Weddings are rather visual affairs; from the fancy dress to the picture-perfect venue, there’s a lot to see. But nothing sets the mood quite like music. From stirring melodies at the ceremony, to easy background tunes at cocktail hour, to up-tempo beats that get the dance party started, your choices in music are the soundtrack to your special day.

Ceremony music

What have you always envisioned for the soundtrack to your ceremony? A vocalist? String quartet? Solo pianist? When weighing your options for ceremony musicians, consider your vision, but also look to your wedding’s style and venue; make sure there is harmony between the location and the music you choose. Think back to past weddings you’ve attended: What did you like about the music for each ceremony? What didn’t work so well? Did you cry like a baby when friends of bride played a charming, acoustic tune? Did you cringe when the groom’s cousin, even with the best of intentions, sang entirely off-key? Your guests could likely react the same way, so choose wisely!

Once you and your fiancé have some ideas in mind, check out local musicians. Visit bridal shows, review bridal publications and online sources like premierbride.com, or ask for referrals from recently married friends or your ceremony officiant. You could also work with an experienced talent or booking agency that offers convenient, one-stop-shopping for all your wedding music needs. Narrow down your options, and arrange meetings to hear your musicians and singers in person before signing any contracts.

After you’ve secured musicians for your ceremony, they can help you decide on what songs to include. Most musicians who specialize in weddings have a lot of valuable experience and will be a great resource for song suggestions. Your ceremony officiant will also be helpful in guiding your musical selections. Already have the sounds of your ceremony in mind? Speak up, and let the musicians do the rest.

Cocktails and dinner music

Background music is a must for bringing romance to the latter part of your wedding day. Conversation is key during cocktails and dinner, so the tunes should set the mood, but not intrude. You have three main options: Use the musicians that played during your ceremony, use the band or DJ that will be playing at your reception, or hire entirely different musicians.

If you decide to have live music, come solid options include: chamber music, classical or acoustic guitar, or a jazz ensemble. Each of these offers subtle entertainment without overpowering the scene of mixing and mingling. A seasoned pianist can also be a fun choice, if he or she can play a wide range of musical styles — and take requests!

If you go with your reception’s DJ or band, make sure they keep it on the softer side. You might even want to make a list of songs to be played during this time to keep the soundtrack on, well, track.

Reception and dancing music

Dinner and dessert are over – it’s time to hit the dance floor! Let’s face it: This is one critical decision that can make or break an entire wedding, in the eyes of the guests. Fortunately, most musicians who specialize in weddings are talented professionals, and with the tips included here, you’ll be able to confidently select an excellent entertainer – and selection of dance tunes – for your big day. First and foremost, ask yourself: Live band or DJ? While there are pros and cons to each, it always comes down to personal taste and budget. Start researching musicians early in the wedding planning process – this way, once you find someone you like, availability is less likely to be an issue.

Live music gives the evening a sort of festive energy and is a wonderful option if your budget allows. The key is finding a band that caters to weddings. These musicians offer versatility and will appeal to guests of all ages. Keep in mind that any live entertainment will require breaks, so find a solution that ensures music is always playing. If the band is large enough, it’s possible the band members can stagger their breaks so that someone is always playing. Or, configure an iPod-and-speaker hook-up and play some of your favorites that the band might not attempt. In terms of expense, a live band will almost always cost more than a DJ. Keep this rule in mind: If you can’t afford a good wedding band, hire a DJ.

A DJ will be most cost-effective and can offer an almost infinite variety of music – truly something for everyone. Bonus: No breaks! Some keys to finding happiness in a DJ: 1) If possible, see them live before booking. 2) Consider personality – are you looking for a crazy-fun, “gettin’ jiggy with it” party animal or an upscale, keep-it-classy entertainer? 3) Ask for, and follow up on, several references. 4) Communicate. Clarify what songs and events (first dance, father & bride dance, bouquet & garter toss, etc.) you do or do not wish to include. Decide on the details ahead of time; make a “do not play” list of any songs you simply can’t stand and a “must play” list of songs you don’t want to miss.

All things considered, whether you go for a band or DJ, your dance party will be a guaranteed success as long as you treat your guests to a wide variety of music. From Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to Justin Timberlake, diversity is key in playing a little something for everyone.

The Nitty Gritty

For the reception… Consider your reception site and how this might impact your choice in entertainment. Communicate with your site manager so you’re aware of any restrictions – and so that they’re aware of your plans ahead of time. If your entertainment has never performed at your chosen reception site before, ask the site manager when they can visit the venue to make it meets their needs in terms of space, electricity, and lighting.

In general… As with other wedding vendors, make sure the ins and outs of your agreement with your musicians is very clear and in writing. This includes payment, start and end times, fees for playing overtime, alternate plans if a musician is sick the day of your wedding, etc. If any of your vendors don’t use a contract, put all the details into a letter, and copy it – send one to the vendor and keep one for your records. Confirm all the details with your musicians about one week prior to your celebration.

Once you’ve done your homework, hired musicians for each stage of your wedding day, and worked out the details, you can rest easy. That is, until it’s time to start practicing your dance moves.

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