I’m working on demonstrating an app I started creating with Excel about 10 years ago – simply because (1) I desperately needed something like that and (2) there was nothing out there that did the job.

Edit Jan 2020: yesterday I was introduced to this YouTube video by Dylan Tallchief on ‘making music with Excel’. Highly engaging and entertaining as demonstrated by THIS GUY Levi Niha! Dylan’s app, of course, recreates the functionality of popular apps for creating beats. That is, an Excel version of something you may already have.

From me in the business context, the important message for Excel users is, there are many inefficiencies in business process that we can only solve with Excel. (I have written about that here. TBA)

See this non-business application where I prove this …

Nothing out there can help me achieve this, whereas with Excel it’s a breeze!’.

What I needed for my music projects (but couldn’t find)

I run vocal harmony sessions with friends. Some of my singers don’t read music score. I too find the traditional score illogical when it comes to both pitch and timing. For example, the dots appear in the same position on the same line to represent one of three pitches – natural, sharp and flat. Trained musicians have no problem with this but for me, I need to see the pitch reflected visually in front of me, and for the relative positions of the notes to reflect the actual interval between the notes. That is, a jump of 5 notes must look a little more than a jump of 4 notes. I need the parts to be visually better identified in color, not all black dots.

[Image to show this side by side]

Similarly, I need the visual to accurately reflect the timing, the groove.

High-end music authoring apps have a ‘key view’. It looks similar, like a pianola. But it’s not customizable to add additional features that I need. For example, (1) I need to color code the different parts. (2) I need to be able to distribute on tablets so that the singers can swipe along, and pinch to zoom in on the lyrics (that’s necessarily in small font). And (3) I need to be able to distribute the vocal arrangements to anywhere in the world without having to sent the spreadsheet to anyone (because I want to be able to improve the arrangement whenever I want). I want the uses to be able to download (the data) for any new song/arrangement to the spreadsheet template/app they already have. To enable them to self-serve.

What I created with Excel – the history

Visualising a pianola type of grid was easy. Excel is perfect for laying out that kind of idea.

An octave is 12 notes. I need about 4 octaves to cover the range of a mixed group. So, 48 rows. A song can be up to 100 measures long. Or longer.

My first ideas was to be able to author the arrange on the spreadsheet. So when I double clicked a cell rectangular shape of the relevant color (that I have selected already) was created to sit over that cell.

Then I could click the shape and it played the note pitch via MIDI on Windows as a default piano sound.

So I can create a chord, and hear it played to confirm that it’s right. If I got a pitch wrong I could simple re-position the shape to the adjacent row and check again.

I even got the app to play a whole section I selected, to confirm a whole phrase. BUT (I think it was with Excel 2013) Microsoft changed the Shapes object. They must have had a good reason as the new Shapes had more functionality if you were programming with it. But for my app it was no use, because the shapes now responded very slowly. Took longer to appear etc.

So I had to rethink.

Version 2

I had now started using Notion as an authoring app. I could enter notes in real time with a MIDI keyboard. And tweak the notes by dragging to another line. But, of course, I still needed the Excel visual described above.

Notion, like all music apps, export the data an an XML file. There’s a standard called MusicXML. So, I modified my Excel app to simply GET the XML, then TRANSFORM that to data that I can use to create the visualization – that is, which row and which columns and what color.

I solved the Shapes problem by abandoning that idea. I used cell background instead, for which I needed now to use 96 very narrow columns for each measure! That’s fine because Excel now has all those zillions of columns. I can still play notes by clicking on a cell, and I can re-position notes if there’s an error by dragging to the correct row.

So this app is now a GET and TRANSFORM and a DATA VISUALISATION. And you can actually HEAR it also!

The video at the top of this article is the current version.

You can download the spreadsheet (it is macro enabled), and with an internet connection you can access all my vocal harmony arrangements from the spreadsheet itself. You’ll see new titles available from time to time.

Credits: I’m grateful to Galeazzo Frudua for his awesome work breaking down the vocal harmonies of nearly 100 Beatles songs on YouTube. (Any mistakes in my interpretation are my own)

Hiran de Silva

View all posts

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *