The other day I was working on a piece and had the idea to record the chords while muting the vocal parts. Normally I wouldn’t do this because I want to hear what I’m playing along to! But in this case there were too many unusual phrasings in the singing for me to react to in real time. I would have had to run through ideas dozens of times, weed out progressions that didn’t work, and I don’t want to spend my time doing that. Instead, knowing the general key areas (mostly g, c, and f minor) I recorded a sequence of chords that was in the tonal ballpark, and most importantly, left quite a bit of space, with most chords lasting for two or four beats. There were a few odd choices and turnarounds, and the sequence was over a minute long—in other words, I had a non-obvious yet idiomatic performance that could work.
Next I unmuted the vocals and listened to how the chords sounded with them. There were some surprising juxtapositions—exactly the kinds of juxtapositions I could not have manufactured deliberately if I had tried. I also heard some clear wrong notes in need of fixing: when one of the vocal bits modulated to D major my fs needed to become f-sharps. That kind of thing. As I fixed notes I realized that I could also improve what I had played: for example, by dragging a bass note one octave further down, or making two inner voices move in opposite directions to open up the chords. I let the parts play and tinkered with the chord notes as I listened, letting my ears guide me.
This way of finessing after the fact has, for me, its merits. In an ideal world, I would nail the chords the first time around, and I always aim for that. But more important is getting something in the ballpark down that I can mold. It’s in this way that while I aim for perfection, I’m open to correcting what I’ve done. The payoff of this approach is not one but two layers of surprising juxtapositions: the sound of the chords interacting with the singing part in unusual ways, and the sound of edited chord notes that create harmonic surprises I could never have foreseen.