Wedding music is the issue where tradition and creativity meet, mingle, and sometimes clash. On our third date, my husband made me promise that, if we ever got married, Pachelbel's Canon in D, Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary, and Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" would not be played. This suited me just fine, but for many people, it's not a wedding if at least one of these tunes doesn't fill the air.
To plan your wedding music more-or-less painlessly, it helps to start by tackling three big decisions on style before looking at sources for different sorts of wedding music.
Three Big Decisions
The first decision you must make in choosing wedding music (and often it's made for you) is "sacred versus secular." If you are being married in a religious tradition, it is vital that you check with the officiant or the officiant's staff before you get your heart set on any particular tune. Some religions or houses of worship have strict rules about what sort of music is appropriate for a wedding; others have no rules at all. The only way to know for sure is to ask.
Your second consideration (and this decision is sometimes made for you too) is where you'll use music in the ceremony. Again, it's important to check religious guidelines before making firm decisions! Most ceremonies include a prelude and postlude (instrumental music played before and after the ceremony itself), a processional and recessional (music played during the entrance and exit of the wedding party), and one song of joy within the ceremony (between the readings, during the lighting of a unity candle, or at another convenient point). A religious ceremony may also include hymns, a responsorial psalm, a mass setting, or a sung blessing.
Your third consideration is what tone you want to set with your music. This is a decision that you do get to make for yourself, and it's one of the most important decisions in writing a ceremony that reflects your beliefs and personalities. Do you want the pomp, circumstance, and traditional feel of the usual wedding music? What about a more light-hearted or unusual, but still classical, feel? Or a "clap your hands and sing loud in worship" mood with folk-style hymns? Or jazz?
If any of the music is sung, do you want to focus on romantic love, friendship, shared goals, commitment to God, or what? There is huge scope for personalizing your wedding music, even if you must fit your choices within the sonnet-like constraints of a strict religious format. Getting married in church does not automatically limit your music choices to "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" (a.k.a. "Ode to Joy"), "When Love is Found," and "For the Beauty of the Earth."
Traditional Wedding Music
Start with the University of Virginia 's Music Library for Weddings. This source, which covers classical music, is useful partly for the length of its list of classical themes and partly because it often supplies an album title as well as a song title. You may be able to check out the album at your local library. If not, one good way to get an idea of what the music might sound like (although you should be warned that different arrangements can sound very different indeed) is to look for the same piece in the Classical Midi Archive. You can also use the album information to order the CD from a music-selling site like tunes.com or amazon.com.
Another quick and dirty way to find out what's "typical" in wedding music is to type "wedding" into amazon.com's Classical Music Search. You'll get all sorts of options, from orchestral suites to movie soundtracks. Narrow the search terms to find out if your favorite pieces are available on classical guitar or glockenspiel.
Unusual Classical Music
The Wedding Etiquette Police will not invalidate your ceremony, and the guests will not riot in the aisles, if you choose classical music that isn't on the typical "wedding music" lists. In this project, it helps immensely to know your own tastes so you have a starting point! It also helps to keep in mind some basic "what goes where" guidelines:
◾The prelude and postlude should be upbeat but unobtrusive; they're just background music
◾The processional should lean toward the majestic and be a bit slower than the recessional
◾The recessional can be very upbeat and faster than the processional
If you don't feel inclined to just go through your own CD collection, the Classical Midi Archive is a fun place to start. Set aside a block of time, look up composers that you know you like, and keep a list of the tunes that strike your fancy. (The list is vital because you cannot link to midi files in this archive, so you'll need the list to help you find your favorites when you work on narrowing down your choices, as well as when you go looking for CDs.)
If you know you want a "classical" sound, and something a bit unusual, but you're not terribly savvy about music history, start by browsing the pages devoted to famous composers. Explore! J.S. Bach's closing chorale from "Awake Thou Wintry Earth" would make a wonderful recessional for a wedding with an elegant feel. Portions of Beethoven's Symphony #6 can go a long way toward setting a mood of anticipation and happiness during your prelude, while delighting guests with something other than the same-old, same-old. Take the time to try lots of tunes.
Contemporary Sacred Music
Sacred music is not limited to chorales, stodgy organ pieces, "Christian rock," and "Kumbaya." Armed with a good hymnal and a determined expression, you can find sacred music that adapts its tune, style, or lyrics from African-American spirituals, Irish folk music, traditional Hawaiian or Mexican folk songs, English tunes, and many other traditions.
You're also not limited to hymns with lyrics that announce that today is your wedding day and you're very thankful to God for all that. Other appropriate themes for your wedding music include praise and thanksgiving, providence, willingness to do God's will, shared mission, and initiation into a new phase of life.
The place to start for traditional Jewish wedding music is a sales site called Jewish Music.com. An advanced search on the keyword "wedding" brought up about a dozen potentially appropriate CDs. If you're knowledgeable about the theology of Jewish marriage, you can probably find many more appropriate pieces of sacred music that focus on aspects of Jewish spirituality that are relevant to marriage but don't use the m-word itself.
If contemporary "Christian rock" is an option, start with the wedding list from rec.music.christian. Use the list of artists and songs to search on a commercial music-selling site.
Popular Music, Soundtracks, and Show Tunes
When popular music is an option, couples can take several different approaches.
One option is to look for popular music that is "highbrow with a twist": pieces like the Throne Room Theme from Star Wars or the jazzy soundtrack from the Peanuts cartoons.
A second option is to raid the current Top 40 for romantic music. Lately it seems as if every secular wedding features either "From This Moment" or "Because You Loved Me"! A word of caution: the choice you love today may not wear so well when you show the wedding video to the kids in 10 years. You may be happier in the long run with a more established popular classic like "One Hand, One Heart" from West Side Story.
The third option is to express your own unique tastes, whether your preference is alternative, hip-hop, jazz, Celtic music, or head-banger rock. Since you're unlikely to find a convenient anthology with a title like Alternative Wedding Day, be prepared to put some time into this project... and do listen to lyrics carefully! Some of the songs with the most tender lyrics include one verse that is too risque or too depressing for a wedding day.
Whatever direction you go, start planning well ahead of time so you can choose music you genuinely like. And don't be afraid to have fun: as long as you don't choose Blue Octobers' "Hate Me" as the processional and Billy Idol's "White Wedding" as the recessional, your guests will probably enjoy whatever you do!