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Planning the Music for Your Wedding Ceremony

It's safe to say that out of all the events for which you will gather your friends and family to celebrate your marriage, the wedding ceremony itself will be the most meaningful and, hopefully, memorable. In the United States, music plays many vital roles in the wedding ceremony, from providing flow and ambiance to highlighting the deeper emotional meaning. Many former brides and grooms remember the songs played at their weddings for the rest of their lives, and they can relive that romantic day when hearing those songs again.

Since music is so important to your wedding ceremony, I always advise hiring one or more live, experienced, professional musicians to handle it. Qualified, well-researched musicians will be able to tailor the music in real time to fit what is going on in your ceremony, which will help one part flow effortlessly into the next. Also, you'll find it truly ties together all of the visual and verbal elements, from the flowers to the vows, with timeless style and class.

For the music, most American wedding ceremonies have six major parts, each with their own special requirements:

1. The prelude

2. The wedding party's processional

3. The bride's processional

4. The interlude

5. The recessional

6. The postlude

If you do not want to choose individual songs for your ceremony, experienced wedding musicians will be able to play appropriate songs in the right places. But picking out your own music can be more meaningful and satisfying. The first decision you should make that will guide you in your choices is whether you want your music to be traditional and classic or lesser-known but unique. The professional wedding musicians you hire should have a supply of music from both categories in their repertoire.

The Prelude

The purpose of the prelude music is to welcome guests as they are being seated before the ceremony. It also should give a cheerful yet subdued atmosphere, setting the stage for the solemnity of the event. The prelude generally begins 15 to 20 minutes before the ceremony start time, and it often involves quite a few songs. Because of this, it's best to give the musician(s) an idea of the genre of music you want and leave the individual song choices up to their discretion. Since the prelude sets the tone for the rest of the ceremony, it's a good idea to base your genre choice on the type of music you will be using later in the ceremony. Popular genre choices include Classical, Love Songs, Jazz, and Broadway, and these genres can be mixed together within the prelude to suit your taste. Each of these genres has sub-categories (Baroque or Romantic Classical music, old or new love songs, etc.), but it's safe to leave those choices up to the musicians unless you have strong feelings one way or another.

The Wedding Party's Processional

The wedding party's processional marks the official beginning of the ceremony. It should have a slow but flowing feel, ushering the beautiful bridesmaids and other members of the wedding party down the aisle. Perhaps the classic example here is Canon in D by Pachelbel, but you should listen to various musical selections to find a song that strikes a chord with you.

The Bride's Processional

The bride's processional can be an incredible moment, as memorable to everyone involved as the vows or any other part of the ceremony. You should choose a very special song here. If you go with Classical music, the obvious traditional choice is Wagner's Bridal Chorus ("Here Comes the Bride"). But any Classical piece that strikes you as particularly beautiful or meaningful can be used here. If you're going with jazz, pop, or Broadway, use a song with beautiful music as well as lyrics that are meaningful to you. Even if you don't have a singer at your wedding, the lyrics to a popular song will still play in everyone's minds when they hear the melody.

The Interlude

The interlude can actually be many different moments in the ceremony, my very loose definition being any time there are no words being spoken for a minute or more. For most ceremonies, the interlude is the unity candle, memorial candle, or rose presentation. These are moments of quiet reflection, and the music you choose should encourage this mood. A popular and appropriate unity candle choice is The Wedding Song, partly because the lyrics mention the word "union." Sweet Classical favorites include Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring by Bach, Ave Maria by Schubert, and Meditation from Thais by Massenet.

The Recessional

At last, time to celebrate! The wedding officiant's pronouncement of husband and wife is followed by enthusiastic applause and joyous recessional music as the happy couple leads the way back up the aisle. The song you choose should be bright and upbeat, inviting everyone to celebrate your union. The top traditional choice for the recessional is Mendelssohn's Wedding March. A close second and third are Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary. But any song with a joyous feel that speaks to you will work well in this spot.

The Postlude

The postlude sets a pleasant atmosphere as guests are leaving. It can last between 10 and 30 minutes, so it's best to treat the postlude like the prelude and simply give the musicians an idea of what you want. Experienced wedding musicians will play postlude music that is refined but upbeat, adding the finishing touch to your beautiful ceremony.

The best starting point for specific ceremony music ideas is the repertoire list on the website (or in paper form) of the musicians you are hiring. The songs listed there are usually ones that the musicians are requested to play frequently and that the musicians know very well. Talk with your musicians as far in advance of the ceremony as possible about your musical selections. This way, if you have a special request that is not in the musicians' repertoire, they may be able to accommodate it.

Lastly, have fun with the process of choosing your music! You can make listening to possible ceremony music a wonderful opportunity to slow down in the midst of your hectic planning and reflect on the love that you and your partner feel for each other. Music has the power to express this beautiful sentiment to all of your friends and family during your wedding ceremony, so take advantage of it!

Article written by:
Courtney Lawhn, Chicago Harpist and Wedding Musician

Courtney Lawhn is one of the most requested wedding harpists in Chicago. She has performed with the most prestigious Classical ensembles in Chicago – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra – and she brings her experience to weddings and other events throughout the metro area. Check out wedding music samples and simplified example ceremonies on her website.

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