the next and previous slide, and control of the system volume. The remote is compact and slips easily in my pocket or computer bag, and the older plastic models and the new brushed steel models are interchangeable and work equally well.

Apple doesn’t generally leave its users in the lurch, however, and the official replacement was Apple’s own Keynote Remote app for iOS. I do have an iPhone, and this app is nicely designed, but it depends on a Wifi signal, and I have never been able to make it work consistently. (Part of the issue is wifi availability, but even the workaround for that — setting up an ad hoc wifi network between the laptop and iPhone — was extremely unreliable in my testing.) If there were a way to make the app work via Bluetooth, I think it would be more reliable, but unfortunately it is not designed to do so.

There are several presentation remotes on the market, and though some are nicely designed, none of the reasonably-priced models I was looking at included the important feature of volume control. For presentations, I took to using my Apple Magic Mouse as a clicker, which worked well for advancing through slides (though I had to be careful not to click it inadvertently) but which had no volume control.

Manta TR-1

The Manta TR-1 USB Receiver from Twisted Melon.

Finally I happened upon Twisted Melon, the developers of Mira, a software utility for customizing how your computer responds to the Apple Remote. In addition to their software, they sell an external infrared receiver, the Manta TR1. Combined with Mira, the Manta TR1 appeared to be able to allow me to use my familiar Apple Remote with my new, non-IR equipped laptop. I purchased their bundle (the Manta TR1 and a license for Mira) and the hardware took about a week to arrive.

I am delighted to report that the Manta TR1 worked exactly as advertised, and exactly as I’d hoped it would. I had been a little nervous because I didn’t see any explicit mention of the product working with the latest hardware and operating system (OS X Mavericks, in my case), but there are no incompatibilities as near as I can tell. The device isn’t much bigger than a 9-volt battery, and ships with a standard USB ‘Mini-B’ cable to connect it to the computer. All I needed to do was connect the device and install the software, which appears as a System Preferences pane. The standard Keynote controls were already set up by default (as well as instructions for a host of other applications), and so after opening Keynote I was able to control both slides and volume with my Apple Remote, just as I had before.

Well, actually a little better than before: the Manta TR1 has a small red light to give visual confirmation that the signal was received, which I find especially useful. Having the infrared port in a separate unit allows me to position is somewhere more accessible, though the device is able to detect a signal from several yards away, regardless of position or orientation.

Mira and Manta are available from Twisted Melon at their website, At the time of writing, the Mira/Manta TR1 bundle, normally $40, is available for $29.99.

UPDATE (January 30, 2016): I’m now running El Capitan (specifically 10.11.2), and after upgrading Mira to the latest version both Mira and Manta TR1 continue to work flawlessly. Well, with one interesting exception… presenting this week at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, OH, in lobby areas and meeting rooms there must be something emitting infrared light at the exact same frequency as the Apple Remote, because the LED on the Manta TR1 indicates that it’s constantly picking up signal, and it prevents the Apple Remote from being detected. (I would assume that this would be an issue with any IR receiver, not just the Manta TR1.) Easiest solution was to place the Manta TR1 somewhere where it’s shielded from the overhead lights (which seem to be the source of the unwanted IR light); the Apple Remote signal still seems to get through just fine.

New Pages

I’ve finally gotten around to working a bit more on my theory review pages, and I’ve added three more pages in the Species Counterpoint section. I plan to add one more (Species I in three voices) and then I’ll move on to more twentieth-century pages. When will that happen? Maybe later today. Maybe next year! It all depends on when I can find time to do it. Hopefully soon… I really enjoy making them!

Another change is that I’m moving away from using Issuu to host the files. Issuu was the best solution way back when to host the things, because they provided unlimited bandwidth. They were a hassle on the user’s side, though, because in order to download the files you needed to create an Issuu profile and deal with their interface, which is designed more for perusing magazines and books than individual pages.

So the files are hosted on now, and I’ve left a note for Issuu followers to register here instead for updates. Maybe that’s you! If so, welcome to my incredibly underused blog!

Here’s the link: Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People

New Site

Just finished spiffing up for the first time in maybe a decade. There’s stuff that was there that isn’t anymore, but I’m not telling you what it is! It’s the same trick I pull on my kids. If they can’t remember what it was or why it was important, then I’m not digging through the trash to find it and rescue it.

Of course, I’ll likely put some of it back when I have a chance. But I wanted to get it cleaned up for any visitors who might be showing up as a result of the tagline on my short story in This Is How You Die, which will be released on Tuesday!

Eight More Days!

The official pre-order page for This Is How You Die, the anthology which contains my short story “ROCK AND ROLL” is online, and the editors are so confident in its success that they are shooting for making it on the New York Times bestseller list. This sounds crazy, but it’s worth noting that the first volume of stories, Machine of Death, reached #1 on Amazon… and it was self-published. This time, the book is being published by Grand Central Publishing, who is working hard to promote the book even now, a little more than a week before it’s released.

And since preorders count toward the first week of sales, we’re inviting everyone who is interested to pre-order it. The Amazon link is here, but it should be available through most booksellers if you have a favorite.

Rather than link you to the retailers, I invite you to check out the official web site for the book, which contains a couple of trailer videos as well as all the links you need to pre-order. There’s even a sample PDF to peruse to see what you think… and my story is included in the sample. The first video is a little macabre — okay, yes, I suppose that’s fitting for a book called This Is How You Die — and I prefer the second one. Of course, they both go for the obvious jokes, but having read through the draft of the book I can tell you that the stories are all actually very deep, thoughtful and often unexpected.

So off you go to pre-order the book, right? Thanks!

The Devil Went Down To Leipzig

In response and homage to Ryan Laney’s fugue of the same name, in which he used the famous fiddle riff from the Charlie Daniels Band’s famous song as the subject.

The Devil went down to Leipzig, he was looking for another soul
Had a date with a doc down in Auerbach’s… but he had time to take a stroll
When he ducked into St. Thomas’ church and slid down past the pews
And he came upon our boy Johann, lacin’ up his organ shoes.

“You may be surprised to hear this, boy, but I’m an organist as well.
Don’t play many hymns, but we get our grins on the pipes down there in Hell.
Now I’ve heard you play a mean Marchand, but I wager I can do you in
And I’ll stake your soul for these shoes of gold, ‘cause I think I’m gonna win.”

The boy said, “My name’s Johnny, and such deals give me pause,
But strap on your shoes, and prepare to lose, cause I’m the best there ever was.

Johnny, open up the swell box and play like never before,
‘Cause Hell’s broke lose in Leipzig and the Devil’s keepin’ score.
And if you win you get these shoes with plates of gold
But it you lose, the coffee’s goin’ cold

The Devil sat down to the manuals and said, “This here is how it’s done.”
And he pulled out the stops and made the pedals drop and contest had begun.
That band of foul demons rose up ‘round from the abyss,
And fire belched from the flues as those golden shoes lit up the pedalboard like this.

[The Devil’s organ solo]

When the Devil cadenced, Johann said, “‘Twas an admirable display,
But you’ve had your ride. Now move aside and let me show you how to play.”

“Sacred Head now Wounded.” Play, Bach, Play!
The Devil’s in the chapel on Whitsunday.
Children in the narthex singin’ “Go, Pops, go!”
Beer and sausage later and a bauernbrot roll.

The Devil cast his head down for he knew that he’d been bested.
And he paid his dues for the golden shoes down by the bench now rested.
Johnny said, “Now come on back, you hear, if you ever have just cause,
But prepare to be stunned, you son of a gun, ‘cause I’m the best there ever was.”
And he played:

“Sacred Head now Wounded.” Play, Bach, Play!
The Devil’s in the chapel on Whitsunday.
Children in the narthex singin’ “Go, Pops, go!”
Beer and sausage later and a bauernbrot roll.


The collection containing first published short story is due out July 16, and is available for preorder right now! The book is called This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death and centers around the idea of a machine which, given a small blood sample, prints a small slip of paper containing the method of your eventual death. Of course, there is a certain Delphic uncertainty to it: a reading of MEDICINE might refer to a fatal reaction to a drug, or maybe a missed dose of an important prescription. But it could also be fulfilled through being crushed by a falling pharmacy shelf, or a snapped spine after slipping on spilled cough syrup.
The collection is the sequel to Machine of Death, published in 2010. Like the original, each story is named with a particular prediction (which are customarily listed in all caps), and some of the stories begun their intrigue with the words of the title itself: “FLAMING MARSHMALLOW,” “HEAT DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE,” “NOTHING,”and “HIV INFECTION FROM MACHINE OF DEATH NEEDLE,” for example.

My submission, one of around thirty selected from the thousand or so entries, is titled “ROCK AND ROLL,” and was released in advance as a preview for the book, so it’s available here. Give it a read, if you’re so inclined. If you enjoy it, go check out the original book and preorder a copy of the second volume!

Okay This Time For Real

I’ve redesigned the site and just you wait… I’m going to actually start writing blog posts more often than every two years. Really! No, seriously! This time I’m really going to do it.

Hey, stop laughing! I’m serious! Just you wait.