How to Commission Music … a few thoughts


Commissioning a work of music does not require any special talent or skill. Below are some guidelines that might help the process if you are interested in commissioning a work.

pdf of a piece with a dedication? Will Ahrens

Overview of the process:

  1. Decide why you want to commission.
  2. Determine who will select the composer.
  3. Determine your budget.
  4. Determine your deadline.
  5. Determine performing forces.
  6. Consider the performance space.
  7. Determine the type of work you want.
  8.      Who will select the text, if there is one, and secure permission to use it?
  9. Create a list of possible composers.
  10. Narrow the list, contact some composers, listen to their music, and converse.
  11. Contract the composer.
  12. Maintain contact.

Some detailed thoughts on the process:

1.  Decide why should you commission a new work of music.  Many reasons are given by those who commission music on a regular basis.  Your reason may influence how much money you want to spend, the type of work you commission, and the selection of a composer.

Following are a few of the reasons often cited for commissioning a piece of music:

-to honor and highlight a specific event such as

  • the anniversary of a building,
  • the dedication of a building,
  • the dedication of a work of art
  • the opening of a new business, museum, church
  • anniversary of birth of a historic individual

-to honor a person at a special time

  • birthday, baptism, confirmation, anniversary, retirement
  • receipt of an award or honor

-to bring awareness to a justice issue

-to teach a specific theology

  • new hymntexts highlight theological issues
  • new hymn tunes can illuminate texts old or new
  • anthems on a specific topic

-to foster new music in the world

2.  Determine who will select the composer.  Will this be done by an individual or a committee?  Form the committee now if one is needed.

3.  Determine your budget.  Consider both income sources and expenses.

What are your potential sources for funding?  Some sources to consider include:

  • your budget
  • personal donations from
  • persons with a similar interest
  • members of a church choir or a Sunday School class
  • Board of Directors
  • relatives of an honoree
  • memorial funds
  • corporate donations
  • within the community
  • from connections outside the community
  • grants from Arts Councils
  • state arts councils
  • National Endowment for the Arts

Then consider the various expenses concerned with the commission.

  • hired performing artists, if any
  • music copying
  • publicity
  • room rental
  • transportation for the composer to attend the premiere

4.  Determine your deadline.  Be sure to include sufficient time for the performers to prepare the work and time for copies of the music to be made.

5.  Discuss your performing forces.  Has the individual or group to perform the commissioned work already been selected?  You must know your performing forces before the composer can write a note.  However, talking with the composer can help you decide on the forces you wish to use.  Some options of performers to consider:

  • orchestra
  • choir, adult, children, professional or amateur
  • accompanying instrument(s) need to be considered
  • vocal soloist
  • pianist
  • organist
  • instrumental soloist
  • instrumental ensemble
  • flute choir
  • woodwind quartet or quintet
  • instrumental duo
  • brass ensemble
  • jazz band
  • narrator combined with any of the above forces

6.  Consider your performance space.  Is it acoustically alive?  Will it hold the performing forces you wish to use?  Do you have access to the instruments you want?

7.  Using your budget and performing forces, determine the type of work you wish to commission.  Even a small budget can accommodate some type of work.  If you have a large budget, you have a large selection of types of music.  But small budgets have options too.

Commissioning possibilities for a small budget:

  • introit (call to worship) or benediction response for soloist or choir
  • prayer response
  • short vocal or choral reflection on the theme of the event
  • trumpet fanfare

Possibilities for slightly larger budgets can include:

  • sung communion setting
  • sung baptismal setting
  • organ or piano work, short
  • choral anthem, short, with or without keyboard
  • hymntune for an existing text

Major works include:

  • anthems for one or more choirs and added instruments
  • cantata or set of choral pieces
  • new hymn (text and tune)
  • organ cycle with or without photos
  • song cycle or a set of vocal solos
  • orchestral works of any size
  • instrumental ensemble works

7a.  If commissioning a work with text, who will select the text, the commissioning body or the composer?  Who will be responsible for gaining permission to use the text if it is covered by copyright?

8.  Create a list of possible composers.  Perhaps you already have someone in mind.  If so, you are probably ready to contact them.  If you need to search for a composer, you can do an internet search.  Look for successful commissions.  Get recommendations from people who have commissioned.  Talk to local performing groups to find people who have commissioned.  Once you start looking, you will find more composers than you want to research!    Several factors to consider

  • Are you interested in supporting an unknown composer?
  • Do you want a composer with a national or international reputation?
  • Are you looking for specific qualities in their music …. traditional, contemporary, avante garde, pop, neoclassical?

9.  Listen to the music of your potential composers and converse with them.  This is quite important.  They may not have written for your particular circumstances, so you need to hear their music to see if they can meet your needs.  Appreciating their music is important.  Think beyond your initial impression.  Sometimes good music grows on you.  You might want something that is a challenge to your audience.  Does the music have qualities that meet your needs?  Composers will generally be happy to send recordings or MP3 files of their music for you to hear.

Narrow your list of composers and consult with one or more.  See if their time framework can meet your deadline.  See if you can communicate well.  Discuss fees and negotiate changes in your project to make the fee workable.

10.  Contract the composer.  Draw up a contract that spells out the items to which you have agreed.  A clear contract can prevent trouble down the road.  It is protection for both the hiring agency and the composer.  Be sure that each of you has a copy signed by both of you.

11.  Maintain contact.  Don’t distract the composer with too much contact.  But consider touching base to see if problems arise, or if new items enter your thinking.  There is a collaborative element to a commission and the dialogue involved in the process can help the work be much stronger for your needs.