Strike the Right Note

Your ceremony and reception music sets a tone for your entire wedding. Keep these pointers in mind.

Event planners, brides, grooms, and musicians themselves agree: There’s no underestimating the importance of music at your wedding. “The music sets the tone for everything,” says Joanne Sabato of Joi Us Events in Mount Kisco. “I think it’s even more important than the décor, and believe me, I think the décor is important!”

A wedding tells a story, she says, and the music takes you through the story. It helps convey the emotion of the event. “Just imagine a movie without any music,” she says.

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Carefully choosing what kind of music you’ll have  during your ceremony, cocktail hour, and reception is vital, and Sabato sees Westchester couples putting tremendous effort into these decisions. As she sees it, the ceremony music conveys a sense of sacredness, followed by a feeling of joy during the cocktail hour, and finally a full-blown celebration for the reception. Throughout, the music unites the bride and groom—and unites them with their guests. “The music helps us reconnect to those feelings we have inside us that the bride and groom are experiencing that day,” Sabato says.

But, with countless choices, where should a couple begin? “The music should hit the strings of your soul,” Sabato says. Here are some dos and don’ts to guide you as you make your selections.


DON’T wait until two months before your wedding to start looking for entertainment. The best musicians book well in advance, so plan to choose and book your musicians at least six months before the wedding. Event planners often discuss music in their first meeting with a couple.

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DO determine your budget before you start looking for a band or DJ—and, when possible, go for quality. Music is like anything else: you get what you pay for. If you hire an amateur band, everyone will know immediately. Prices for music cover a broad range: Expect to pay $300 per hour and up for a soloist; $1,500 to $20,000 and up for a band (depending on size, experience, and reputation) for a four-hour engagement; and $1,500 to $3,000 and up for a DJ, depending on the package and extras.

DO have an idea of what you want—and don’t want—before you talk to prospective musicians or agencies. For instance, while you may not be sure whether you want a rock band or a jazz ensemble, you may know that synthesizers make your skin crawl and gold lamé and mullets give you the heebie-jeebies. Discuss this with your event planner or music agency.


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DON’T be restricted by traditions or trends. Unless there are religious, ethnic, legal, financial, or other restrictions, if you can dream it, you can do it. You’ve always envisioned a stately, formal ceremony but you love salsa music? Why not have a classical trio or harpist for your ceremony and a salsa band for the reception? So what if it doesn’t “match?”


DO be realistic. You can dream big, but the size of the band and the type of instruments (acoustic, electric, or both) need to be appropriate for the venue. You may have your heart set on a 10-piece funk band, but the stage may only be able to accommodate a trio. A pro will tell you it won’t work and help you find a reasonable alternative.

DO get referrals. References provided by a band and testimonials on a band’s website are nice, but nothing beats word-of-mouth recommendations. Ask friends, neighbors, and colleagues which bands they liked (or didn’t like) and why.


DON’T rely on audio demos or sound bites. If you can’t see and hear a band live, at least get a demo that includes audio and video footage of the band and the guests at a wedding or similar celebration. An edited selection of the band’s best moments doesn’t necessarily represent the quality of its entire performance. In addition, seeing a video or hearing a CD of a band—even a good band—without seeing the audience tells you nothing about the musicians’ charisma, rapport with a crowd, or ability to keep a party going and the dance floor filled.


Once you make your choice, DO provide a playlist—and, even more important, a “don’t play” list. “Indicate all the songs that make your skin crawl, and instruct the band or DJ not to play them even if they’re requested,” says Sabato of Joi Us Events. 


DO take your inspiration from all over, especially when choosing your ceremony music. Your event planner may be able to provide you with a CD of potential songs to get you thinking, as Sabato does.  Numerous websites also give ideas for wedding music. “Or you may hear beautiful music when watching an old movie together and want to use that,” Sabato says. She’s a particular fan of using opera music during ceremonies. “The melodies are so intense and romantic,” she says.


DON’T forget the lighting. Bands and DJs don’t work in the dark. They do, however, work under harsh fluorescent lights or in romantic candlelight (read: they can’t see what they’re doing and neither can you). Make sure you know what kind of lighting is available from the venue, what—if any—is supplied by your musicians or DJ, and what you need to do (and pay) to alter or add to it. “Ambient lighting is very, very big now,” says Sergio Michilli, better known regionally as DJ Serg, one of the area’s best-known DJs. “Coordinated lighting, lights that change colors—that’s the latest trend. Lights all around the room, every seven to ten feet, are also popular.” The price for being a trendsetter: $1,500 to $3,000 and up.


DO get a contract, and make sure you agree with all the provisions before signing it. Make sure emergencies are covered. (What happens if the band’s van breaks down or the band gets stuck in traffic? What happens if the hotel burns down the day before the wedding?) Also, make sure you understand what’s included in your fee—and that it’s clearly outlined in the contract. Many entertainers offer “packages” of services from bare bones (sound and lights for the stage and dance floor) to all the bells and whistles (ambient or synchronized lighting, multiple plasma TVs with live feeds of the activities and/or photo montages).


DO map out the ceremony, cocktail hour, and reception timeline in advance, and determine the music accordingly. You may have a soloist for the ceremony, a jazz trio for the cocktail hour, and a rock band for the reception—don’t take it for granted that they all know when to enter and exit and how to do so gracefully. Likewise, if you have more than one entertainer booked—especially if different sound systems or stage plots are required—be sure each performer can set up and break down as seamlessly as possible (and preferably, out of full view of the guests).


DON’T assume anything. Ask questions—and get answers. Don’t be embarrassed to raise seemingly silly questions, like “Do you take credit cards?” Some bands don’t.


Carol Caffin, the magazine’s chief copy editor, has 20 years’ experience in the music business, in which she worked for national touring bands and numerous record labels.



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