There’s 20 minutes to go before the ceremony starts. As your guests file in and find their seats, they should be excited but calm. They’re about to see something important happen, but they also need to get ready to sit quietly for a stretch of time. Getting them to that desired frame of mind involves some stealth psychological trickery. Your music choices can be a big part of encouraging your guests to be happy, but not yet boisterous.
You need about a half hour of music in the lead-up to the ceremony—and you have to choose wisely. The music should be neither too energetic or too boring. Your guests should enjoy what they’re hearing without being too invested in it; the important part of the day is coming soon, so you want music that will make your guests happy while it’s playing, but not disappointed when it stops.
It’s a delicate balance. Luckily, we’ve written a guide.
Traditional Classical Music
Pros: The sounds of strings and brass encourages everybody to be well-behaved. The music is refined and regal, perfect for a day when you and your partner want to be treated like royalty.
Cons: Many people find classical music stuffy and overly formal. Some symphonic works (Saint-Saens’s 3rd, “Organ,” for instance) get too dramatic and intense to fade into the background.
General Tips: Avoid symphones and look for music performed by soloists and chamber groups. Full symphonic orchestra pieces might get too loud and involved. They’re beautiful but probably wrong for the mood you’re trying to set before your ceremony.
Johann Sebastian Bach
The music of Baroque composer Bach is a popular choice for weddings, so it might seem like a cliche. But it’s far from the worst cliche out there—Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is far more overused, for example—and it’s so beautiful and contemplative it transcends cliche. Works like the Brandenburg Concertos and The Well Tempered Clavier are lush but deliberately paced; they feel like music European royalty play while working on math problems in palace halls.
If your wedding is a black tie affair overflowing with fancy decorations and refined people, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto strikes the perfect mood. It’s a rich, lush work that doesn’t overpower a quiet moment. For a more stripped down instrumentation that’s still melodic and stately, look to Mozart’s Piano Sonatas.
Romantic-era composer Frederic Chopin’s piano composition make any moment or event feel elegant. Chopin’s piano pieces are spare, with a lot of long notes and quiet spaces. While they’re contemplative, they’re not sad and their free flowing rhythm fosters a sense of warm relaxation. You can choose from any of his 21 famous Nocturnes but Opus 9 and Opus 27 are the best known.
Pro: There’s nothing like a good jazz tune to imbue a sense of sophisticated fun.
Cons: Jazz can be polarizing, with some people feeling the music is pretentious and chaotic. Jazz musicians are highly proficient players eager to show off their abilities; it might draw more attention than you want.
General Tips: Jazz is the most challenging, expansive music out there. It can be off-putting; the more melodic, the better. Avoid vocalists, as the words make it harder for the music to fade into the background.
Early 20th century guitarist Django Reinhardt’s music is light and airy, playful, with a lively Roma feel. While his music varies, Reinhardt’s guitar has a dry and clean tone throughout, so it’s never overwhelming and always easy on the ears. He recorded about 900 individual songs with a variety of bands that were only collected as albums after his death. Spend a fun afternoon drinking red wine and listening to Reinhardt to craft a playlist, or if you’re pressed for time, the Peche A Le Mouche album is a solid collection. If you want a similar mood from the same era, plus a distinctive vocal presence, try Louis Armstrong.
Dave Brubeck, Time Out
Dave Brubeck’s Time Out is one of the best-selling jazz albums in history. Even people who don’t know jazz will know the twisty melody and sharp rhythm of “Take Five.” The album was inspired by European folk music with unusual time signatures, which doesn’t seem like a recipe for appealing music. But adhering to the ambitious rhythms limits the jazz musicians and the result is jazz music and its most tuneful. For something in the same spirit but with a Magic Kingdom-twist, Brubeck’s Dave Digs Disney is an album of jazz rendition of songs from Disney movies.
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Along with Time Out, Kind of Blue one of the most played jazz albums out there. The music takes its time to make its point and the result is relaxed and pretty. It’s jazz music for people who are scared of jazz; there’s no chaos in this album, just hummable melodies and strategically deployed quiet. For a slightly more ambitious album along the same lines, check out Davis’ Sketches of Spain.
Art Blakey Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers
This elegant and refined jazz album is perfect for making your guests feel like they’re attending a high class laid back event. A collection of some of the finest jazz musicians to record play a relaxed and melodic traditional jazz set. Just play the first side: the second half gets more spirited.
Pros: Jazz and classical music aren’t right for every wedding. Some couples might find it to be stuffy or think it sounds like music for someone else’s wedding. People love pop music. It’s unpretentious, immediate and fun.
Cons: Pop music might feel too casual to foster the mood you’re trying to set. Plus, depending on what musical era you pick from, you risk alienating older (or even younger) guests.
General Tips: This isn’t time to drop the bass. Keep it gentle—stick to acoustic guitars, gentle orchestration and crooning vocals.
Iron and Wine
Iron and Wine’s gentle rolling acoustic love songs are light and unobtrusive but meticulously crafted. Joanna Newsom, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and other contemporary artists have gentle inviting songs that would be perfect to greet your guests. We’re offering less detail here than other sections, as we’re confident you can make a playlist of easy-on-the-ears tunes songs from your favorite artists. Just remember, playing all new music may risk alienating your older guests, so make your choices with care—maybe sprinkle your wedding seating playlist with a golden oldie or two from The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Otis Redding or Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Pro: A number of groups perform pop, rock and soul songs with instruments and arrangements usually reserved for classical music and jazz. By playing them, you strike a balance between familiar pop songs and more refined instrumentation.
Con: Hearing cover after cover can seem a little gimmicky. And if you pick the wrong reimagining of a beloved song, you’re playing elevator music
General Tips: Be consistent. Pick one type of cover and stick to it. If you bounce around between genres, your guests will notice the music more than you want them to.
Postmodern Jukebox presents a thought experiment: what if contemporary pop songs were performed in the style of swinging jazz of yesteryear? They take the lyrics and melody of Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake songs but perform them with big band sophistication. For your older guests, it’ll be pleasant background music; for younger guests it will be mind-blowing to realize they’ve been listening to a Meghan Trainor song.
Vitamin String Quartet
First, you hear the lush strings of a chamber group. It’s nice but you let it fade into the background. You relax and slowly realize the group is playing a familiar melody. Then it dawns that it’s “Where is my Mind” by the Pixies. Los Angeles-based studio musicians the Vitamin String Quartet have recorded entire albums of covers of songs by pop performers including Daft Punk, Radiohead and Kanye West.
Scala & Kolacny Brothers
The Belgian girls choir Scala doesn’t always perform covers of popular songs. But when conductor Stijn Kolacny and pianist Steven Kolacny lead the indie rock choir in performances of familiar hits, the result is an ornate choral experience fit for the highest of high society—their haunting blend of voices makes “Every Breath You Take,” a new wave ode to obsessive stalking ready for Downton Abbey. In addition to their original compositions, they’ve recorded covers of Radiohead, Nirvana, Coldplay, Depeche Mode, and more.
Follow The Plunge on Spotify to set the soundtrack to every stage of your wedding, from the bachelor party to the bouquet toss.