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Your Guide to Curating the Ultimate Reception Playlist

Here's everything you need to know about creating a must-play and do-not-play list for your DJ and/or band.

Think back to some of the most memorable times you've had at a wedding. Many, if not all, probably include a "hold my drink" situation and a sprint to the dance floor once you realize that one of your favorite songs is playing. You know, the time you heard that song begin and—makeup and blowout be damned—the dance floor becomes your stage. "Music at a wedding is so important because it completely sets the tone of the day," shares Chloe Weise Donovan, vice president of A&R at RCA Records. "Whether it’s welcome music that reflects the overall vibe you’re hoping to achieve, that special first dance song that speaks to the core of your relationship, or the perfect party-starting anthems to kick off your reception, the music you choose will shape your guest's experience and spark memories for a lifetime to come."

a bride dancing

Photo by Olivia Rae James / Design by Tiana Crispino

Since there are millions of songs out in the world today, every couple’s wedding soundtrack will—and should!—be different. What remains the same, though, is the way that soundtrack is organized and pieced together. Donovan says, "When formulating your dream wedding playlist with your DJ, it is important to define the overall vibe you’re trying to bring to your wedding, and the musical journey you’ll be taking your guests on to build up the energy throughout the event." While your big-day musicians are professionals and adept at reading a room, most bands and DJs will ask the couple to provide a list of songs they love and absolutely hate ahead of the wedding—these are generally referred to as must-play and do-not-play lists. Though the band or DJ will ultimately rely on their expertise and make adjustments based on how the crowd reacts, these lists ensure you hear the songs you really want and don't hear the ones you can't stand.

Ahead Donovan shares everything you need to know when curating a well-rounded reception playlist. Follow these steps to ensure your DJ and/or band knows what to play and what to skip once it's time to party.

How to Create a Must-Play List

To create a must-play list, think about the songs that you and your partner love most. To do this, Donovan recommends looking to past memories in order to get your musical ideas flowing. "While your first dance feels like a one-of-one moment to showcase your love, what other key musical memories have you shared together throughout your relationship?" she asks.

Outside of your spouse-to-be, finding songs that are memorable between you and your friends is another great way to curate a well-rounded playlist. "Perhaps it’s a Miley Cyrus song your girlfriends used to sing along to in your sorority days or the Daft Punk record that expanded your high school friends' musical taste. Each song allows you to share a specialized celebratory moment with a different group of guests throughout the event," says Donovan.

There are so many ways to create a memorable must-play list, and once you've tapped into your musical memories, the next step is to write it all down. Any time a song pops into your head, or you hear something on the radio, quickly save it to your phone. That way, you'll remember every track you want to share with your band and/or DJ prior to the big day.

How to Create a Do-Not-Play List

Your do-not-play list is arguably more important than your must-play list. If a song holds a negative memory, you should immediately add it to your do-not-play list. Also, if there’s a track that’s going to upset someone at your wedding or a record with a lot of profanity, it's probably best to add it to this list, too. "Maybe Pitbull is just not your bag or you’ve heard that 'Party Rock Anthem' one too many times? Music at a wedding is supposed to uplift, not annoy you or make you sad," notes Donovan. "Similarly, if you have strong opinions about a musician’s personal choices and don’t want to spark a debate on morality versus art, perhaps tonight is not the one to play 'Gold Digger.'"

guests dancing at a wedding reception

Photos by Zoe with The Foxes Photography (left); Jacob Van Rozelaar (right) / Design by Tiana Crispino

Tips for Song Selection and List Size

It's reported that 10 percent of your music should consist of slow dance songs to give guests a break, and your playlist should embrace a variety of genres that appeal to different types of groups. To help you craft a list that will help your band or DJ play the right music for your crowd, here are three tips to keep in mind as you make your selections.

Don't Overdo It

You hired a band or a DJ for a reason: to provide the music on the big day. It's their job to read the room and make sure everyone is excited to get on the dance floor, and they likely have years of experience doing just that. A must-play or do-not-play list that's too long inhibits their ability to use their natural talents, so don't overdue it. As a good rule of thumb, remember that you're not outlining the entire reception set; instead, you're handing over a list of just your most favorite songs and another of the tunes you would hate to hear on your wedding day.

On the other hand, you also don't want to underdo it, either: If there are 50 songs you really don't want to hear on the wedding day, don't cull that list down. Your musicians want you to be happy, and having all of the information about your preferences as an important part of that process.

Embrace the Crossover

Pop. Country. Rock. Hip-hop. What do these genres have in common (besides a hit song featuring Nelly)? They can all feel at home on a reception playlist. Music is multigenerational and can speak to a variety of crowds from totally different backgrounds and ages. Meaning, embrace the crossover of genres, and be sure to play songs that you love mixed with tunes that will resonate with your group of guests. So don't be afraid to put Olivia Rodrigo, Notorious B.I.G., and Dolly Parton in a room together.

Cater to Everyone

Your guest list is made up of people from multiple generations, so it's crucial that your musical selections appeal to everyone. "While you want to include the music that is most important to you throughout the pivotal moments of the event, you also want to make sure you have something for everyone, so all of your guests can feel like a part of the experience as the party takes off," shares Donovan. You can even poll guests on what songs they’d like to hear beforehand or include a song suggestion space on the RSVP card.

"Whether it’s your mom’s favorite crooner from Frank Sinatra, your friend’s love of West Coast hip-hop, or your cousin’s obsession with the Spice Girls, an eclectic playlist can break up the monotony of the event and bring all of your guests to their feet!" Donovan notes.

bride and guests dancing at wedding reception

Photos by People Photography (left); Paula Jackson (right) / Design by Tiana Crispino

50 Songs to Add to Your Playlist

By now, we're sure you've noticed that curating the perfect reception playlist is something of an art form. It takes taste, grace, and patience, but ultimately, it's worth the effort. "One of the key signs of a great wedding is when you hear someone scream 'wow, that’s my song!', and suddenly you see all your loved ones living it up on the dance floor," shares Donovan.

For those who are ready to get started on their must-play list, we've got you covered. Featuring some of the cheesiest music known to the world, along with some sing-along songs, here are a few tracks perfect for any playlist. Read it. Copy it. Use it.  

Beloved Dance Songs 

When the formalities are out of the way, you’ll need to make sure your celebration starts with a bang. So, what better way to get your guests to the dance than with some universally beloved songs? Here are a few tracks to help you effortlessly kick off the night.

  1. “The Grease Megamix,” by John Travolta featuring Olivia Newton-John
  2. “I Want You Back,” by The Jackson 5 
  3. “Twist and Shout,” by The Beatles 
  4. “Dancing Queen,” by ABBA 
  5. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” by Whitney Houston 
  6. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” by Beyoncé
  7. “Cha Cha Slide,” by DJ Casper
  8. “Y.M.C.A.,” by the Village People 
  9. “Macarena,” by Los Del Río
  10. “Footloose,” by Kenny Loggins

Rock Classics 

Ready to rock? This section is dedicated to classic rock tunes known around the world, and tracks that are certain to liven things up. Trust us!

  1. “Bat Out of Hell,” by Meat Loaf 
  2. "Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” by Queen 
  3. “Close to Me,” by The Cure
  4. “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
  5. “More Than a Feeling,” by Boston
  6. “Walk This Way,” by Run-DMC featuring Aerosmith 
  7. “Brown Eyed Girl,” by Van Morrison
  8. “Sweet Child O' Mine,” by Guns N’ Roses 
  9. “Magic Carpet Ride,” by Steppenwolf
  10. “Livin’ on a Prayer,” by Bon Jovi

'90s and '00s Pop Tunes 

Next, let’s take a trip down memory lane using the magic of music. It’s an undisputed fact that the 1990s and 2000s were the golden years of pop, and these tunes will absolutely bring up feelings of nostalgia.

  1. “Hot in Herre,” by Nelly
  2. “Bye Bye Bye,” by NSYNC
  3. “TiK ToK,” by Kesha
  4. “Hey Ya!,” by OutKast
  5. “All Star,” by Smash Mouth
  6. “Thong Song,” by Sisqó
  7. “Oops!…I Did It Again,” by Britney Spears
  8. “Umbrella,” by Rihanna
  9. "Say My Name,” by Destiny’s Child 
  10. “Hollaback Girl,” by Gwen Stefani

Sing-Along Songs 

As the evening hits its climax, your guests will likely be ready to bust out their best vocals, which is the perfect time to switch to your favorite sing-along tunes. We’re talking tracks that everyone knows by heart, like“Sweet Caroline” and “Red Red Wine.”

  1. “Sweet Caroline,” by Neil Diamond 
  2. “Don't Stop Believin',” by Journey
  3. "Poker Face," by Lady Gaga
  4. "Family Affair," by Mary J. Blige
  5. “Yeah!," by Usher
  6. “Crazy In Love," by Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z
  7. “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
  8. “American Pie,” by Don McLean
  9. “Red Red Wine,” by UB40
  10. “New York, New York,” by Frank Sinatra​

Romantic Slow Songs 

Before the night is out, wind things down with a few romantic slow songs. After all, this event is all about love. The following records are ideal for first dances, but you can also sprinkle them throughout your wedding playlist.

  1. “Unchained Melody,” by The Righteous Brothers
  2. “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” by Aerosmith
  3. “You’re Beautiful,” by James Blunt
  4. “Thinking Out Loud," by Ed Sheeran
  5. "Let's Get Married," by Jagged Edge
  6. "My First Love," by Avant featuring Keke Wyatt
  7. “Your Song,” by Elton John
  8. "You're Still the One," by Shania Twain
  9. "Halo,” by Beyoncé
  10. "Make You Feel My Love," by Adele

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