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Commissioning New Music: Behind the Scenes

Commissioning music is the process of hiring a composer to create a piece tailored to a specific purpose or occasion, whether it's a concert, film, or special event. It serves as a vital catalyst for creativity and innovation in the artistic realm. Commissioning offers financial support to composers, enabling them to sustain their craft and pursue projects that might otherwise remain unrealised. In essence, commissioning music not only enriches the cultural landscape but also empowers artists to push boundaries and contribute their unique voices to the world of music.

Commissioning music is an age-old practice that continues to influence the landscape of music composition and performance today. But what goes on behind the scenes in music commissions? Here I will embark on demystifying this process and exploring the creative energies it ignites.

How much does it cost to commission music?

The first question anyone asks about music commissions is regarding the cost, but this is a very difficult question to answer precisely. The cost of commissioning music can vary significantly depending on various factors, such as the complexity and length of the composition, the reputation and experience of the composer, and the intended use of the piece. While smaller-scale commissions might be within the range of a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, large orchestral works typically require more time from the composer, thus commanding higher fees. Additionally, established composers with international reputations may charge higher rates due to their expertise and demand. The purpose of the commission also plays a role; compositions for commercial projects or large-scale performances often involve higher costs compared to those for private or non-profit and educational purposes.

Some composers have a fixed price for the work, others charge per minute of music written, others have a per bar/measure rate, multiplied by the number of parts. The negotiated fee will also depend on the budget of the commissioner, how much work the composer already has, how interested the composer is in the project, and any additional benefits to the composer beyond writing the music, such as publicity they may receive from promotion of the work.

When budgeting for a commissioned piece, it's crucial to consider not only the composer's fee but also additional expenses if you want the work performed, such as copyist/engraver costs for the performance parts, rehearsal and performance costs for the musicians, recording fees, and any licensing or copyright fees associated with the use of the music. Setting a detailed budget early in the process allows for smoother collaboration and ensures that the final composition balances artistic vision and financial feasibility.

Who commissions music?

Music commissions originate from a diverse array of sources, including individuals and organizations. Individuals may be seeking a composition to celebrate a special occasion, such as a birthday or anniversary, or an instrumental soloist may want a work written especially for them. I have commissioned music as an individual wanting to fill a gap in the repertoire of contemporary music for student flutists and other student instrumentalists.

Organizations such as orchestras, opera companies, choirs, universities, festivals, and music competitions may want original scores for performances or events. Film and television studios commission soundtracks for productions, and corporations may want original music to enhance their brand. Whether it's a wedding, a corporate event, or a blockbuster film, the spectrum of commissioners is vast.

How to commission a piece of music?

Commissioning a piece of music is a multi-faceted endeavor that requires careful planning, communication, and collaboration. The first step is to research and select a composer whose artistic style aligns with your vision and objectives. Then, the commissioner must contact the composer and define the scope and purpose of the commission, including details such as desired duration, instrumentation, style, and any thematic elements. Established composers are usually booked up several years in advance, so it's wise to reach out to composers well ahead of the deadline to ensure their availability for your proposed project.

commission agreement

Negotiations regarding fees, deadlines, and rights must be conducted transparently, with contractual agreements signed by both parties. Throughout the creative process, clear communication and realistic timelines are paramount, allowing for feedback and revisions as needed. Whilst a short song may take only a few days for a composer to write, a larger work may take a year or more. Finally, upon completion, the commissioned work is typically premiered or performed as agreed, marking the culmination of a collaborative journey between commissioner and composer.

How to get a commission as a composer?

For aspiring composers, securing commissions is an essential skill, as these works are a way of establishing their reputation and advancing their careers. Building a strong portfolio, cultivating professional networks, and actively promoting one's work are crucial strategies for attracting commission opportunities. Leveraging online platforms, participating in composer competitions and showcases, and establishing collaborative partnerships with performers, ensembles, and arts organizations are other effective ways for composers to showcase their talent and attract potential commissioners. Additionally, actively seeking out commission opportunities that align with one's artistic vision and values are key strategies for success in the competitive field of music composition.

As a commissioner and publisher, I keep a file of potential composers for future commissions and am always happy to go through portfolios sent to me by composers. Sometimes I come across a video on social media with a work I really enjoy and earmark that composer for consideration. I also keep an eye on various composer forums for potential commissions, so online platforms and social networks are powerful allies for composers in their quest for commissions.

draft of a music score

The importance of commissioning music

Commissioning music holds profound cultural significance as a catalyst for artistic innovation, collaboration, and cultural enrichment. By commissioning new works, patrons and organizations play a vital role in expanding the repertoire and supporting the livelihoods of composers and performers. Through commissioning, composers are encouraged to push boundaries and experiment with different styles and techniques, ultimately enriching the cultural landscape with fresh and dynamic works.

Commissioning music has significant economic implications, injecting funds into the music industry and local communities through commissions, performances, and recordings. Moreover, commissioned works contribute to the diversity of the cultural landscape, enriching the lives of performers and audiences and leaving a legacy for future generations.

Case Study: commissioning music

karen and greg discussion on zoom

I've had the privilege of commissioning and publishing over 90 compositions by talented composers from across the globe. While the journey to realize my vision hasn't been without its challenges, the outcome has been immensely fulfilling. Finding the right composers involved extensive research and listening, particularly as I was looking for composers who would be interested in writing music for student performers. The negotiation of contracts presented a steep learning curve, and it’s advisable to seek legal advice to ensure clarity of agreements and to prevent potential misunderstandings.

My commissions demanded precise specifications, as they were intended for publication in collections. Each composer received a comprehensive list of requirements, and I made myself readily available for further discussions as needed, many of which took place online. Given that many pieces were tailored for intermediate-level flute players, technical considerations differed from those for professional musicians. While many composers had experience writing for the flute, I often provided guidance on passages that were beyond the capabilities of intermediate flutists. Effective communication emerged as the cornerstone of successful collaboration, fostering not only professional connections but also lasting friendships with some composers over the years. While commissioning music entails both financial investment and logistical challenges, the rewards are immeasurable.


In conclusion, the act of commissioning music embodies the spirit of creativity, collaboration, and cultural enrichment. Whether as commissioners or composers, individuals and organizations alike have the power to shape the musical landscape and contribute to the enrichment of our culture.

Hearing the first performance of a work you have commissioned is a magical moment and knowing you have been part of bringing a new musical work to life is immensely rewarding. Commissioning music is more than just a transaction, it is a way to contribute to our musical heritage and to lift the human spirit through the power of music. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything."

Karen North is a music teacher, mentor and book author. She is passionate about bringing music into the lives of children and adults and has enjoyed working in music education for the past 40 years.

Karen is the author of the popular method books "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" , "Lyrical Flute Encores" and "Inspiring Flute Solos."  as well as a new collection for beginner flutists, "Lyrical Flute Miniatures".

Karen has written two books of music games (with printable templates) "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", "More Fun & Games for Music Lessons 2" and has recently worked with specialist consultants on repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.

Karen also organizes an international FLUTE CHAMPIONSHIP each year, to give students of all ages and abilities an opportunity to submit a video performance to an outstanding panel of judges. Her workshops for teachers are enthusiastically received and she also offers one-to-one coaching sessions.

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