Wedding Ceremony Music: A How-To Guide, Part II

by Diane Michaels

Welcome back to Part II of my Wedding Ceremony Music How-To Guide. Did you miss Part I? Check it out here — we’ll wait for you!

You’ve made a great choice deciding to hire musicians to play your wedding ceremony. Now you have to figure out both what kind of musicians you want and which ones will do the best job for you.

Hire a Pro

When it comes to hiring musicians for your wedding, there are differences between amateurs and professionals. What distinguishes an amateur musician from a professional is, first of all, payment. An amateur who gets paid to perform is no longer an amateur, right? Professionals also bring a level of expertise and experience to a job. Ultimately, though, it is the ability to adapt one’s skills to each experience that distinguishes the professional from the amateur.

Imagine these three scenarios:

  1. You hire a keyboard player and tell her you have dreamed about walking down the aisle to All of Me by John Legend. She says she doesn’t know how to play it, won’t learn it, and insists you walk to Here Comes the Bride, the only piece she knows. You have hired an amateur.
  2. You hire a string quartet to play a prelude. The ceremony is running behind because the photographer got lost on the way to the catering hall. The original 15 minute-long prelude is now 30 minutes long. The quartet only has 15 minutes worth of music, so they’re playing everything twice. Again, here are amateurs at work.
  3. Your best man goes rogue and choreographs a two-minute dance routine to take him down the aisle, your bridesmaids can’t walk in their shoes, and your veil catches fire. You had arranged for your harpist to play one piece for everyone in your bridal party and another piece for you. But your processional started 22 minutes ago. You realize that your harpist never missed a beat. Instead of playing one piece over and over, she switched to different music to fill time between when the maid of honor finished walking (or crawling, as it turned out after she hurled her shoes into the pews and nearly brained Aunt Ida) and when the fire department declared you good to go. Now she’s playing a gorgeous fanfare before segueing into your special music. You have definitely hired a pro.


Obviously, if your favorite niece Janet plays clarinet in her school band, and your brother isn’t half bad on the piano, sure, keep it in the family. It can be a really meaningful way to include family or friends in your wedding celebration. These aren’t the amateurs we’re talking about.

Professional musicians live off of the wages they make on gigs. Beyond the expense of music school tuition and costly instruments, full-time musicians also pay rent or mortgages. Plus they have to pay for their health care and pensions. We can’t afford to charge less than the market rate, and we’re not going to recommend less expensive students or weekend warriors who don’t depend on the income earned through performing to compete with us for the gig. That said, we don’t work simply to pay our bills. We are passionate about making music and using our skills to enhance your day.

Is that a Cello?

If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Don’t you wish you played the flute?” while I’m moving my harp, I could afford to hire someone to move it. Another question I hear a lot while I’m out with my harp is, “What is that thing, a cello?” My husband, a bass player, fields that question often, too. Funnily enough, I know cellists who get asked, “Is that a violin?”

It’s OK if you don’t know a flute from a basset horn. Which is not to be confused with a basset hound. We picked our instruments. You chose a different path. Our paths will converge during your wedding ceremony, so if you need a little help picking out the instruments you want, allow me to guide you.

The instruments you are most likely to encounter in your search for ceremony musicians are violin, viola, cello, flute, harp, a variety of keyboard instruments, and guitar. That’s not to say there aren’t other instruments lurking around, ready to play a chorus or two of your processional. I’m looking at you, bagpipes! This list is just a starting point.

Violins and flutes are both like lead actors. They play the melody (the part you want to sing). Both are beautiful instruments, so which one you choose is just your personal taste. The sound of the violin makes me think of the color red, and a flute sounds like a more muted color, like a blue-green. Violas can play the melody, too, but unless you’re a viola aficionado, maybe stick to using a violin. Cellos also can play the melody. It’s just going to be a lot lower than the violin, and sometimes it’s harder to hear. Cellos are really useful for supporting the bottom part of the accompaniment.

Next, we’ve got keyboard instruments like organs, pianos, and electric keyboards. These instruments, along with harp and guitar, can accompany themselves while playing the melody, so they’re a great option for when you want to hire but one musician. Organs are the loudest of these instruments, and unless they’re plugged into an arena-sized rig, electric keyboards will be the softest. Many houses of worship come with organs. Catering halls may have pianos, but keyboard players usually have to bring their own.

5There are two kinds of harps: the really big ones (pedal harps) and the smaller ones (lever harps). Pedal harps are louder than lever harps. And they have a little more flexibility in their repertoire and their ability to transition from one piece to another, but you will find skilled professionals on either.

There is one distinct advantage of the lever harp over the pedal harp: their size. Sometimes you need to get a harp someplace that a hulking pedal harp just won’t fit, like onto a yacht or up a tricky set of stairs.

Guitars play at about the same volume as a lever harp. In other words, they’ll add a mellower vibe to the ambiance.

Do you have questions about other types of instruments or how to pick the right number of musicians to play your wedding ceremony? Or perhaps about what music to choose and where it belongs in the service? For in-depth answers to all of your questions about planning the perfect music for your wedding ceremony, get a free copy of From Here Comes the Bride to There Go the Grooms by Diane Michaels.


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