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Braille Music Notator Update

I’m very happy to announce an update to Braille Music Notator that brings some exciting new features to the program. Braille Music Notator is still in beta (meaning there are still some bugs!) but I feel like it’s become a very usable program, and in fact I’ve heard from many folks out there who are using it pretty often.

Before I get to the good stuff, I should mention that Braille Music Notator is now available over a secured connection, so I encourage you to update your bookmarks to this new link.

Today’s update brings the following improvements:

  • More musical symbols. Additional repeat structures, accidentals for microtonal music (thanks to Dr. Sevan Nart for her collaboration here!), and a few other additions here and there.
  • An expanded text keyboard. The text keyboard has been changed and now makes use of the numeric keypad.
  • A new control system under the hood. I’ve completely overhauled the way the control area’s engine. There isn’t much of an outward change here, but the new system makes changing the control surface, as well as switching between multiple control surfaces, quite a bit easier. This will also allow for future localization into other languages!
  • Improved speed for larger scores. Previously, Braille Music Notator slowed considerably when working with large scores; now, large scores are as sprightly as short ones.
  • Spacebar now… adds a space! Tab and Shift-Tab is now the keyboard shortcut for moving between different keyboards.
  • Automatic end-of-line word wrap. When you get to the right margin, whether you are entering music or text, the word or measure will automatically be moved to the next line. If you’re entering music, an octave symbol will be added to the beginning of the measure automatically!
  • Improvements in parsing BRF files. This is always going to be tricky, as parsing the context of plain vanilla BRF files is a very complicated affair, but it’s getting better and better.
  • Braille Music Notator is now open-source. The main site will always be the most stable, current version, but if you are a coder you can see the latest development builds, and even contribute to the program, by visiting Braille Music Notator on GitHub.
  • Lots of bug fixes. Did I get them all? Of course not. But I’m trying!

I’m pretty proud of all this, but wait… there’s more. In fact, I’ve saved the best for last:

  • MIDI Note Entry. Available in Chrome and Firefox, you can now use a connected MIDI Keyboard to enter notes into Braille Music Notator! The program automatically adds octave indications when necessary, and even tracks key signatures to add accidentals intelligently!
  • MusicXML importing. If you have any experience in the online braille music community, you are likely familiar with BrailleMUSE, the amazing online braille music translator designed and maintained by Dr. Toshiyuki Gotoh. Thanks to Dr. Gotoh’s incredible generosity, the power of BrailleMUSE is now available in Braille Music Notator! Simply open a MusicXML file by clicking on “Open File” in the File tab, or just drag a MusicXML file to the notation area. Braille Music Notator will detect the file type and send it to BrailleMUSE for translation automatically, then display it in the notation area. The translation is not perfect — I’ll continue to work on improving it — but what this means is that you can create a score in Finale or MuseScore, save to MusicXML, then open and edit the score in Braille Music Notator!

I’ve created some videos for these last two items, as well as one that shows the basics of Braille Music Notator, on the new Videos page in the guide.

As always, I hope that you find Braille Music Notator helpful, and that you’ll let me know if you have any problems or suggestions for improvements. I already have some plans for some new features… in fact, I’ve been wanting to push this update out so I can get started on them. In the meantime, enjoy the update, and let me know what you think!

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!

Do and Redo

One of the things I think I’ve become known for at UNC is my homework policy, which is very lenient: I allow students to turn homework in late, and I allow them to resubmit assignments for a higher grade as many times as they can until they get a perfect score or the semester ends. This is not just something I do in order to be popular or well-liked (although that’s a nice side-effect, to be sure); it’s a policy about which I’ve given a great deal of thought, and which has evolved over the last ten years or so. It works the best for me for several reasons:

  • In my classes, homework presents the student with the topics and types of exercises that they will find on the exams. Thus, gaining a real understanding of the homework is the best way to prepare for the exams.
  • Often, the misunderstanding of a single element can cause a cascade of errors throughout the homework. If someone misunderstands how to build a particular type of chord, for example, it could be disastrous for a long assignment which uses that chord throughout. Grading that assignment objectively might result in a very low score — a 12%, for example — that does not truly portray the student’s understanding of the assignment as a whole. However, knowing that the student can fix and resubmit the assignment frees me from feeling like I am condemning that student to a horrible fate while remaining objective.
  • Allowing a student to “try again” — or submit homework even though they didn’t meet the deadline — reduces the chances that the student will throw up his or her hands and “give up” with that particular assignment… something that benefits no one.
  • The system actually makes grading much easier. Because students can redo their assignments, grading consists of identifying which problems are wrong, and not explaining why they are wrong — this is left as an exercise to the student as he or she is redoing the assignment. Of course, if a student continues to make the same mistake after a few redos, I will give them some guidance either on paper or in person. And because I allow students to turn in assignments after the deadline, I don’t need to keep track of when a particular paper is handed in, nor do I need to play judge and jury regarding reasons for papers being late. (And, as any teacher can tell you, the whole “judge and jury” role is an exhausting one.)

The only drawbacks to my system is that students sometimes take advantage of it too much. I’ve had students go the entire semester without turning in anything, only to frantically complete all of their homework by the end of the semester and hand it all in. Unfortunately, this generally results in some very poorly done homework and no chance to redo it, and I can only hope that the student learns a valuable life lesson as a result. However, I think that giving students these opportunities to manage themselves — even though, to quote a colleague, it gives them “freedom to fail” — is an example of respect from professor to student, something to which all students have a right.

Crime Syndicates and My Buick

Several weeks ago, I walked out of Wal-Mart to find that my 1996 Buick Skylark wouldn’t start. The starter worked, but it sounded like it wasn’t getting any fuel. So we had it towed in and the mechanic replaced a faulty ignition switch. Strange, I thought, since the starter didn’t seem to be the problem, but sure enough the car started fine after that.

Until the following week, when it had the same non-starting symptom as before. After letting it sit for a few days and trying it occasionally with no success, we had it towed in again.
Turns out the ignition switch was faulty, but there was more: that particular model is equipped with a system that detects is the car has been hotwired. If so, it causes the exact problem I was experiencing: it won’t start. And in my case, the system — which is located in the instrument panel — was malfunctioning. The solution was a new instrument panel.
This is interesting to me because it’s not the only problem that instrument panel has. The indicator light for the transmission — the thing that tells you if you are in park, neutral, reverse, drive, etc. — was spotty; sometimes it would show up, other times it wouldn’t, usually it would flicker a lot. More importantly, however, was that about a month or so ago, the needle on the speedometer had somehow gotten on the wrong side of the “zero” peg. How that happened, I don’t know. Has the peg’s existence started to flicker in and out like the transmission indicator light? Did someone steal my car in the middle of the night and take it up to 180 mph?
At any rate, a new instrument panel would have cost more than $400. However, my mechanic new someone who could sell him a used one for much less than that, but it would take a few days to ship it. I told him to get the used one.
That was two weeks ago. Let me tell you, dealing with my school schedule, Andrea’s temporarily full-time work schedule, dropping off and picking up kids to and from elementary school and babysitters, as well as soccer practice, church, and heaven only knows how many other meetings and such with one minivan is nothing less than insanity-inducing. Not to mention the fact that I fully expect the transmission in the minivan to, at any moment, fall out from underneath the van and erupt in a firey conflagration in the middle of the road.
But yesterday we finally got the car back, and once again it starts fine. The speedometer works, but the little transmission indicator has apparently gone on to Transmission Indicator Heaven. Other than that, the only problem is the fact that the “THEFT SYSTEM” light is permanently lit, perhaps to serve as a reminder of the whole ordeal.
Now the weirdest part of it all, though, is this:

This was sitting on the console of the car, not prominently displayed or anything, but laying there as if it had been tossed aside. The thing is, I’ve never been to the El Paso Airport, and I’ve certainly never rented a car there. So here are my theories:
1. Though they told me they were waiting on a part for two weeks, in reality they sent it down to El Paso to participate in a mafia-run rental car outfit. No doubt the folks who rented my Buick wondered about all the trash in the back seat footwells.
2. While it only seemed like two weeks to us, in reality my car was sent through a time portal and has been living an entire lifetime as a rental car in El Paso.
3. My brother or sister-in-law, when they owned the car and lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, set the card on the dashboard after returning from a trip and the card fell into the dashboard. My mechanic, while taking apart the dashboard to replace the instrument panel, found the card and tossed it aside.
Sure, #3 might seem more likely, but it’s certainly the most boring of the explanations. And it doesn’t explain why I’m going to have “THEFT SYSTEM” burned into my eyes every time I drive at night.

More Darwin Calendar Server

I’ve updated this post with some corrected information: the bit about creating a startup script wasn’t working because of what looks like some debugging code in one of the scripts. I poked around enough to figure out how to fix the code, and hopefully it won’t cause some other problem as a side effect. Thanks to Reb for pointing out the problem.

Grading Madness

I’m going to keep this post updated with my latest grading status, for my students who are anxiously awaiting their results on finals.

MUS 104 (8:00): Done! Come get your tests and grade reports.
MUS 104 (11:15): Done! Come get your tests and grade reports.
MUS 113: Done! Come get your tests and grade reports.
MUS 114: Done! Come get your tests and grade reports.
MUS 216: Done! Come get your tests and grade reports.

Tricks and Treats

Okay, so it’s too late to buy it for this halloween, but just think how scary you’ll be wearing this number next year:

And if you are scared just by looking at the above shirt, and need something soothing, or you just really want to buy a t-shirt today but you’re not the type to have fraktur lettering on your apparel, here’s something that’s opposite in nearly every way (happy instead of scary, tonal instead of atonal, white instead of black, modern sans-serif instead of old style fraktur):

Order one or the other — or, better yet, both — on the T-shirts page. Happy Halloween!

Aaugh! Serialism! Run!

New shirts and stuff for you today:

The perspective of the text and the placement on the shirt looks weird on the screen, but I’m hoping it will work in real life. If anyone gets sick looking at the shirt, will it be this odd perspective issue, or just the fact that it’s serialism?

Order these and all the others from the t-shirt page. Right now!

Bach and the Minor Scales

A bit of theory nerdiness to start off the month. Download a purdied-up version if you’d like…

“So, then,” said old Bach, though he wasn’t old yet;
in fact, he was young, and his young heart was set
on a woman, Maria, he’d long ago met
and his wife he did want her to be.

Surmising that — though his shirt hid a six-pack —
The way to her heart was to show off his knack
For music, he chose as his plan of attack
To woo her with music theory.

“So, then,” he repeated, “That piece I just played —
The key was not major, you may be dismayed
to learn, but instead all the notes were arrayed
in a minor mode centered ‘round C.

“To write in C major, and work up a song,
Just stay on the white notes the whole way along;
The half-steps, you’ll find, are right where they belong:
From C to B, and F to E.

“To write in C minor, though, we need to lose
The B, E, and A in our scale, and use
Notes Bb and Eb — and Ab debuts —
But we still start and end it on C.

“Now, this scale is nice. It’s got a dark sound
And I’m sure that some future composer profound
Will write beautiful music that leaves ‘em spellbound
But it’s just not the scale for me.

“The reason for this, I have come to conclude,
Is not that the scale is nasty or lewd,
But an interval causes it to come unscrewed:
A whole-step from B flat to C.

“So what, you may think, we’ve had whole steps before.
But this one is in a place hard to ignore:
The final two notes of the scale. Therefore
There’s no tension before the release!

“Not only does this cause the scale to fail,
But the chords that we build from it also derail.
Our strong major V chord turns weakly and pale
Because it’s spelled G–Bb–D.

“So here’s my solution: tell me what you think.
This ‘Natural scale’ can be rid of this kink
If we change the B flat back to just B — (wink, wink!)
And bring back our half-step to C.

“We do this, and suddenly things start to gel.
That half-step between B and C just sounds swell
And our V chord is once again major as well
So the tension beefs up the release.”

Here, Bach paused for a moment, and turned to the lass,
And said with a sigh, “This is good, but alas
There’s a problem with it that one cannot bypass.
When you hear it, I think you’ll agree.”

Then he went to the keyboard and started to play
And he said, “Now, remember, we don’t have an A
In this scale, but A flat, and of course, that’s okay
But the problem is going to B.

“It’s an augmented second! The sound hurts your ear!
The interval’s large, and it makes it sound queer
As if written by some old Ummayad Emir
On the shores of the Caspian Sea.

“So for harmonies, chords, well, this scale works just fine
The tension in dominant chords is divine
But for melody-making, it doesn’t quite shine
With that augmented second, you see.

“Well, let’s fix it!” smiled Bach. “Hey, we’ve changed it before.
We altered one interval, why not alter more?
This time, we’ll take that old A flat we abhor
And we’ll raise it a half-step toward B.

“And so if we step back, and see what we’ve done
We’ll notice the augmented second is gone
It’s just whole-steps and half-steps, from C and hereon:
D, Eb, F, G, A, B, C.

“So now if you write music where melodies rise
In a scalewise passage where minor applies
You can use this new scale where strong tension pries
But where augmented seconds won’t be.

“There is one more thing, though, before I do close
You do recall, I hope, the reason we chose
To so quickly and gladly and deftly dispose
Of that flat to the left of that B?

“Because doing so gave us the tension we sought
From the leading-tone up to the tonic. But what
About going the other way round? I think not—
We don’t need tension from C to B!

“And so if we return to our minor lament
And imagine a scalewise melodic descent
We can use the same scale that we did just invent
And add flats back to A and to B.”

Fatigued, he turned ‘round. “Do you feel it’s enough?
I mean, Claude Monteverdi can’t think up this stuff.”
Then she stood, and replied, as she straightened his cuff,
“Oh, Johann… you had me at ‘key.’”