5 Steps To Commissioning Your Very Own Tune

by Ian Stephenson

When Christmas or birthdays come around many of us struggle to find that perfect special gift for our loved ones.  ‘It’s the thought that counts’.  Composer Ian Stephenson takes you through the process of commissioning a melody which your family and friends will treasure.

When Christmas or birthdays come around many of us struggle to find that perfect special gift for our loved ones.  ‘It’s the thought that counts’.  Composer Ian Stephenson takes you through the process of commissioning a melody which your family and friends will treasure.

Commissioning a tune is easy! 

Let’s look at the steps required:

1.      Choose your composer
2.      Give them an idea of what sort of tune you would like:

  • who is it for?
  • what’s the occasion? (birthday, anniversary, wedding)
  • which emotions or personalities it should convey?
  • existing melodies you like

3.      Choose which instruments you’d like on the recording
4.      Give your deadline for completion
5.      Receive tune and sheet music!

“Three Sisters” and “Without Walls”

My most recent commission, just before Christmas 2017, was a really satisfying and rewarding experience and is some of the work I am most proud of.

Chris S got in touch from Switzerland via the Magnetic North East website and his wishes were clear:  He wanted two tunes to be composed and delivered in time for Christmas.

Three Sisters.jpg

“Three Sisters”

The first “Three Sisters” was a gift for his three daughters.  He asked for a tune to show their “liveliness, ability to live in the moment and general joyfulness” as well as mentioning they are very loving towards each other.

Chris also usefully mentioned “ a YouTube clip of Ian playing an Irish jig with Andy May captured the mood I am after.”.

See the youtube clip here:

These statements, although brief, gave me a perfect idea of the type of piece I would create:

  • Use a similar ‘feel’, mid-tempo jig, to the Irish Jigs in the video
  • Impart a loving, homely feel to the chords and melody
  • Use similar instrumentation – many ringing drone strings (like the bouzouki) and button accordion
  • Use some of the strong chordal structure of the jigs to evoke happiness and vibrancy

With the above in mind, I set to work with my usual composition process – which for me always starts at a certain time of day – just after dinner!  Every composer has their quirks and I find this time is a good time to feel inspired, giving me a good balance of lots of ideas and just enough self-critique to develop things without giving up in frustration!

I switched on my iphone memo recorder, picked up my button accordion and started to play.  In a few minutes I had started to play an ascending motif which I found a pleasing way to start the tune, and I decided to see if I could make it appear three times, referencing the three sisters – each time starting on a different note.  With much note-wrangling the first part of the tune was in pretty good shape and the motif had led me to a chord structure which was pleasing and made a nice self contained A-part.

A common feature of the jigs in the YouTube video was a change of chord to start the B part, and also I thought that there should be a change in emotional feel, so some longer notes and a more wistful chord sequence would work nicely to reference the love of the sisters.  With this in mind I began improvising and working once again to distil my ideas down to a small number of motifs – in this case two! - and after finding some wistful notes to begin with and once again transposing them, I decided that referencing the three sisters’ theme from the A part would bring everything together with a coherent feel.

So if you listen to the B part of the finished tune you can hear the beginning of the A part melody returning within it and acting as an ascending lift to lead back to the wistful high notes.

Once I was reasonably happy I practiced the tune and finessed it, eventually recording a version into my phone which contained all the important features, ready to revisit it and write it down the next day.  I find that having a break of a day or so works well before a revisit.  This allows me to switch on the critical part of my brain which would otherwise have stifled my initial creativity, and is essential in developing the tunes.  In this case I was pretty happy with the tune and wrote it down into the notation software, which usually marks the end of the developing and composing phase for me.

“Without Walls”

The second tune came with another excellent and inspiring brief from Chris:

“Dedicated to my wife, the title is "Without Walls" which is a fairly topical theme at the moment. The story behind it relates to me watching the joyful scenes of the Berlin Wall coming down. At the time I remember feeling good about it, but not really expecting it to have a big impact upon my life. However, many years later I met my wife whom I may never have met had it not been for the fall of the wall. I have since often reflected upon this and how history affects us all. I have watched a few of Ian's YouTube clips to get an idea of what might be possible. Since for me this is a romantic tune, I really liked the emotional resonance of Ian's guitar playing and for me his playing of Edith's waltz would be the sort of mood I would like to emulate. I would like it to be accompanied by the fiddle. Partly because this too is for me an emotional instrument, but also because my wife is currently learning the violin with my eldest daughter.”

See youtube clip here: 

Note: due to an error this tune was named ‘Edith’s Waltz’ on the video, but it is in fact “Elsie’s Waltz” by the one and only Archie Dagg!

It was really a joy to be given such strong emotional cues to use as inspiration.  Thinking about Chris’ wishes I was thinking along these lines:

  • A slowish waltz
  • Many ringing strings
  • Use DADGAD guitar, celtic style playing
  • D major, as used in the video, had a lovely warm feel
  • Melody and arrangement should convey a sense of space
  • The tune should feel romantic, not rushed, with the arrangement adding progressive warmth and communicating ‘things coming together’
  • Violin should be an essential part of the arrangement – the tune should be in a range and key well suited to the instrument for it to sound sonorous and warm.

I sat down with my guitar, this time later in the evening, with plenty of calm and quiet (the kids were finally asleep!) and let my guitar do the talking.  I improvised for around 20 minutes, recording everything and taking mental notes as ideas came and went, aiming to listen back and find the choicest moments to bring together.

In this case the B part melody stood out strongly on listening back, but it was in a kind of sprawling mess and lacked structure (no surprise when freely improvising).  I listen a few times to the recording, and taught myself that part of the tune, which allowed me to then adjust and tweak the rhythm, some of the intervals, and to nudge it into a chordal structure which felt warm and allowed the chords to ‘come back home’.

With the B part finished – and noting that it had some strong harmonic and rhythmic ideas, decided that a more stately and warm, low pitched A part was needed to balance the emotional pull and high notes of the B part.

After recording my ideas again onto the phone, I waited a day again to revisit the memos I’d recorded and finalise them into the notation software, making a few tweaks along the way.

The Recording Process

Aside from composing and performing, I run a recording studio and video production business, www.simpsonstreetstudios.com which is very convenient for recording my compositions, as one of my two recording premises is in my house, the other being a converted church run by Coquetdale Music Trust in Northumberland, close to Rothbury.

Which Instruments?

As a multi-instrumentalists I play the following instruments

  • Acoustic Guitar
  • Melodeon (“button accordion”)
  • Double Bass
  • Piano & Harmonium
  • Mandolin

Chris had some ideas for his commissioned tunes – which always come with a recording, usually with one or two instruments – but with more if the client requests.

Chris, being very taken with the feel in the YouTube videos had some ideas about the two tunes:

  • “Two sisters” - he liked the sprightly sound of the accordion
  •  “Without Walls” he liked the guitar waltz feel, and wanted to include violin as his wife and eldest daughter play themselves, and also that he finds it a “very emotional instrument”

So I set about setting up microphones and finding the best tempos for the two tunes and started building up an arrangement using guitar and button accordion, to get a feel for how many times through they should be played.

“Without Walls” needed to be a simple arrangement featuring lots of space – which was achieved by careful tempo choice and a paired-down instrumentation.  Guitars – one playing tune and the other adding subtle chords, were recorded, followed by Double Bass and finally some extra guitar ostinatos here and there to add texture and a feeling of open space.  The parts were recorded late at night, played rather quietly and softly.

After some time and a great deal of inspiration, it became clear that the Three Sisters jig would benefit from some additional layers, so that the tune could be firstly presented very simply and quietly, but that enough time was given for the sprightly feel to develop and become more groovy and happy.

I recorded the tune four times through with 4 guitar parts, one playing melody and three others filling different ranges from low to high, on chords, ostinatos and strumming.  Added to that was Electric bass – which provided a very solid and warm foundation with lots of sustain, percussion (double tracked plastic microphone case played with brushes and panned to the extreme left and right) and keyboard, which played warm sustained sampled strings – mostly to further solidify the chords but also to ramp the volume up and down very slowly through the different sections.

Finally the violin part needed to go down.  My wife, Emily is a brilliant fiddle player but children refusing to sleep and work commitments meant she had little spare time in the evenings to learn the tunes!  Luckily we had a wonderful Scandinavian fiddle legend Esko Jarvela staying in our house for the week to rehearse with Baltic Crossing (and to perform at the amazing Magnetic North East concert at Sage Gateshead, where we got to meet JIMMY NAIL!!).  In exchange for buying him a fancy portable coffee maker, Esko agreed to play violin on both tracks and the recordings were done!

A very DELUXE Package

Magnetic North East commissions come with various options – the Deluxe version including a hand-written manuscript of the tune, signed by the composer.

Being cursed with incredibly messy handwriting, but blessed with an appreciation of beautifully written music, I decided to pull in a favour from my mother-in-law who has amazing skill with handwritten music.

I sent her the digital versions of the two tunes, the dedications that Chris had stipulated to go at the top, and she obligingly agreed and set to work down in the Peak District to writing them out on nice paper.

Back in Newcastle, Chloe Jones (MNE administrator extraordinaire!) worked on the covers for the CDs which would feature photos sent by Chris.

The hand-written tunes and CDs arrived and were duly signed and packaged up, but not before we took a few photos of Jane’s handiwork:


Chris’ Reaction from Switzerland

“Dear Chloe,
Please pass on my thanks to Ian as the tracks are very beautiful and really capture the spirit of what I wanted. The 3 sisters is very gentle, but at the same time lively and Without Walls is a very romantic piece without being overstated.  I am too numb to pick a favourite, but again thank you to Ian and Esko for creating such an amazing gift for my family and by default for me. The scheme is an amazing idea and you can’t really put a price on receiving something like this.
The Christmas gift scores hanging in pride of place.

The Christmas gift scores hanging in pride of place.

Magnetic North East CIC would like to offer many thanks to Chris and family for allowing us all to explore further into the writing process of their tunes.  

As well as composing and running his own studio, Ian is a member of superb ceilidh band 422 and also a renowned tutor at Folkestra.  We look forward to hearing about more of Ian's exciting projects in the near future.