IdeasTap interview

Tom Player on composing music for Christmas adverts

Tom Player on composing music for Christmas adverts

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 17/12/13

This year’s TK Maxx Christmas advert features an arrangement of the Yazoo hit Only You recorded by a 31-piece string orchestra and pianist at Abbey Road studios. Compososer Tom Player, talks us through the process…

With Only You we knew music was going to play a big part in the advert, so I was bought on board early on. I had great conversations about the creative direction with the producer, director and music supervisor.

Traditionally, music for adverts is one of the last things to be finalised before broadcast. For Only You there was a fast turnaround – just two weeks from the initial pitch, to delivering the final mixed recording. My first pitch for the work was done in six hours!

The brief was refreshingly simple: “Make it beautiful”. That’s a wonderful and exciting challenge to confront as a composer. The original is a well-known and well-loved piece and this arrangement was a chance to give a fresh perspective.

We tried different textures and colours, like synth-elements, as a hat-tip to Vince Clarke’s original, before settling on piano and strings. We felt the classic combination of piano and strings was perfect for a timeless Christmas message.

I was going for a specific sound on Only You – warm, sincere, romantic but not too sweet. I tried to bring out that “velvet” texture in the voicing of chords within the string sections. The piano would hold the tune for the body of the piece, and the strings would be the expressive, emotional dynamic that would help point out certain moments and colours in the film.

The climaxes of energy come in washes around the chorus; with each repetition the strings start to embody more of the melody, until the final repetition where they join in, fully playing the tune. It’s like a present being unwrapped.


Before I sit down and start making noises I have a good idea of what the piece is going to sound like. This is probably the approach that’s changed the most since I started writing music for fun when I was much younger. The moment you sit down, you’re creating, rather than staring at a blank canvas hoping for inspiration.

Around Christmas time, people are surrounded by sleigh bells and warming choirs. I don’t think it’s necessary to pander to the clichés unless you’re doing so in a tongue-in-cheek way. TK Maxx shot a beautiful advert that felt honest – so the music should try to bring that out in a genuine way.

Working with orchestras is the most rewarding part of my job as a composer. Without fail, at every session, the magic moment is the very first note you hear with live musicians. Until then, you’ve been hearing weeks of the same, synthetic, computerised mock-up. It’s a world of difference hearing talented players breathe life into the piece.

Be a specialist. To get opportunities you have to inspire confidence in those who are in the position to give them.

My first composition opportunity was to write a drum and bass track for an advert, as I was doing lots of producing and DJing at the time. The only reason I got that was because I’d met someone who remembered me as a specialist in that genre. 

It doesn’t matter if you can’t do everything. In my experience it’s a far stronger pitch to say you can do one thing incredibly well and follow up with different styles once you have a relationship in place. I didn’t win my first pitch, but I did build a great relationship, which opened the door to many other things.

Remember that you need to get yourself out there. You can’t do it without other people!


Only You is available to buy now on iTunes.