The Boxes

A few years ago, I took the excellent free course on songwriting from Berklee College of Music through coursera taught by Pat Pattison.  The class was recommended in a couple of different music forums I participate in so I thought I would give it a try.

It was a challenging course and hard to believe that something that has turned out to be so valuable to me over time, was free.

One of the concepts that Pat teaches is something called ‘The Boxes’.  What he is referring to is that it is good practice to try to develop the concept of your song by introducing the concept in a somewhat small scope to begin with; a small box; then expand upon the idea in the next part of the song; a bigger box that the first idea fits into; and then somewhere in perhaps the bridge or a big chorus, introduce the biggest box with the largest representation of the idea that the two previous ‘boxes’ can fit into.

This goes against human conversational nature, where we want to blurt out our biggest ideas and then cover the details.

However, when telling a story, or a joke or when writing a song, revealing the big idea first or the punch line first, just doesn’t work.

I recently heard a quote from C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” which compares our lives to those of tin soldiers where God works on breaking through our tin exterior to help us become fully alive and that the parts of us we don’t want God working on are those that are still tin.

What a grand concept and idea for a song.  I wanted to write a song immediately about it.  The next day I began work on it and remembered ‘The Boxes’ and tried to write out some boxes, knowing that I wanted to keep that last main point – the unwillingness to change, as the final big box; maybe even the final words of the song.

I tried out some ideas for boxes:  Metals, God pushing and bending, our dislike of the pushing and bending.  But I couldn’t make them fit into a small, bigger, biggest idea kind of hierarchy.  They were all kind of part of the biggest box.

So I scratched those and thought of the idea of a tin soldier to begin with.  What is done with tin soldiers?  They are played with.  OK, who plays with them?  Children.  Well, children are small, maybe that’s my first box – what it looks like when toy soldiers are played with.  Maybe flesh that into a verse or two.  Make ample use of rhyming dictionaries like the dillfrog and McGill online resources.

What could be a bit of a bigger box – how about ‘how’ toy soldiers are played with once they are set up?  Yes, that might work – so that became my pre-chorus and chorus and some of a 3rd verse.  Work on some words and rhymes; all the while keeping that big idea for the last box.

The last verse, there I can bring home this big idea of metal being bent and reformed and how God does that in our lives, and how we resist.  I decided to also just end on that idea and not go back to the chorus.

The Boxes really worked for me to hold back on that big idea until it had been properly set up.

I normally write my own music for my lyrics, but this time I offered them up to a person that I wanted to collaborate with because I enjoy his music.  He listed Nada Surf as a band influence and I like their music and asked if the lyrics inspired him.  He took the lyrics and ran with it.  I only had to write a chorus melody and record the vocals.

Here’s the final result in song (Click to hear the song on SoundCloud):

Tin Soldier  – Copyright 2016 Scott Lake

Verse 1

First child of many, often playing alone.

Rug as mountains and valleys, spool of thread serves for a throne.

Artillery down the hallway, Cavalry under the bed.

Infantry stands in formation, some of tin and some of lead.

Verse 2

Each stands at attention, with gun or sword in hand.

Proud though without motion, even though under command.

Someone must now move them, no movement on their own

The boy will give them action, outcome yet unknown.


Move one here, move one there.  Will the army get anywhere?



Toy tin soldiers, toy tin men.

Toy tin soldiers, motionless yet again.

Toy tin soldiers, toy tin men.

All these soldiers, will they yield their shells of tin?


Verse 3

If they are to get into motion, they have to lose their tin

To serve the grander purpose, they need a soul within.

The Master brings their life force, picks where He begins.

To bend and break and yield them, to inject His life therein.


Prechorus repeat

Chorus 2

Toy tin soldiers, toy tin men.

Toy tin soldiers, motionless yet again.

Toy tin soldiers, toy tin men.

All we soldiers, will we yield our skins of tin?


Verse 4

Heat and force and pressure, breaks and tears and bends.

Love and loss and story, redemption from our sins.

I am one of the soldiers, pushing out dents in my skin.

Preserving my false protection, the part that still is tin.








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