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Beautiful Wedding Music

Updated on November 23, 2009

Nothing creates a mood quite like music. When planning a wedding, the bride and groom will need to plan music for the ceremony, the cocktail hour, the reception, and possibly even an after-party. Organizing all these different types of music can be a time consuming task. This comprehensive overview will make planning your wedding music quick and easy.

Music for the Wedding Ceremony

The first type of music needed is for the wedding ceremony. It is important to choose the right type of musicians and the right type of music for your ceremony venue. For instance, a solo violinist would provide the perfect ambiance for an intimate wedding in your living room, but would be completely lost in a large cathedral. The larger the space, the more musicians will be needed to provide the sound. When considering a large instrument like a harp, it is important to first assess whether or not there will be ample room for one, and find out what the options for power sources are ahead of time for an outdoor event.

Religious venues will often have restrictions on what is permissible to play for a wedding. Some churches may require you to hire their organist, while others may ban secular music or songs by certain artists. For instance, despite the general popularity of Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" ("Here Comes the Bride"), it is avoided in synagogues due to the known anti-Semitism of the composer.

  • Many couples think that the ceremony music begins with the processional, but actually, this is not the case. As the wedding guests begin to arrive and take their seats, musicians should play what is known as the prelude. The prelude begins about thirty to forty-five minutes before the scheduled start time of the marriage ceremony. The same musicians who play the processional will generally handle the prelude as well, although some brides and grooms opt to play recorded music during the prelude and have live musicians for the processional.In general, the music for the prelude should be light and welcoming. Popular selections include classical pieces by Hayden, Bach, Mozart, Handel, Chopin, and Pachelbel. The volume of the music should be fairly low so that guests can comfortably chat amongst themselves as they take their seats. It is really just background music intended to establish a joyous mood.
  • When it is time for the wedding ceremony to begin, this is when the processional occurs. This is the music that will accompany the bridesmaids down the aisle, followed by the bride herself. When the bride's mother is seated in her place of honor in the front row or pew, that is the cue to the organist or musicians that it is time to begin playing the processional music. The volume should be louder than it was during the prelude, as this is the start of the main event. One or two long musical selections can be played for the processional, although at many weddings, there will be one piece of music played while the bridesmaids march, followed by a brief pause to allow drama to build, and then a distinctly bridal selection will accompany the bride on her way down the aisle.
  • The "Wedding March" by Mendelssohn is one of the best beloved processional songs. Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" is the piece most often played as the bride makes her entrance (except for in Jewish weddings, as noted above). There are a variety of other traditional songs for processionals. Among the most popular are "Air" by Handel, "Canon in D" by Pachelbel, "Spring" by Vivaldi, and Hopson's "Procession of Joy". Of course, these are all traditional classical songs; if the wedding is non-traditional, the bride and groom may wish to select a more contemporary song which holds personal meaning for them.
  • Some wedding ceremonies will feature special music during the ceremony itself, which is known as the interlude. A soloist might perform, or soft music may be played as an accompaniment to a special moment in the service, such as the lighting of the unity candle. "Ave Maria" is a soaring song that is a classic choice for wedding soloists. Another option is a modern classic like Etta James's "At Last". Just be certain that the soloist is proficient in the song that is desired, especially if it is a challenging one such as "Ave Maria".

Music for the Recessional

At the conclusion of the marriage ceremony comes the recessional, which is the next portion of the event for which music will be needed. The recessional is a joyous part of the wedding, as the newlyweds, having been pronounced husband and wife only moments before, gleefully walk up the aisle together to the cheers of family and friends. The music should be upbeat and reflect the joy of the moment. Traditional wedding recessional selections include the "Hallelujah Chorus" or "Allegro Maestoso" by Handel, Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto Nos. 1 or 4" or Beethoven's aptly named "Ode to Joy".

There are numerous contemporary songs that are equally appropriate choices for the recessional, especially if recorded music with lyrics will be played. "Beautiful Day" by U2 will capture the upbeat spirit of the recessional perfectly. Fans of the Big Band era will enjoy marching down the aisle to "From This Moment On" by Cole Porter. A modern classic recessional song is "Sunshine of My Life" by Stevie Wonder. The newlyweds can even play a whimsical song such as the "Peanuts Theme" or the theme song of "The Simpsons"; whatever expresses your joy in an uptempo musical number is ideal for the recessional.

Music for the Postlude

An optional finale to the ceremony music is a postlude. This is the twin of the prelude, only the postlude consists of music to be played as the guests exit the ceremony venue once the bridal party has made its grand exit. Like the recessional, the postlude music should be upbeat; like the prelude it is intended to be background music, so it should be played at a fairly low volume. The postlude need not be long; generally about ten minutes is enough time for guests to clear from the ceremony site. Top selections for postludes include "When the Saints Go Marching In", Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" or "La Rejouissance", "Musette's Waltz" by Puccini or Hayden's "String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76. No. 3". Naturally, contemporary songs can be chosen if classical music does not suit the style of the wedding. Couples of Scottish or Irish descent may also wish to have a bagpiper playing outside of the venue as guests exit the ceremony.

Music for the Reception

The wedding reception is where the music really takes a major role. The bride and groom's first dance will be the subject of much discussion and debate, as will choosing the perfect songs for the mother/son dance and the father/daughter dance. Before any of that can be decided, the couple must first decide whether they prefer to have live music, a d.j., or even an ipod playing their favorite songs over the venue's sound system.

The primary advantage to a hiring a band is that live music adds a great deal of ambiance to a wedding. The primary advantage of a d.j. is a lower cost and an infinite number of song choices. Whichever a couple prefers, it is important to carefully check out any performer they are considering. Any band or d.j. should have sample dvds or cds of their work. If at all possible, go and observe your top contenders live. It may not be possible to see them at a wedding, but many bands and d.j.s will also work at less private events at which the bride and groom could observe them for at least a few minutes.

  • There are a number of important things to keep in mind when hiring the music for a wedding reception. First and foremost is that the style of the musicians or d.j. mesh well with the style of the couple and their wedding. No matter how talented the band may be, it will not do your wedding any good if they cannot play any of your favorite songs, or customary music like the "Hora"at a Jewish wedding. Some couples may prefer to hire a band that specializes in one genre of music, such as big band/swing or r&b. Most brides and grooms, though will opt for a band that is proficient in a wide variety of musical styles to ensure that there is something played that every guest will enjoy. When hiring a d.j., find out whether or not his performance style is to chat all night in an "emcee" style, or if he is content to keep quiet and keep the music going.
  • Once the musicians have been hired, the couple will need to decide which songs they must have played and which are absolutely forbidden. The songs that are definitely "out" are group dances like the "Y.M.C.A.", the "Chicken Dance", the "Electric Slide", and the "Macarena". When making the list of requests, the most important to include are the spotlight dances, such as the bride and groom's first dance. Be sure to give the band or d.j. the song list well in advance so that they have time to learn a new tune or track down a recording. Although it is smart to give suggestions, have enough confidence in the performers you chose to hire to allow them to play any other songs they feel are appropriate, as well as to determine the order in which to play them. A skilled bandleader or dj will know how to use music to keep the energy at the right level during the reception, and will mix up the slow and fast songs accordingly.
  • If the newlyweds do not have a particular romantic song to which they are attached, finding a first dance song can be challenging. There are an infinite number from which to choose, and they need to suit the style of the wedding, the musical tastes of the bride and groom, as well as having appropriately romantic lyrics. Tradition sometimes plays a role in the first dance selection as well. The newlyweds might wish to honor one of their sets of parents by dancing to the same first song as they did on their wedding day. The length of the song is also a factor, as swaying in the spotlight for more than three or four minutes might be very uncomfortable. Many songs can easily be trimmed down to size if need be.

New Trends In Reception Music

There is a trend in weddings these days (fueled by the desire to be a star on YouTube) in which the bride and groom have a surprise choreographed dance in lieu of the traditional first dance. These staged events generally start off looking like the typical first dance with a classic song choice, only to abruptly switch over to a modern song with a strongly choreographed routine halfway through. Generally the surprise song or the dance moves will have a risque element. A variation on this is the "Evolution of Dance", in which the bride and groom plan a dance routine to a medley of tunes representing each decade of music in succession. Before attempting any of these novelty first dances, the bride and groom should think hard about the tone they wish to set for their reception: amusing or dignified.

Music for the First Dance

As to the specific songs that are best for the newlyweds' first dance, the options are vast and varied. Standard favorites include "Our Love is Here to Stay" by Frank Sinatra or "It Had to Be You" by Harry Connick, Jr. Other top Sinatra picks would be "Summer Wind" and "I Get a Kick Out of You". Couples who enjoy traditional first dance songs would also do well to consider "L-O-V-E" by Nat King Cole or his beautiful duet with his daughter, "Unforgettable". A sweet choice would be "The Alphabet Love Song" ("A, you're adorable, B, you're so beautiful...") by various artists.

Some modern classic choices for the first dance include "How Sweet it is to Be Loved by You" by James Taylor, "Can't Help Falling in Love with You" by Elvis, or "Three Times a Lady" by the Commodores. A few upbeat favorites are "Happy Together" by the Turtles, "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher (expect the guests to sing along to this one!), or "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees. Additional top selections for the first dance are "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O'Connor, "Crash" by the Dave Matthews Band, "Annie's Song" by John Denver, "Better Together" by Jack Johnson, and "Book of Love" by Peter Gabriel.

Music for Other Special Dances

Once the newlyweds have completed their first dance, it is customary for the bride and her father to share a solo dance, followed by the groom and his mother. Some of the most popular father/daughter songs are "My Girl" by the Temptations, "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, "Isn't She Lovely" by Stevie Wonder, "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King, and "You Are So Beautiful to Me" by Joe Cocker. There seem to be fewer consensus favorites for mother/son dances, but a few of the more popular songs are "Because You Loved Me" by Celine Dion and "A Song for Mama" by Boyz II Men. Obviously, the bride and groom should feel free to ignore the popular choices and select the song that best expresses their relationship with their parent.

Music for General Dancing

After the spotlight dances, the bandleader or dj will open up the floor to general dancing. The style of music played can be focused on one genre, or it can be a mixture of different types and eras (it seems no wedding reception is complete without the inclusion of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl"!). This approach tends to be very popular, as there will be at least a few songs for every guest's musical tastes. Couples who like swing and standards can design playlists that are heavy on Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, Gershwin, Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Buble, Diana Krall, John Pizarelli, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

Another popular category for reception music is r&b, including soul and the Motown hits. Think of artists such as Barry White, Al Green, Luther Vandross, Sade, and Lauryn Hill. Solid gold oldies from the 1950s and 1960s are often included in wedding receptions as well. When planning the music for your wedding reception, take into account not only your personal preferences, but also the ages and tastes of your guests. If the bride and groom adore country music, for instance, but many of their guests do not, it would be far better to mix some country favorites in with a broad range of songs rather than hire a band that plays country and western exclusively. The guest list is particularly important to consider when adding current hits to the reception playlist; many songs are too lewd or loud for grandma's ears.

Music for the Last Dance

Finally, there is the last dance. This is the song that will send your guests off into the evening and will leave a lasting impression of your reception. Many of the perennial favorites refer either to ending or beginning, while others are just great high energy songs that will get everyone out for once last spin around the dance floor. For some reason, the last song that is played at every wedding in New York or New Jersey absolutely must be "New York, New York" by Sinatra. When the opening notes begin, all assembled will instantly realize that the party is about to end and will head to the dance floor for the grand finale (loud singing along and Rockette style high kicks mandatory!).

High energy last dance favorites are "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles, "Copacabana" by Barry Manilow, the very appropriate "Last Dance" by Diana Summer, and "Hit the Road Jack" by Ray Charles. If standards have been the musical genre of the evening, some options for the last dance include "The Tender Trap" by Sinatra, "From This Moment On" by Diana Krall, and "The Best is Yet to Come" by Tony Bennett.

Hit the Lights!

Then it is time to hit the lights and pull the plug as the wedding and the music come to an end. Once the last note has faded, that is the cue for everyone to head on out into the night (unless of course there will be an after party with a dj spinning the latest hits for the younger guests). If the musical selections were well chosen, the music will have established an ambiance, moved the wedding along at just the right pace, and sent the guests home with tired feet, a song in their hearts, and smiles on their faces.


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    • Susan Banks profile image

      Susan Banks 

      5 years ago from Colorado City, Arizona

      just draw a path on the mood map of Muzikool ( in calm and pleasant section and all the wedding songs would start revealing ...

    • profile image

      Jewish Music 

      8 years ago

      A great site that has free Jewish wedding music for download is:


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