Where Music Fits Best in a Traditional Wedding Ceremony Structure
Not quite sure where music belongs in your wedding ceremony structure? Uncertain about a typical wedding ceremony order in general? I have outlined a traditional wedding ceremony structure below with some brief suggestions for how to best utilize the live musicians you have hired for the big day.
While each and every wedding ceremony is unique—and rightly so since every couple is unique—there is a traditional framework with basic elements that tend to be very similar in most ceremonies. These elements have stood the test of time and you should consider including them, or some similar variations, in your ceremony. Ultimately, you make the final decisions about what to include and what to omit. It’s your wedding, after all! But this framework is a great place to start, especially if you want some ideas about when to have your wedding musicians perform during the ceremony.
Many people might not consider the prelude to be a part of the ceremony itself, and technically that’s true (hence the “pre”fix “pre“ in “pre”lude...). However, if you are hiring live musicians, this is likely the longest duration for which you will have an opportunity for them perform, and I highly recommend that you take advantage of this time. Consider the prelude to be the overture to your ceremony. If you‘ve ever been to a Broadway show or an opera, you know that the excitement really starts to build when the house lights go down and the orchestra begins to play the overture.
Your prelude is the time when the music can really set the tone for what is to come. Live musicians can perform pieces that set a variety of moods for your ceremony. A brass quintet can make a regal statement fit for royalty as can the majestic sounds of fanfare trumpets. A harpist or a string quartet does very well for setting an elegant, more classy and sophisticated mood.
Whatever your vision, the anticipation for the beautiful moments that are about to unfold will only be enhanced with great live music. I have personally performed prelude music that lasted as long as 50 minutes (basically a recital that ended with a wedding, and it was awesome). Typically 10-30 minutes of prelude music does very well and sets the perfect tone for your wedding ceremony as guests are seated.
The processional is the part of the ceremony where the important participants at the event make their grand entrance, culminating in the bride’s march down the aisle. Depending on your desired prelude length, this is the second longest segment for live music to be played. While there are many acceptable orders for processing, and a lot of this decision depends on the couple and who all is included in the wedding party, a traditional order of processional entrances might go something like this:
-Seating of the grandparents
-Seating of the groom’s parents (if not already seated)
-Seating of the bride’s mother
-Entrance of the groomsmen (or they could all enter alongside the groom and take their places up front without marching down the aisle, or sometimes they will accompany the bridesmaids down the aisle)
-Entrance of the best man (usually alongside the other groomsmen)
-Entrance of the groom (as previously mentioned, often not marching down the aisle)
-Entrance of the officiant (often alongside the groom, not marching down the aisle)
-Entrance of the bridesmaids (sometimes accompanied by the groomsmen)
-Entrance of the maid of honor
-Entrance of the flower girl(s) and ring bearer(s)
-Finally, the grand entrance of the bride, traditionally accompanied by her father
So how does music fit into all of this? There are a few routes I would suggest depending on the size of the wedding party and the size of the ceremony venue. If the wedding party is on the smaller side and if the aisle is on the shorter side, you may only need one piece of music performed for everyone processing prior to the bride, and possibly including the bride. I do recommend, however, that you pick a special song specifically for the bridal processional to signal the moment to all of the guests. If it’s a big wedding and if the aisle is on the longer side, you can have 2-4 pieces of music specially selected for each group’s entrance. For example, there could be one song for the seating of the grandparents and parents, one song for the bridesmaids and groomsmen, and one very special song for the entrance of the bride.
Once everyone is seated, the bridal party has processed, and the bride has marched down the aisle to meet the groom, the officiant will typically make some opening remarks of welcome and will introduce the proceedings. Most traditionally, they may say, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today...” Have you heard that before? There may also be a ceremonial declaration of consent by the couple or a charge to the couple from the officiant.
Regarding music for this segment of the ceremony, it’s probably best if the trumpet player sits this one out...
In sacred ceremonies there may be some scripture readings following the officiant’s opening remarks, often read by friends or family of the couple. The officiant may also give a short sermon or a homily.
Exchange of Vows
Marriage is a promise between two people, and this is the part where the couple publicly announces their promise to each other before witnesses, their guests. Some couples will write down some notes in advance and others will improvise. Either way, this is a very special and important moment for the couple to pronounce their love and commitment to one another. Unless you want a Hollywood wedding, you probably don’t need any music here.
Exchange of Rings
Rings offer a physical symbol of the promises made during the exchanging of the wedding vows. This is the part of the ceremony where the couple will further seal their promise with a symbolic and enduring gesture, placing a ring on each other’s finger. Cute ring bearers recommended. This is another section of your ceremony where musicians are probably better off resting.
Special Ceremonies and Unifying Rituals
While you could insert a special portion into your ceremony just about anywhere, this is a common spot to do so. In many Christian ceremonies, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, might be celebrated here. You may have another ritual, tradition, or special moment planned during your ceremony. Some couples have sand ceremonies, others may light a unity candle, have a tree planting ceremony, or hold a wine ceremony. Moments like these pair very well with special music, and it’s a good idea to choose a song for the musicians to play during these portions of your wedding ceremony.
Declaration of Marriage and Presentation of the Couple
Time to make things official! At this point in the ceremony, the i’s have been dotted and the t’s have been crossed. The officiant will probably say something like, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” After that, the couple will probably be invited to kiss, and... you’re married! And now it’s time for some more music...
As soon as a the couple is pronounced married and share their first kiss, strike up the band! Your wedding musicians should begin to play at this queue to begin the recessional. The couple will exit first, followed by the rest of the bridal party, usually in reverse order of how they processed. Finally, the family, parents, and grandparents will exit, followed by the rest of the guests, that is if you are having a reception at a different venue. While you don’t need a ton of music to have a great recessional, I recommend that you ask the musicians to play something that will last longer than required. Make it joyful and exuberant. You’re hitched, it’s time to celebrate!
Wait, we’re not done? Well... you could be, and at this point most ceremonies are. However, I am going to make a shameless plug for all the professional musicians out there. You have hired amazing talent to perform for your big day, why not have them play for another 5-15 minutes? If you and all of your guests are leaving to go to another venue right away, you won’t need much, but a great way to go above and beyond for your guests and keep the beautiful vibes going as you transition to your reception is to have the wedding musicians perform a little bit more music after the recessional has ended. This will help them stay warmed up and ready to go for the cocktail hour they are about to play!
The above basic outline is a guideline for the structure of most weddings in the United States these days. Again, it is not a hard-and-fast set of rules by any means, but this traditional order of service should help you when crafting your own unique ceremony. Here’s a quick recap of some good spots for music in the traditional outline:
Prelude - Great spot for a 10-30 minute performance by your wedding musicians that will set the tone for the ceremony!
Processional - Here comes the bride! And her whole entourage. I recommend 1-4 songs (or your favorite excerpts from these songs) depending on the size of the wedding party and the size of the venue/length of the aisle.
Welcome/Introduction - You could go movie soundtrack style (totally kidding...) and have the musicians play the whole time (and make your aunt cry, for sure), but then you might not hear the officiant very well. No music for these next 3.
Exchange of Vows - All attention should be on the couple. No music.
Exchange of Rings - Focus on the couple! No music.
Special Ceremony/Unifying Ritual - If there is a ritual or special mini-ceremony that doesn’t have speaking for a while, have the musicians play. It’s the perfect way to enhance the beauty of the unifying moment.
Declaration of Marriage/Presentation of the Couple - Wait for it... no music just yet...
Recessional - Music! Time to celebrate. Have the musicians play something joyous.
Postlude - You’ve hired them. They are there. They are amazingly talented professionals... Why not have them play a little bit more? Your friends, family, and guests will love it.
Need some ideas for what songs to select for your traditional wedding ceremony music? Check out our post, Top 20 Traditional Wedding Songs.
If you live in Florida, consider Best in Brass for your wedding music needs. Best in Brass is Florida’s Wedding & Event Orchestra. Our roster of highly qualified professionals is made up of many of the top musicians in the state. Whether you are looking for a string quartet, wedding trumpeter, wedding harpist, wedding pianist, or a jazz band for your wedding reception, our musicians and ensembles will sound amazing and make your big day even more special.