Modified Stave Notation: How To Meet Individual Needs For Large Print Music

Partially sighted musicians using stave notation, and anyone who may be assisting, could find something called Modified Stave Notation very useful, says UKAAF’s Roger Firman. And it’s something that is particularly important in education

Modified Stave Notation is a term given to describe music presented in a large print format to aid musicians and anyone wanting to play or learn music who has vision impairment. The main idea is to enlarge the music notes and make a score more consistent, while also altering the proportions involved to make it more readable for this class of user. Very often, written descriptions are given at the opening of the score about any unusual, or any unusually small symbols, stating where the symbols appear.

MSN is now a standard adopted by the main music examination boards in the UK; instrumental and vocal grade boards (such as ABRSM and Trinity College London), along with GCSE and GCE boards (including AQA and Pearson/Edexcel) all now offer stave notation in their modified print papers as MSN in various styles. 

Why is this useful for visually-impaired musicians? Music is easier to read not only when the symbols and their placement and spacing is considered but also in the correspondence between the musical content and layout. A piece that is sixteen bars long is often arranged in four, four-bar phrases, one line of music for each phrase. Using more repeat and da capo markings may be helpful in keeping enlarged music down to a manageable quantity and also reduce page turns. This is particularly appropriate for solo music. 

Plus, a description of the structure of a piece often aids students in encouraging them to realise the amount of memorising they have to do is reduced where the music repeats. Careful analysis can also show where music subtly deviates from previous similar material. 

All MSN is also bespoke, as it’s tailor-made to individual requirements of both sight and context. There are many music notation packages which will produce MSN once the music needed is imported or inputted into the proprietary format. The most commonly used package is MuseScore (www.musescore.org). UKAAF’s partners at RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) have a transcription service in Ivybridge, Devon (www.rnib.org.uk) and produce a great sample booklet showing different sizes, formats and different coloured paper.

Guidelines are also emerging as to how best to create MSN, which we have captured in a new UKAAF document, which went into a second edition about a year ago, B016:

  • In the chosen software package in layout settings or basic formats try to replicate the size of stave, now often measured in mms but formerly in rastrals. Write down this size
  • Decide on a portrait or landscape page format. Write down the preference. For some having fewer lines per page makes finding the next system easier. It also makes the printed music stay on a stand more easily. For others, portrait is more suitable, perhaps as it is easier to illuminate with a special clip light
  • Once stave line size has been altered in most packages all symbols are altered in proportion 
  • Whilst dealing with the stave lines, experiment with thickening and thinning the lines. Write down the new setting. 

There is actually an awful lot of very useful guidance on getting to grips with MSN in the UKAAF document, which I recommend you go to after this if MSN and all this discussion of the subtle art of musical notation piques your interest. At the same time, for those wishing to delve into more intricate aspects of modification of stave notation, acquiring an understanding of the art of stave notation itself is advisable: the current reference book in this field is Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars, published by Faber Music in 2011 (ISBN 0571514561). A warning, though! Once inside this fascinating book it may be some time before you come out! In modifying personal taste, rules and advice from this book can be broken of course, but such decisions are then based on knowing accepted practice first. 

Summing up, then, MSN is really going to help when a musician unable to fluently use stave notation as it originally appears, can do so with Modified Stave Notation. Other benefits are 

  • independence in being able to use a score without human aid or additional material
  • increased speed of working (particularly important for professional performers and music teachers)
  • the convenience of storage electronically—gone, hopefully, are the days of endless piles of dog-eared enlarged photocopies, which all look just the same and fall off any normal music stand!

Publicising the advantages of digital MSN will enable others to gain similar freedom and power, so I encourage you to find out more, spread the word, and even check out the great case studies of the benefits of MSN here.

head and shoulder picture of Roger Firman

The author, Roger Firman is on the board of UKAAF,

Roger is also Chief Executive at Golden Chord, a business dedicated to providing a high quality personalised transcription service for customers who require music, music-related and other materials in braille 

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