Commissioning Music

Third Ear

Image Credit: Katya Evdokimova

< greater than >

the gift of music, worth more than money can buy

“Perhaps all music, even the newest, is not so much something discovered as something that re-emerges from where it lay buried in the memory …. A composer lets me hear a song that has always been shut up silent within me.” – Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, Part I

“What is amazing is that commissioning does not cost very much money. And you can really make something happen.” – Kathryn Gould, venture capitalist and commissioner of music


< the idea >

The idea begins with you; the music comes from the composer. Third Ear’s role is to help the idea and the music fit together.

What do we mean by an idea?

Your idea will most likely focus on a special context or individual – a wedding, a celebration, a commemoration, or personal interest. You may also wish to specify the musical situation, such as a text to set, or writing for a new piano.

It could be a gift for a relative, a piece for your child to play, sonic architecture for the garden of a new house, a wedding anthem, a memorial, or for a special gathering of friends… Music has a role to play in so many parts of life, and a specially-commissioned work can make it unique to you.

Music and sonic art come in all shapes and sizes. You could propose music for solo guitar, for a choir or a hundred kazoos. A sonic piece could be made for a small wooden box, for your mobile phone, or for the public address system of a railway station.

The idea is yours to dream in the first instance, and then to be shared with an artist. The crucial point to note is that the idea has to allow space for the music to breathe. Like all artists, musicians need to create in their own way: music can’t be printed on demand.

“One of the things that I really like is conversation and not working in a vacuum. I enjoy the process of having an extended relationship with a person or a place that I wouldn’t normally have access to and the surprising connections you make…. Sometimes those people surprise you and let you go further than you originally anticipated they would.” – Anya Gallaccio, artist

Where does the music come from?

Composers come in all shapes and sizes, and their music is just as varied. Third Ear will help you to find a composer suited to your idea, either by direct recommendation from a shortlist, or by offering a process to help you choose.

We don’t represent any composers, though we have worked with and know a great many from those early in their careers to more established figures both in the UK and internationally. In short, we don’t have conflicts of interest or a fixed roster of people. Our aim is to find the right composer for your idea.

We can guide you with sound files of composers’ works and information about their experience. The thing to remember is that you will always be commissioning the next work, which inevitably involves some creative risk. That’s why the key to successful commissioning is in your relationship with the artist. Fortunately, this is also the most exciting aspect, and where the true value of the process lies.


Photo by James Lyons

Sarah Nicolls & Same Beste performing ’20 Pianos’ by Matthew Herbert. Photo by James Lyons


< the relationship >

The process is best thought of as an exchange of gifts. The worth of a gift increases through its movement between the one who gives and the one who receives.


It’s with good reason that creativity is described as a gift. Whilst artistic skill and technique are essential, it’s the composer’s imagination that brings music to life, as if it’s given to the composer. And a gift is not a gift unless it is shared.


“Music was not invented by the composer, but found.” – Nadia Boulanger, in Reflections of Boulanger, by Don Campbell


We all know from experience that the best gifts are not necessarily the most expensive, but those that are most personal. To give or to receive such a gift requires mutual trust, respect and admiration. These qualities are essential in commissioning if the idea and the music are to fit together.


Just as the cash value of a present is not the same as its worth, the fee a composer receives is not simply compensation for her time. Creative artists don’t charge by the hour, or leave the meter running like a taxi. They need to earn a living, but a commission fee is more like an honorarium or gift. The value of a piece of music cannot be weighed on scales or measured by the number of notes.


“It is when art acts as an agent of transformation that we may correctly speak of it as a gift.” – Lewis Hyde, The Gift


Music cannot be ‘owned’; only its rights can be attributed, and these always stay with the composer. In this exchange, however, the composer can still offer a return gift. Over the last 50 years, documenting the process of creating has for many artists become as important as any ‘finished’ article. Whether a diary, a set of sketches or an object made through the process of composing, the musician you work with may offer this as a reciprocal gift as an expression of your creative relationship, respect and understanding.


“One of the biggest advantages is the contact with the artist and their process. It’s an amazing journey, very educational and rewarding. When the commission is complete, you have more than an artwork; the relationship between your history and the work’s history…it makes [the work] more alive.” – Anita Zabludowicz, collector (quoted in Louisa Buck & Daniel McClean, Commissioning Contemporary Art)



< The process >

Commissioning music can be complicated. Third Ear’s role is to guide the process and keep it as straightforward as possible.


What’s unique about < greater than > is that the process begins with you and your idea. We’ll offer advice and help to shape this as an outline brief for a composer.


We’ll then help you to find a composer to work with, either proposing a shortlist or by devising a process to help you select, and then approach them on your behalf. Getting to know the rich variety of music and sound being made today can be stimulating in itself, and Third Ear is exceptionally well placed to assist with this.


Once we’ve made an introduction, we’ll agree the process for making the work including: timeframe; how you’ll get to know each other; the fee; the final form of the work; and any reciprocal gift. We’ll then formalise this in a contract.


In most cases, we expect the commission fee can be handled tax efficiently through the Gift Aid scheme. If you’re a UK taxpayer, a gift of £2,000 will be worth £2,500 once charitable gift aid has been recovered; if you pay tax at 40%, you will be able to reclaim £500 making the total cost of your gift only £1,500.


We’ll oversee and guide your relationship with the composer from first meeting to finished work, and if that requires professional performance then we can arrange this too. We can also support the publishing, recording, documentation and promotion of the given work.

Third Ear helped make the commissioning process easy helping me identify a worthy recipient as well as guiding me through the process from there on. I recommend their services to anyone considering making a commission.” Anthony Bolton, Senior Advisor, Fidelity Worldwide Investment


For further details or to arrange a consultation, contact Ed McKeon – / 07737 228006



“be sure you choose your patron wisely,” …that is the gist of the whole matter. For a book is always written for somebody to read, and, since the patron is not merely the paymaster, but also in a very subtle way the instigator and inspirer of what is written, it is of the utmost importance that he should be a desirable man. ….


“The patron we want, then, is one who will help us to preserve our flowers from decay. But as his qualities change from age to age, … this business of patron-finding is one of the tests and trials of authorship. To know whom to write for is to know how to write.” – Virginia Woolf, ‘The Patron and the Crocus’



Score by Jennifer Walshe, commissioned for Pandamonium 2

Score by Jennifer Walshe, commissioned for Pandamonium 2

Third Ear’s experience of commissioning

We have written on commissioning for the BBC Performing Arts Fund, run a symposium about commissioning at London’s Southbank Centre, managed commissions for a major music publisher, advised the London Symphony Orchestra on their Soundhub programme for early career composers, and sit on the Board of NMC Recordings. We are the only organisation to have received support for commissions for both the Cultural Olympiad New Music 20×12 and the New Music Biennial programmes. We have an extensive network covering the range of new music.

As Third Ear is independent, we are able to help individuals and organizations to commission music for just about any circumstance – whether a string quartet, a community choir, for air guitars or a piece for 100 kazoos. And as a producing organization, we can guide people through commissioning ‘from seed to plate’, from the idea through to its realization in performance and documentation.