Music & Entertainment

Your Alternative Ceremony Music Options

Go beyond mainstream music

If you're the type of bride who shudders at the thought of hearing Pachelbel's Canon as you walk down the aisle, don't despair. As of the writing of this article, there were absolutely no legal requirements to include that most ubiquitous cello piece in your wedding. In fact, when it comes to music for the big day, you're only limited by your imagination and personal tastes. On an occasion that can seem like everything has to be done in a particular way, the freedom you have in making musical choices will allow you to put your own personal stamp on this most memorable occasion. Let's run down some of your options:


You may draw the line at Pachelbel, but that leaves you thousands of other choices. If you're worried about being predictable, think about this: What many folks think of as classical music covers a range of hundreds of years, from Monteverdi's stunning 16th-century harmonies to Gershwin's 20th-century "Rhapsody in Blue." That's a lot of territory.

And in terms of formality, you can work it however you like, from one musician plucking an acoustic guitar to an octet dressed in its finest and delivering some stunning Schubert. The best way to figure out what you want is to simply start listening. Take yourself over to the library and check out as many CDs as you can carry. Or call some local musicians and ask them for some advice; if you explain why you're asking they should be very happy to talk to you. Musicians can be "the best source for the couple," affirms wedding consultant Laura Bauer of Elegant Events Ltd., in Boca Raton, FL, and the Hamptons.


Jazz is another traditional wedding option that offers an exciting (and dizzying) array of possibilities for your wedding. Again, you can have a vocalist, a single musician, or a jazz combo of almost any size that you deem appropriate for your venue. For a New Orleans-party mood, there's Dixieland jazz, great for hitting that Big Easy vibe. The same quartet can play the processional and recessional, a lovely hymn during the ceremony, and toe-tapping tunes at the cocktail hour.

Jazz vocals are delightful, and range from Cole Porter confections such as "You Do Something to Me" to Billie Holiday's rendition of "They Can't Take that Away from Me".


Swing is nothing but fun. Whether you're swaying down the aisle to Ella Fitzgerald's light and breezy notes or kicking up your heels at a red-hot reception, swing is a great sound to start a new life by. And it's nothing if not hip. The genre has made a comeback recently, with bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers causing sweet young things to kick up their heels in droves, and since it's a classic style, the older guests should enjoy the show as well.

You may even want to consider contacting a dance school to hire an instructor who could show guests the basics of cutting a rug, swing-style. Larry Schulz of Sandra Cameron Dance Studio, in New York City notes that "a lot of people can find it intimidating to get on the dance floor, so having a teacher there to teach some basic steps is a good way to get people involved."

A Cappella

This literally means "in the chapel style," but what it practically means is without instrumental accompaniment, and it can apply to groups that range from barbershop quartets to madrigal singers. It may seem silly at first blush, but a barbershop quartet could be a marvelously entertaining way to pass the cocktail hour.

If you're having your ceremony outdoors, perhaps in some kind of woodsy location, then madrigal singers would be a perfect way to welcome the guests, enhance your ceremony, and dress up the recessional. And if you want simple, unadorned beauty during the ceremony, you could hire a duet to sing a medieval tune. Sometimes there's nothing quite as ethereal as the sound of the human voice.

Folk, Bluegrass, and Country

If "formal" means "stuffy" to you, consider setting a more rootsy tone with country, folk, or bluegrass. All of these musical forms adapt well; they can be as serious as you like for the ceremony and then make the party when it's time for the reception. If you think "beautiful bluegrass" sounds like an oxymoron, give a listen to the soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which has haunting selections from Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and many others.

And if you have the kind of crowd you think will go for it, consider contra dancing for your reception. This is a lot like old time square dancing. The band plays reels and jigs and has a caller, who explains the dances before they start and then leads the guests through the dances as the band plays. By the end of the evening, everyone ends up dancing with everyone else. Not for the faint of heart, but what a memorable party!

Need even more ideas for creative live music? Try something none of your friends has done when you branch out from the standard R&B wedding sound that can seem so mass-produced. Give a listen to some of the musical genres listed here, and then choose some tunes for your wedding—the ceremony, cocktail hour, or reception—that you know your guests won't hear anywhere else.


For romance, pure and simple, you can't beat Samba. When it's cocktail time and you want to hit just the right mood of celebratory and sexy (hey, it's a wedding!), this Afro-Brazilian sound is the way to go. Samba ranges from ballads murmured softly over a guitar, to horns blaring and vocalist belting. And it's all in Portuguese, a language that always seems to sound like it's talking about love.
Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto, composers who emerged in the middle of the 20th century, are the best-known names of this sound—think "Girl from Ipanema." But Samba is a vibrant form that's enjoyed a revival since cocktail culture came around again in the late '90s. Finding a samba band should be a piece of cake.


Who knew the clarinet could rock? Klezmer fans, that's who. Kind of like swing dancing, kind of like American Jewish roots music, Klezmer is a traditional musical form that's thoroughly up to date. Bands with names like the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars and Garlic and Onions, though they have their origins in Eastern European villages, are all about getting people on the floor and shaking it. Imagine horns, accordion, guitar, drums, clarinet, and whatever else wants to come along, all on stage together and rocking the house, and you have an idea of what Klezmer is.

And it's not just for the reception. Jessica Millstone, 29, of Manhattan, reports that at her Jewish wedding, "After we broke the glass, the Klezmers kicked up some accordion and clarinet, and escorted us back down the aisle." The band then wailed past the midnight hour while the guests had the time of their lives.

New Age

You might associate New Age with a crystals and astrology, but in fact, the genre encompasses a huge range of sounds, all intended to evoke an emotional response in the listener. New Age music won't work for dancing, but it can be a stunning accompaniment to a unique wedding setting.

Imagine an outdoor wedding with your guests being seated to the sounds of wind chimes. Or picture a candlelit sanctuary, where you and your groom process out accompanied by the bright, haunting sound of a pan flute. Waves crash and birds twitter. Monks chant as bells peal. A piano plays along to the sounds of the wind. New Age is all about mood, and it's perfect for hitting a meditative feel.


Sand, sun, soft winds—when you want to evoke the islands, reggae and calypso are the way to go. For summer weddings on lakeshores, or winter weddings with vibrant color schemes, you can't beat that carefree vibe. Think steel drums and a thumping bass, with lively vocals. Reggae and calypso songs range from gentle to booty-shakin', and can easily move from the ceremony to the reception.

The best part about reggae is that while it's a little different from your usual wedding band sound, it's tough to find people who don't like it. Reggae bands are also known for adapting song standards to their distinctive style, notes New York musician Stuart Vance. "It'd be great to hear a reggae 'Hava Nagila.'"

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