"Live music is not comparable to a playlist on speakers or even a DJ. You have something to look at—not just listen to—to engage more of your senses,” shares Stan Nikolov, a violinist and the founder of SPN Events. Thinking about music beyond the party aspect of your wedding is something experts highly recommend. “The moment your guests walk in the door there should be music. It’s a huge component of a celebration and has the power to change your mood and greatly impact the experience,” says Fallon Carter of Fallon Carter Events.
Whether it’s a string quartet for the ceremony or a live jazz band for the cocktail hour, there are many ways to evoke a certain mood through music on your big day (or even the whole weekend). Ahead, we talk to experts to help you determine when you will want to incorporate musicians into your wedding timeline, how to find the right vendors to hire, and what to budget for the experience.
Meet the Expert
- Stan Nikolov is a violinist and the founder of SPN Events, which books live wedding music with ceremonies and cocktail hours as the specialty.
- Wedding planner Fallon Carter is the founder and creative director of Fallon Carter Events.
- Keanna O’Quinn is a singer and the founder of Honey & Vinyl and Sonic Sommelier.
Live Music During the Rehearsal Dinner, Ceremony, and Cocktail Hour
Outside of the reception, there are three other main events that can benefit from having live music: the rehearsal dinner, ceremony, and cocktail. That’s not to say you must have live music during all three (budget is important), but hiring musicians for at least one of these times can make all the difference in your guests’ experience. For Keanna O’Quinn, singer and founder of Honey & Vinyl and Sonic Sommelier—a “white glove music curation and sound service” that helps create a musical journey for events based on the relationship between music, mood, food, and more—choosing your music is less about the genre, and more about how you want people to feel. Decide how you want people to connect during a particular event, she says. For example, if it’s through conversation at the rehearsal dinner or cocktail hour, for example, it could be great to hire an instrumental musician. If you’d like for people to connect through the music, you might consider a band that can play songs everyone can sing along to.
“In 2017, I would have said, ‘For the ceremony, it should be instrumental and strings,’ but now it's not always my recommendation,” O'Quinn shares. “Any type of music can be played for any type of event.” That being said, she does gravitate towards two types of music for weddings: jazz and soul. “Soul because it's undeniably feeling-inducing. You can't help but to feel something, the instrumentation, the lyrics, the vocals—it tugs at the soul the way it was intended to,” she says. “And jazz, you don't have the opportunity to get bored with it. There’s so much room for the musician to be creative. These two genres are interesting enough to keep the energy at a nice even pace.”
For some guidance, here’s some expert advice to keep in mind when choosing love music for each of the above-mentioned wedding events.
“I literally remember the day I had this little switch go off,” tells O’Quinn. “I was on stage with the band performing at a celebrity rehearsal dinner and the band leader kept calling for songs that didn't make sense like dance music when the guests were having cocktails. I was noticing guests were inching close together to be able to hear one another; for me, that's a clear indication the music was too loud and didn't match the moment.”
That was what inspired her to create Honey & Vinyl, and it’s a good lesson in choosing music for the rehearsal dinner. This is when many people from the couple’s family and friends are meeting for the first time. You want them to be able to chat easily and get to know one another. At the same time, we all know small talk can get a little stale and awkward, so O’Quinn advises having a mix of instrumental and familiar songs that people can bond over by singing along or sharing their connection to the song. “I know the power of music and how it can be used intentionally,” she says. “It’s about creating an ambience of comfortability and connection with recognizable songs.”
Nikolov says not only is the ceremony the most popular wedding event for live music, but string quartets (or trios and duos) are the most popular musicians booked. Carter notes, “I’m a classic girl. I love a string quartet and piano—orchestra style." Acoustic guitar and piano are also popular options. Recent bride Jacki Maynard opted for strings during her outdoor ceremony. “I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of having piped music or Spotify playing while I walked down the aisle, and wanted something a bit more bespoke. Our wedding was outside on a beautiful farm and I thought a string quartet would add to the romance,” she shares.
She had the quartet play their own selection of classical music throughout the 90 minutes they performed, except for when she walked down the aisle. For that moment, she asked them to play “Horse to Water” by Tall Heights, a song that means a lot to her and her husband. “It was really special for us to have an instrumental version of that song for my walk down the aisle and I’ll never forget it,” she says.
Requests for string renditions of contemporary songs is what Nikolov sees most from couples; he estimates that over the past 10 years about 99 percent of clients ask for it. If a couple does opt for classical music, it’s typically "Canon" in D or the "Wedding March."
As O’Quinn says, the cocktail hour sets the tone for the rest of the evening, and there are tons of ways to do live music during this time. The first thing to do, she advises, is to decide on the tone of the cocktail hour: Should it be fun and upbeat, a singer/songwriter vibe, or a jazzy speakeasy? Carter even suggests transferring the string quartet or acoustic music from the ceremony to the cocktail hour, but adding a little more energy with horns, for example. O’Quinn experienced a unique cocktail hour at a wedding in Mexico: a dancing cocktail hour. “For them, they loved soul music so we did soulful hits and they floated across the dance floor for an hour before dinner,” she says. “It was a beautiful experience. When couples decide to step out of the box and get creative makes for a memorable experience.”
One thing to keep in mind, says Carter, is transition time. Guests will be moving from the cocktail hour to a seated dinner, so she advises not to get people’s hearts pumping too much as they will need to soon be seated and listen to speeches. Speaking of transition times, they are not to be ignored. “Live music impacts your entire mood, along with cuisine, lighting, textures. It’s one of your senses and should be treated as such. Music should be heard at all times,” says Carter. “[As you’re] moving to a new room, add transition music. If you have a DJ in the reception and a band at cocktail hour, the band should not stop playing until it’s empty and the DJ should have music on already.”
How to Find Musicians for Additional Events
Maynard simply used Google to find her musicians, and Nikolov says that’s a great way to go. He trusts Google reviews, and recommends reading them thoroughly and watching lots of videos before choosing. SPN Events books full-time professional musicians, but he says there are a lot of musicians out there who do this on the side and have full-time jobs. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he says it can lead to more cancellations.
Carter also suggests asking your wedding planner or even poll friends whose taste you trust if they have heard anyone good at a wedding lately. A lot of times, adds Nikolov, people will hear musicians at someone else’s wedding and then seek them out for their own.
How Much Do Musicians Cost?
Live music for ceremonies and cocktail hours is often a more affordable alternative to having a live band for your entire reception. As a ballpark figure, Carter suggests holding about $3,500 of your budget for live music. But, it all depends on what you want, how long they play for, how professional they are, and how elaborate the music will be. She has seen musician budgets range from $1,500 to $7,500. At SPN Events, prices range from $1,600 to $3,000, and booking should be done nine months to a year in advance, if possible.
To get the best price, Nikolov advises getting quotes from three different vendors and choosing the middle price. “Usually the median price is the best. Most expensive doesn't necessarily mean the best,” he says.
Do I Need to Hire a Sound Tech?
Another element to consider when having live music is sound—meaning the speakers and technology to adjust frequency and levels. Carter highly suggests doing sound and light checks ahead of time and finding out if your musicians do their own sound or if you will have to hire an outside company. She suggests having a sound tech on hand for the whole event to tweak volume etc. “Music can make or break your event. If everyone is ready to dance and the DJ has no power, that is my worst fear,” she says.
Sound techs are usually just necessary for the reception and cocktail hour, during which the music will have or be adjusted for conversation, speeches, and dancing. For a ceremony with simple acoustic music, Nikolov says sound is not usually necessary.
Support Your Musicians
Carter reminds couples to provide their musicians with what they need, from vendor meals and water bottles to greenrooms for outfit changes and lighting. “Make the presentation look pronounced and visible so they are seen and look like the artists that they are,” she says. Great experiences at weddings is what keeps event musicians doing what they do—and loving it.
“I've been performing for almost 20 years—a new venue every day,” says Nikolov. “We enjoy playing the music and when people say, ‘Thank you’ at the end and recognize the song and felt good about it, that's what we care about.” O’Quinn echoes the sentiment. “I feel it's the ultimate compliment to be invited to someone's wedding and to orchestrate the rhythm of how people move into the next chapter of their lives,” she says. “I’m able to create the soundtrack to so many love stories.”