Canadian Musician - November/December 2017 - Page 58

WRITING James Linderman teaches guitar and piano, coaches songwriting to students and songwriters all over the world, and is an academic ambassador to the Berklee School of Music. For more information, contact him at or visit By James Linderman The Sad Story of How Chord Displacement Tried to Save the Poor Little Box Pattern T here is a trend in songwriting that I do not hear a lot about from music academics, but is a central talking point for a lot of “boots on the ground” songwrit- ers who make songwriting their work, or are working hard to make it more than a hobby. This trend is the reduction of song form down to what we call the 4x4 box pattern. Box patterns use three to four chords (one per bar) in four-bar phrase lines and then re- peat that pattern four times (thus the term 4x4). Sometimes there is a chord swapped out in the last bar of this 16-bar frame and sometimes the last two bars will show a different ending (also called a resolution, or cadence), but often not. This 16-bar frame is then used to write a verse. Sometimes there is a second, slightly al- tered box pattern and it might be a chorus or a bridge. If there is a second pattern, then what writers often do now is merely change the order of the same chords used in the verse. That compositional technique is referred to as “displacement.” Ex. 1 is what that might look like: Many songwriters use displacement to try and squeeze another few songs out of the box patterns they love most. It is also used in an attempt to build some amount of variance into the chord system without introducing any new harmonic sounds that the listener might find distracting or challenging. So, here is how to write a less repetitive box pattern progression that will still not seem dis- tracting to a listener in the middle of studying for an algebra midterm, but can also stand up to high rotation play. Let’s use the same verse progression but use the flatted 7 th chord (F) to replace the D chord in line three. Let’s also use the last four bars in this 16-bar verse frame to create some tension with a very conventional Dsus4 to D chord. Ex. 2 is what that will look like: Ex.1 This still has much of the simplicity of the initial progression but it now actually progresses. The chorus displacement is now made more interesting as it comes out of the tension and the break in the “one different chord per bar” pattern we have used. We can apply a similar upgrade to the cho- rus that might look like this. We swap out the back half of line three with another flatted 7 th (F) and have it resolve to a C chord. We also add the same Dsus 4 to D feature. Verse: G/D/Em/C G/D/Em/C G/D/Em/C G/D/Em/C Chorus or Bridge: Em/C/D/G Em/C/D/G Em/C/D/G Em/C/D/G 58 • C A N A D I A N M U S I C I A N Ex. 2 G/D/Em/C G/D/Em/C G/F/Em/C Dsus4/Dsus4/D/D That would look like Ex. 3: Ex.3 Em/C/D/G Em/C/D/G Em/C/F/C Dsus4/Dsus4/D/D The whole progression could then resolve on a two-bar tag of a G chord and that would complete the pattern and resolve the tension created by the D chords in the closing bars of each section. This is an excellent way to give contempo- rary listeners what they want, which is a reason- ably transparent box pattern progression, but it will make just enough of a statement to still be engaging months or even years from now. It is also very likely to inspire a more en- gaging melody and lyric and hold your own interest as well, as you record it and then per- form it over and over again, perhaps over the course of your whole career. Maybe this will help displacement save the sad little box pattern after all… This column is inspired by James Linderman’s ac- claimed book, Song Forms for Song- writers. For more information or to purchase, visit