Alt text for music notation?

Does anyone have any experience with providing alt text for music notation? I’m having trouble locating examples or information on this. We have images such as the following in a couple texts that need alt text added:



@jmitchell @michelle.reed either of you have ideas about the above ? or know who might?

1 Like

@cgreen, this conversation as it might be of interest. I’m also wondering if you had encountered the same question when you started work on the Sight Reading for Guitar open textbook, and if you perhaps found some answers you could share?


I do not, but it seems there are some smart people who do. A quick google search revealed:


thanks @jmitchell … you are the best.


Thanks @jmitchell and @hugh :grinning:! One of those links talks about ABC music notation, which looks to be one of the oldest and simplest way to notate music. There’s even a free program that will translate xml files into the ABC format, and since I thankfully have all those files, this project will be at least a little less painful than I anticipated!


This is helpful, thanks!


I was encouraged to share a few additions to this thread, as I’ve learned a few things from the OER community and from someone who is a consultant at the Library of Congress who is very acquainted with the visually impaired and what actually is most helpful to them.

My journey began as I was adding alt text to an already created OER Music text - Here is my final product:

If you were to look at the alt text you would see that the first few chapters were more detailed, but as I gathered information and also as I questioned the usefulness of long alt tags I became less and less complex with my examples. Given what I know now, I would say that less is more, but I likely still would have created this alt text for @allisonbrown example - Treble clef with five quarter notes on each of the five lines of the clef. The notes and their names are on each line starting at the bottom with E, G, B, D, F.

However, is this even very useful to someone who is visually impaired? I do believe we need to have something, but once the example gets more complicated, then I think the alt text should be more general.

From what you will see in the below quotes from my information gathering, the best practice seems to be to create sound files and/or a braille music equivalents for music textbooks and examples.

Kaela Parks, the Disability Services director shared this recommendation from one of their Accessibility Specialists:

  • Provide MusicXML or MIDI files for the music notation. This could be via a link in the document itself or in an associated “resources” folder. If a student was using something like LimeAloud this would be a great option.
  • Include brief alt text, and when needed, link to a longer description in an appendix or resources folder.
  • If you wanted to go the extra mile, you could also provide braille ready files and tactile graphic ready files. If you are already providing the MusicXML files it wouldn’t be too much additional effort to get there. The nice thing about having the brf available is that they can be embossed, or accessed via a refreshable braille display - users choice.

And, Karen Gearreald, a contractor and voluntary advisor for the Music Section of the Library of Congress, confirmed much of what was shared by Portland Community College.

"What I can say for sure is that a music textbook is most accessible to visually impaired readers if it is transcribed into braille. The literary portions of the book would be transcribed in Unified English Braille; the musical examples would be transcribed according to the 2015 braille music code of BANA, the Braille Authority of North America. (the necessary braille codes are available at [[]

Alternatively, for readers who do not read braille comfortably, an audio version of the textbook could be prepared. In such recordings the literary portions of the text are read aloud, word for word. Where possible, recordings of the musical examples are inserted. These might be played on a keyboard or sung as appropriate. I am also aware of hybrid versions in which the text of a very large music book (such as Grout’s HISTORY OF WESTERN MUSIC) may be prepared as an audio recording while the musical examples are provided in braille. In any case, even for a fluent braille reader, questions may remain about technicalities of the examples, such as the way the music is notated on the printed staves. In such cases the visually impaired reader routinely works face-to-face with a sighted teacher or other helper who can describe or demonstrate what appears in the printed book.

In short, it is important to realize that visually impaired readers, like all other readers, vary greatly in skills, interests, and goals. As you say, it is probably unnecessary for you to spend “hours and hours on creating alt text for the musical examples.” The example that you mentioned is a case in point: a few lines of braille or a simple audio recording would probably be much more helpful than a “very detailed description” of the melody for “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

May we better understand our users and make materials as accessible as we can, of course realizing we will have certain limitations.

Jana Porter
OER Librarian - Hostos Community College (Bronx, NY)


This is very helpful, thanks, Jana! I’m glad that this thread helped you on your initial hunt for answers and appreciate you sharing back what you’ve found. :slight_smile:

@cgreen — this will be of interest to you, and may be good to keep in mind for future editions of Sight Reading for Guitar

As Discourse reminds me, “am I sure I want to continue this conversation?”
I… think so.
If it’s not ok, I’m guessing @apurva will gently nudge me away.

This very thread came up during a BCcampus webinar about accessibility and Universal Design for Learning, today.

And I happen to be in the middle of a long rabbithole about musical learning which has multiple branches on accessibility, inclusive design, learnability, etc.

So, before I get too far in that hole, maybe I should step back and gauge if there’s interest in following this conversation. Because:

  • it’s not a solved problem
  • there might be clever solutions applicable elsewhere (including abc notation, guitar tabs, pianoroll, WebMIDI, etc.)

If nobody replies, here, I won’t be tempted to add anything. :wink:

I’m definitely interested so we have a better sense of good practices to share back with project teams. :slight_smile:

Ok, so…

While I feel like @jporter has provided enough insight for the specific issue of alt-text to images which represent some form of musical notation, I can’t help but connect with broader issues in terms of inclusive design for musical learning.

I find it important to point out that:

Staff notation is ideally suited for a narrow range of learning contexts.

(By “staff notation”, I mean any transcription, scorewriting, or engraving system which uses staves, clefs, key signatures, time signatures, noteheads, and/or neumes. Basically, anything MuseScore, Sibelius, Finale, and Lilypond do.)

A textbook about “the harmonic style of 18th C European musicians”? Sure.
Scores of music from the Common Period meant for students in a conservatory? Ok…
Using Mary Had a Little Lamb as a generic example? Mayyyyybe?
Transcription of a Jazz solo? Not that effective.
Analysis of popular music? Nah.
Excerpt from electronic music (including Hip Hop)? You’re losing out.
Guitar-based instruction? Nope, there are tabs for that.
Musical examples in a STEM context? Why would you do such a thing?!!
Examples of Indian classical music? Of course not.
Indigenous music? C’m’on, y’know better than that.

Granted, it remains a common practice. And it imprisons diverse musics in too narrow a frame.
More importantly in a learning context, it requires that learners build proficiency in another language before they can work with the material. It really is like writing a textbook in Mandarin for English-speakers who want to learn about Kanien’kehà:ka culture.

In Mali, I’ve observed a Bamanankan speaker who was learning how to read and write by learning the French language. Sure, French is the official language and Bamanankan (Bambara) is rarely written. Still, at least at a basic “learning objectives” level, there’s something deeply ineffective if not counterproductive.

There are many initiatives to make staff notation available to people with diverse visual abilities, which is commendable. Blind musicians aren’t a mere stereotype. Musical abilities are often favoured among blind people. The motivation is there to use whichever mean possible to get involved in music.
Still, the complex requirements of staff notation are likely to represent an obstacle for people with a large number of barriers to access. Including motor skills and cognitive abilities.

As mentioned, I’m in a rabbithole about this. I don’t have a magic solution and there most likely isn’t one.
I would simply suggest that community members who use images of “standard notation” in their books spend some time thinking about what they’re trying to achieve in the moment. In most cases, there are alternatives (including audio and MIDI files, text descriptions, mathematical representations, other types of graphs, etc.). In some cases, it even makes sense to focus on haptics.

Especially since musicking itself benefits from the practice of diverse people. From Stevie Wonder’s collaboration with Ray Kurzweil to a Latvian synthmaker working with visually impaired.
Fenestra supports visually impaired musicians and synthesis; here’s why it matters - CDM Create Digital Music

Thanks for this takeaway, Alex! Especially with the case of OER where creators have a chance to push the boundaries of their content, thinking through such decisions about what to include and how is so critical.

1 Like