In Fall of 2019, Avid began a joint initiative with Berklee College of Music to bring greater accessibility to Sibelius. In close collaboration with Berklee’s Assistive Music Technology Lab (AMT), the Sibelius team charted a roadmap of new features designed to transform the way blind and visually impaired users can notate music with software. Starting with version 2019.9, every Sibelius release has included improvements to accessibility. And our work is not done. With more development underway, the initiative has already set a high bar for accessibility in the industry.
On the heels of our latest releases, we met up with one of our chief collaborators at Berklee, Associate Professor Chi Kim. We reflected on the past, took stock of the present, and set our sights on the future.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I have the good fortune to teach at my alma mater. I was a contemporary writing and production major at Berklee, which means I spent half my time writing and the other half recording. My experience with accessibility in Sibelius began during my sophomore year, as part of my studies. Much has changed since then—in the world of accessibility and with Sibelius in general. Now, as a professor with the AMT lab, I teach visually impaired students to use computers to produce music in Pro Tools and Sibelius.
What was life like in the early days of music software accessibility?
Even early on, Sibelius was the best notation software for accessibility. When I first learned it, going back to version three, there were third party tools you could use. For example, a script called Sibelius Speaking by Dancing Dots provided accessibility through the Windows screen reader “Jaws”. Through the years there were other solutions, as well, like Sibelius Access by Dan Rugman.
But these tools were never perfect. They were sometimes complicated and awkward to use. As a tech-oriented person I was able to teach myself, but for others, navigating the tools was a deterrent. Plus, as software advanced, compatibility with them was often broken. So, if you found a version that worked, you’d stick with it, even if it was outdated. And that’s what happened with Sibelius. At a certain point, users that needed accessibility were stuck on version 5—on Windows or on a Mac running a virtual machine.
The core of the problem was that Sibelius itself—or any other major notation software for that matter—didn’t have good native accessibility.
How did Berklee become involved in accessibility development?
The need for built-in accessibility features was actually the impetus for the partnership with Avid. At Berklee, we felt that accessibility simply needed to be better. Certain academic majors rely heavily on music notation and production tools—like composition—and we feel that no student should be limited in their ability to pursue a career path on the basis of poor tools. We were fortunate to be awarded a grant for the purpose of helping to facilitate accessibility development. And we chose to partner with Avid because of their accessibility work in Pro Tools and because fundamentally they shared our vision.
At the outset, what were the most important features to develop?
The overarching goal still is to swing for the fence and have a complete accessibility implementation in Sibelius. And since we got started together, the Sibelius team has delivered a few really exciting capabilities that stand out.
One of them is complete access to the Sibelius ribbon (the toolbar at the top of a score window). Before our initiative, some ribbon features weren’t actually accessible. But now, since Sibelius 2019.12, “Find In Ribbon”, dropdown menus, tabs, all the galleries—everything works really great.
Another one is adjustable verbosity. At first, you might not think of verbosity as a necessary tool, but for notation software like Sibelius, it’s essential. “Verbosity” is how much verbal description Sibelius will give to your music. At maximum verbosity, Sibelius describes every aspect of the score. For just one note it recites its pitch, duration, location, articulation, expression, etc. There are times you may want this level of detail, but it can also be very time consuming to listen to. You may not need to hear everything to understand the music on the screen. So, by setting the level of verbosity, you can get the detail you need.
One of the new features from the June 2020 release, custom UI colors, is also really useful. For low vision users, different color combinations and contrasts can be easier to see. So, Sibelius now allows you to define the color of just about everything in the user interface. For those with partial vision, this feature is another level of capability that allows them to customize the software to meet their particular needs.
What does our joint initiative represent for the future of accessibility, and what does it mean for users?
Greater accessibility goes beyond just being able to manipulate Sibelius. It opens up new possibilities. It means that students can choose the majors they want and have independence in their studies. For musicians, it means they can make the music they want, without thinking twice about the tools they need.
As our work with Avid continues, I’m looking forward to even deeper accessibility built-in to Sibelius. And in turn, I’m excited to be able to use these features with students in my classes, and for musicians around the world use them, as well. Our work highlights the important fact that accessibility should be built into the app itself, not through third party tools. This work also demonstrates Avid’s commitment to accessibility and serves as an important statement to the rest of the music industry.