Choosing the Perfect Ceremony Music

By Neil Dixon Smith

Among the myriad of decisions a couple makes in planning their wedding, few are as intimate and significant as the selection of ceremony music. For some the choice may be a no-brainer: a time-honored traditional such as “Canon in D” or perhaps there’s a favorite pop song that has come to symbolize their relationship. The only qu ,mestion in that case is finding the right musician to perform the program.

For others the decision is more daunting. For any number of reasons, a contemporary couple may have mixed feelings about traditional wedding music. “The Wedding March” or “Air on the G String” may hold no significance for them, or their own personal musical tastes may not necessarily lead to obvious song choices that would be appropriate in a wedding context. For these folks, a good idea may be to start by finding a musician or bandleader they get a good vibe from, and then enter into a conversation with the artist about how music can work.

As a ceremony musician, I welcome the opportunity to meet with a couple early in the planning process. For me, it’s an opportunity to get a sense of who they are as people and what kind of experience they want to create. Some of the most emotionally resonant ceremonies I’ve participated in have started from that place, and ultimately the decisions for the prelude, family/bridal party/bridal processionals, intra-ceremony music and recessionals came from our dialog as I relate my background and strengths as a musician as well as my experiences performing at previous weddings.

A terrific and unexpected fringe benefit of being a ceremony musician is that one cannot help but become something of an amateur anthropologist. Performing at ceremonies in churches or on beaches, in black-tie sharp or country-barn casual, with every imaginable blend of ethnicity, every conceivable cultural attitude, from stoic reverence to playful irony, I have been witness and party to an incredible and broad range of expression of the wedding rite. From these experiences, I don’t just think about playing a particular song, but instead how it is contributing to this wonderful ritual – be it sacred or wacky.

For the budding bride and groom seeking a pathway to their thinking about ceremony music, whether it be from live musicians, DJs or iPod, I offer these four thoughts about how music can function within a ceremony. They are not mutually exclusive, and I hope they may be helpful food for thought.

1. Music stokes our collective memory. Although one my choose a “traditional” piece of wedding music simply because they find it beautiful in its own right, the real power of choosing “official wedding music,” such as “The Bridal Chorus” or “Ave Maria” (among many others), is that it serves to unite the wedding ritual that is happening right now with the many others experienced by your family and guests. When a guest hears the opening notes of “Canon in D”, they are no longer just at your wedding, but they are also at every wedding they’ve experienced – and the warm feelings this evokes through the venue heightens the emotional experience for all.

2. Music expresses your individuality. Among the pleasures of being alive during the 21st Century, is the encouragement to communicate one’s uniqueness. One does not need a film degree to appreciate how a music soundtrack affects a scene, and a wedding ceremony is a fantastic opportunity to choose music that speaks to your views about what commitment, love, and family mean to you, or simply as a vehicle to show your guests what kind of people you are. Whether this results in choosing music that is only familiar to you and your mate or is known to all, and if that even matters, is another rich question to contemplate.

3. Music as a purely aesthetic experience. Choosing music for its rhetorical statement is one powerful line of consideration, but another is to consider the selection simply in terms of the quality of it as it hits the ears. Asking a musician to learn a quirky pop song may be fun, but it may not really be taking advantage of that artist can do. If one has no strong desire to evoke weddings past or a recreate a killer mix tape, there may be a tremendous benefit in simply talking to the musical artist about what it is they do best. One of the most powerful ways to create a sense of unique immediacy is for the music to be original or wholly unknown to any participant, which fully allows them to be swept up in this one-of-a-kind moment. I would always recommend asking about what the musician what they consider to be their most beautiful work or what music they think is most powerful.

4. Music is community. An old theater manager friend once explained to me that there are two types of producers – those who know what they want to do and find the people to do it, and those that see who have and then figure out what can be done. There are amateur musicians in every family and circle of friends, and finding ways to have them involved in the ceremony can bring great significance and broad smiles. Even if you are hiring professionals, this should not preclude you from having a friend sing (maybe to the accompaniment of the musician) or for there to be multiple musical interludes.

At the end of the day, as a ceremony musician I feel my role is assist the couple in crafting a ceremony that will carry the greatest possible impression going forward. In addition to evoking the spirits and significance of marriage on that day, I hope the musical performance helps to etch a strong memory of the exchanging of vows and public acceptance of a new family being born.

Towards that, my strongest recommendation to any couple, regardless of how they plan to use music during their ceremony, is to meet and get to know their musician a bit – even if hired through a third party. Logistics may make this impossible, but if you can, I think it will greatly enhance your vision.


Neil Dixon Smith is a solo classical guitarist based in Chicago. He has been performing for weddings all around the Midwest since 2005. You can learn more about Neil at