Modified Stave Notation

Problems with reading stave notation

The way that music is usually written down presents problems if you're blind or partially sighted. Stave notation uses symbols which vary a lot in size. Reading notation often takes more concentration, and requires more fluency, than reading words. What's more, when you're playing music and holding an instrument, you may have less choice of where you position the music than if you are reading a book.

Enlarging music

If you’ve tried photocopying and enlarging your music yourself, you've probably ended up with huge sheets of paper that fall off the music stand. You may also find that there are big spaces on the sheet where you can lose your place. Some of the signs can become too densely packed for comfort, for example the note heads on crotchets, or fingering numbers. In different pieces, symbols are placed in different places, so you miss them even though they are bigger.

How Modified Stave Notation can help

Four bars from the soprano chorus part of Handel's oratorio "Jeptha" in two versions. Version one is the download from the free score site ISMLP. This extract has been rewritten using Musescore 2. It comprises four bars in three four time, key signature one flat, rehearsal letter A, treble clef. Bar one: F crotchet in the lowest space, going up to C crotchet, D crotchet, bar line. Bar two: C dotted quaver, slurred to, B (flat) semiquaver, slurred to A crotchet, crotchet rest, barline. Bar three: up to C crotchet, up to F crotchet, down to B (flat) crotchet, barline. Bar four: A crotchet, two crotchet rests. Underneath the notes is the text as follows. Bar one: These la-bours. Bar two: past, . Bar three: How hap-py. Bar four: "we!" As well as general enlargement, Version 2 has thickened stave and barlines and slur; thickened note stems; enlarged duration dot. The text has the rehearsal mark in arial bold in a square box and the text in Arial in a large font.

MSN enlarges the music generally and makes a score more consistent, but it also alters the proportions involved. For example,

  • The gaps between notes from left to right are not enlarged as much as the vertical gaps between the stave lines.
  • The font size for fingerings is increased much more than the size of note heads.
  • The thin lines for note tails and the stave can be made thicker, as can slurs.
  • Articulation marks can be made much bigger.
  • Text is usually written in Arial bold font.
  • Dynamics are consistently placed below or above the stave.
  • Any unusual signs or placing of symbols have a print note to help make sure you do not miss them.
  • The music is usually printed in landscape format rather than portrait, to minimize the number of times you need to track back to the beginning of the next line, and so that the top of the page is less far away from your hands, if you are a keyboard player.
  • The music can be printed on coloured paper and bound on whichever edge you wish. There will probably be more page turns than in the original but these are placed at a convenient place.
  • For ensemble scores, such as the vocal line for a choir, rehearsal numbers or letters are made as clear as possible, and in all longer pieces bar numbers are made larger and clearer.
  • You can request certain things to be made bolder, larger or placed somewhere specific.

Your preferred sizes and layout can be set up and applied to all your pieces. Reading may still have its hassles but your music will appear in a consistent format and you can develop learning routines which may help.

How to produce MSN

The original piece of music must first be scanned, played or typed into a music notation package. Most computer packages for writing stave notation have lots of variables within them for altering the size, appearance and placing of each element in the score.

Useful resources

Create sheet music for visually impaired musicians with MuseScore

You can view the Musescore handbook and find technical assistance on using Musescore via the Musescore website.

Guidelines for producing MSN

  1. General guidelines for clear and large print are published by UKAAF (UK Association for Accessible Formats) and may be found on page 59 of G003: Creating Clear Print and Large Print Documents.This document is available as a free download from the UKAAF large print page.

  2. For those working directly with partially sighted musicians, there is more detailed advice about assessing requirements for MSN and producing these in G009: Modified Stave Notation: Meeting individual needs for large print music. This document is available as a free download from the UKAAF music page.

Where to get MSN

If you have a music software package yourself, experiment with the engraving rules and see what changes you can make, both on screen and for printing. If you don't have the software, see if friends, family or a local society can help. The local society may have a link with a school or college with suitable software.

RNIB Transcription

If you don't use a computer and there is no one locally who can help, the RNIB Transcription Centre Southwest may be able to modify your original print copy. They can send you a sample booklet of different layouts, formats and sizes. You can then discuss your particular requirements with the people who make the modifications. For further details, please contact RNIB Transcription Centre South West:

RNIB National Library Service

A collection of the most requested choral works are now available to loan in 16mm MSN from the RNIB National Library Service, as well as pieces for piano and other instruments. For further details, please contact our music librarian

Electronic music stands

For some partially sighted musicians, there are advantages to having the music on an electronic music stand.

  • It negates the need for lots of pieces of paper.
  • The screen can be back-lit.
  • The foreground and background colours can be selected.
  • The contrast can be increased or decreased.
  • Pages can be turned by a hand sweep or with a foot pedal.

For more information about electronic music stands for use with your MSN, please visit the SightRead website.

Taking exams

If you use MSN and wish to take an exam, contact the exam board prior to entering to discuss your requirement to obtain suitable sight reading format. 

Memorising music

When you get your music in your preferred format in Modified Stave Notation you may still find it difficult to read and play at the same time. You may need to memorise the music before playing it. Visit our page on memorising music to read more and feel free to share your own experiences.

MSN in practice

George has been an enthusiastic violinist all his adult life, playing second violin for over 25 years in the Solllihul Symphony Orchestra. When the damage affecting his eyes, due to age related macular degeneration, began to take its toll, and George found his music really hard to read, he started his researches into what could be done. The account below describes how George was assisted by RNIB and colleagues at his orchestra to continue playing in concerts using MSN.











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