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How You Can Use Excel To Expand Your Harmonic Vocabulary

We all love our tuners and metronomes. They are great musical tools that serve any musician well. But what if I told you that you are probably sleeping on an excellent music tool that you likely have already?

When I’ve told friends in the past that Excel is a big part of my secret sauce as a musician a skeptical response was almost guaranteed. Until I showed them how I used it. In the following examples I’ll let you in on my little secret and show you how any musician can use a spreadsheet program to do powerful harmonic analysis and get much more mileage out of the things you already know. In the next article I’ll demonstrate how it’s an especially powerful tool for stringed instrument users (optimally fretted instruments, but not exclusively so).

Before we dig in, I just want to point out to my readers without Microsoft office that everything I demonstrate below can also be done, just as easily, with Google docs and it is completely free online.

The way I use Excel musically is as a harmonic analysis tool. I don’t do this in the traditional way you might expect, like harmonic analysis on a jazz standard. Instead, I use it to analyze what a collection of notes (triad, arpeggio, scale, etc.) produces against any given root. To demonstrate, you will first need to create chart identical to the one below:

You can see that I’ve listed all twelve notes in one column, and again in a row. In the intersecting boxes I’ve labeled the interval that is created by the note in on the top row against the note in the left column. For example, if we take D in the top row, we can look down the column and see that D is a perfect fourth to the root A, and it is the ♭7 to E, and so on. Feel free to resize the cells and add any enharmonic intervals you find useful. At this point in my career, it’s easy for me to see a b3 and understand that it also represents a ♯9, or a ♯5 as a minor 6 or ♭13th, but if adding those into the cells makes it easier for you, by all means, do so.

Now let’s move into what makes this so useful. Let’s look at an analysis using the C major triad:

Here is the same chart, but now we’ve got something interesting to work with. To start, I’ve highlighted the full rows for each of the respective notes of the C Major triad: C, E, and G. Here is where the work begins. Starting with A, I can now see that a C Major contains the ♭3rd, 5th, and ♭7th of A. This is an obvious upper structure triad spelling out A-7 (especially if another instrument in your ensemble is playing the root). You can see on the merged cells on the right I’ve made a note of how I think it is most applicable.

If we look at the C Major against the B we get something more tenuous. The ♭2, 4, and ♯5 don’t spell any obvious harmonies. In this case, to my mind, the best possible use scenario would be going for an altered dominant sound with the b9th and ♯5th. Since the 4th is included I quickly think of all the secondary dominant uses of B7 and mark down whichever positions have an underlying mode with the perfect 4th. In this case it would only exclude IV7 since the underlying Lydian mode doesn’t have the perfect 4th. For this scenario, I don’t know from looking on paper that this use case will actually sound good. This is why it’s essential you must ramify this analysis with actual playing. Employing a jam track, drone, looping pedal, or whatever else is available to you, test the scenarios with your ears. In some instances, you may find that there are workarounds that make the idea useful. In the specific case of C major against B, let’s say a B7 in the key of G major (III7), just playing a C major triad for a full bar over the top of it may not sound that satisfying, but integrating a C Major triad into a B7 line probably sounds pretty hip.

Some of these ideas may never be very useful. The diminished major 7 sound created against the C♯/D♭ most likely won’t come up that often. But it is worth exploring sonically, you never know when you might strike on something you really like, and finding and employing these unique sounds can help you carve out more of a unique voice on your instrument.

I do like to occasionally leave small notes to myself, such as where I indicated that the chordal idea of C Major against F♯/G♭ was weak since it was missing the 3rd. I also realize, as I’m writing this article, that I’ve missed some alternate dominant possibilities for this. Which is a great reason to revisit these on occasion.

For reinforcement, let’s do the same analysis for slightly larger chord:

Here is another analysis, this time on C Minor 7. Two low hanging fruit that jump out at me right away are the Major 6 against the D♯/E♭, and the Major 9 against the G♯/A♭. Anyone who’s played around with inversions has likely discovered the minor 7 and major 6 enharmonic. The Major 9 is a straightforward upper structure idea, playing a chord off of the third of the G♯/A♭ to leave the root but get the 9.

Some less obvious, but interesting ideas also jump out at me. The dominant 7 sus against the F is interesting and could be useful. The half diminished b9 against the A could work well in any minor ii-V scenarios. The Major 6/9 Sus chord created against the A♯/B♭ is likely quite pleasant sounding.

Again, not all of these are going to be incredibly useful, but I’m doing my best to extract some sort of harmonic relationship against every root note. As I stated earlier, you might have to dig deeper on some of these use cases and find ways to blend the ideas with others to implement them more effectively. It helps to have a curious nature and to see a harmonic idea like a Diminished Major 7 ♭13 and try and figure out a way you can use it while soloing, comping, or composing. It’s rewarding when we find very consonant scenarios to use a chord or arpeggio we already know to develop texture and variety in our music, but those who work with the harder ideas will be rewarded with sounding more unique.

The nice thing about this format is that it’s unnecessary to do this in every key for each chord or scale. You can extrapolate rules from analyzing just one key that apply to all others. For instance, by looking at this chart I know that if I want a Major 9 sound over a root I can play a Minor 7 chord off of the Major 3rd interval. So if I’m playing over an F root I can play a A Minor 7 arpeggio to get that sound. Or if I’m playing over a C root I can comp a E Minor 7.

Finding the sounds you like and figuring out these rules can create potent harmonic options over every chord for you. Just off of the one chart above we can see 4 different sounds a Minor 7 chord can make against a Major chord varietal:

CMaj7 soloing options - Minor 7 off of the 2nd, Minor 7 off of the 3rd, Minor 7 off of the 6th, Minor 7 off of the 7th.

With only two analysis charts we’ve identified 6 different options for dominant chords. Using these ideas and mixing them together is the kind of thing that will break you out of the rut of always playing a common chord-scale relationship, or an arpeggio straight over a chord.

One last thing you can try is either comping or soloing over a jazz standard with one chord. We’ll use our C Minor 7 chart above to figure this out. Say we have a standard like Autumn Leaves in A minor, let’s look at the options for the first 8 bars:

These options will have varying success, but we’ve still successfully found a way to utilize one chord option to comp or solo over an entire tune while still outlining many useful tensions. Once you start piling onto this process with substitutions and reharmonizations it can become dizzying how many options you have. The more time you spend tinkering with these ideas the more likely you will grow comfortable with them and finding the ideas sounding better to you.

I thank you for hanging in there with me on this fairly technical article, but I think the possibilities speak for themselves. So give it a shot, try one of these charts out on one of your favorite chords and see if there aren’t ways that you are under-utilizing it in your music. In the 2nd part of this article I will demonstrate how Excel can be used to even more benefit to stringed players. So stay tuned!

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