How To Pick Your Wedding Playlist

Whether it's a personal expression of self, or just background music

When we started planning our wedding, one of the first decisions my husband and I made was to handle the music ourselves via our trusty iPods. Music is integral to both of our identities, something we’ve always shared—we were writing, exchanging mixes, and going to concerts together long before we realized we were something more than friends—and we wanted to extend that to our wedding. The key word that we both seized on when describing the music for this important night was “personal”; the unspoken expectation was that the right combination of the right songs, through some kind of alchemy of sentiment and aesthetic, would converge into a perfect expression of ourselves and our relationship, infusing each moment with meaning, like the best movie soundtrack of all time.

We assumed that the playlist project would be one of “the fun parts” of wedding planning, something we could do to relax in between all the horrible, stressful bits we’d been told to expect. As it turned out, our strong feelings about music made the whole process surprisingly fraught—in fact, the playlist was the only aspect of wedding planning that actually ended up causing stress and friction for us. As much as we thought it should all have come together easily, magically, we kept finding ourselves baffled by each other’s choices and increasingly defensive about our own.

What helped, finally, was sitting down and actually talking through what we were trying to accomplish. We realized that we had been approaching this project with two very different definitions of what “personal” meant to us: I was racking my brains for songs with lyrics that best represented my hopes for how our wedding and our marriage would feel, while he was focused on songs he associated with memories of moments in our history. With this context, we were able to understand each other’s choices and agree on a few strategies that would work for us both.

Start early. For all but the most decisive (or most laid-back—if you put your playlist on Shuffle and called it a day, please teach me your ways!), it will be incredibly difficult to narrow down your choices and get them into an order that flows the way you want it to. One of our overarching principles for wedding planning in general was that we didn’t want to be doing anything in the last few weeks unless it absolutely couldn’t be done beforehand. Starting the playlist four or five months out was about right for us—it let us tinker with it sporadically, coming back with fresh ears after leaving it alone for a while, and gave us the space to scrap and start over without worrying that we would be up at 3am the night before our wedding arguing over how many slow songs is too many.

Start with what you know. We agreed immediately on a few songs that we couldn’t imagine not including. There was only one possible first dance for us, and we also knew very early on what song we wanted playing as we walked back up the aisle. Having these and various other must-haves picked out gave us a skeleton to build on; we could plan out where these songs would fall and think of what should lead into and follow them. Filling in the gaps felt a lot less daunting than “Five hours of music, GO!”

Start with your existing music collection. In my determination to find All The Perfect Songs, I had initially spent most of my time googling recommendations, thinking that I could just cull the best of the best. Simple! Except, the best is a lot more subjective than I wanted it to be. I kept catching myself wrinkling my nose partway through every “mood-setting dinner music” or “romantic slow dances” list. We ended up just scrolling through our iTunes, pulling every song that appealed to us. We reasoned that, although we obviously don’t own every song in the world—or even every good song in the world—the music we had already collected was what spoke to us the most.

Break it up. Although we continued to refer to The Playlist as a single unit, we were really working on several lists; realizing this freed us to approach each one with a different goal in mind. For us, this looked like:

  • Pre-ceremony: This was a short set of songs to play while guests entered and took their seats. We wanted this list to feel very “us,” and also to set the tone for the evening, so we filled it with favorites that weren’t necessarily familiar to our families but would sound simple and sweet.
  • The aisle: For logistical reasons covered excellently in previous articles, this song was a playlist on its own. We had a terrible time choosing it, but thankfully it didn’t really have to fit in seamlessly with the rest of the evening’s music since it’s so tied to the particular moment.
  • Cocktail hour: Our ceremony and reception were held in a single space, so the recessional led straight into cocktails and socializing. Taking the tone from our recessional (and from our expectations of how we’d be feeling at the time), we chose fast, upbeat, celebratory songs—ones that made us want to throw our hands in the air but wouldn’t quite work on the dance floor.
  • Dinner: All the milder stuff went here. We wanted a more relaxing feel while everyone ate and talked, and didn’t want the transition to our (slow) first dance song to feel jarring.
  • Dance party: This was definitely the hardest part. This playlist required some stretching of our “personal” principle because, as mentioned on APW before, one of the most effective ways to get people dancing is to play what they know, and I surprised myself by realizing partway along that I really, really wanted people to dance at my wedding.

Ask for suggestions, but don’t be afraid to ignore them. Like many couples, we did some crowdsourcing: we included a line on our RSVP cards that read, “I promise to dance if you play…” and fully intended to work in every request we received. These good intentions went out the window after “November Rain” and “Pop That” showed up in our mailbox. We ended up including quite a few songs that we might not have chosen ourselves, or found challenging to fit into a coherent whole, and it was so rewarding to see people exclaim “This is my song!” throughout the night as a result. But y’all, there is a line somewhere, and songs over eight minutes long or containing the immortal lyric “On my Proactiv shit, pop that pussy like a zit” were where we drew it for our wedding.

Don’t be afraid to break your own rules, either. We included my in-laws’ request, “Hey Jude,” in our dance playlist, and yep, it cleared the dance floor. But seeing them swaying blissfully, alone and completely oblivious to the world around them, is a memory we’ll both treasure forever.

Nobody cares about the playlist as much as you do. As important as music is to us, thinking back to the weddings we’ve been to over the years we remember very few of the specific songs that were played—even for iconic moments like first dances. The songs that do stick in our minds don’t tend to be the coolest, the most gushingly romantic, or even the ones we like the best; they’re the songs that were playing when we looked over and realized the bride’s dad had happy tears streaming down his face, or when the newlyweds started shouting along, bouncing in each other’s arms, murdering all the lyrics and laughing so hard. Choosing the playlist for your wedding can be an incredibly personal expression of self—of history, meaning, aesthetic—but in the end it’s really just background music. It’s the wedding that infuses the soundtrack with meaning, not the other way around.

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  • Alyssa M

    We’ve just started brainstorming, and even though music is just gonna be playing low in the background we don’t even know where to start. My partner called me over last night to say the Pandora Beck station was perfect and we might as well just put that on. I may have looked at him like he was nuts. I think it’s time for a breakdown of different playlists we need!

    • Maggie

      Well, the Pandora Beck station is basically perfect.

  • Anonon

    I’m starting to get really apprehensive about the DIY playlist. I managed to barely convince the FH that this was the way to go. I’ve been to soo many weddings where the DJ played bad music, or went away from the list given – it isn’t worth the money for me.

    We have tons of music already, as he has constantly played in bands and so we will have local songs that the crowd will know (find a DJ that will do that!) and I like to think that with crowd sourcing we will fill any gaps. So I’m somewhat confident in the music choices.

    The problem? Because the FH is in a band, he has a high standard for music. He is worried about the sound quality that the ipod + our bands sound system will put out. He is worried about someone playing with it or it dying or the million other things that can go wrong.

    So basically, this is my idea, and if it fails then I will be so guilty for running the whole night. So now I’m doubting myself and pricing out DJs (so expensive!! when we have the PA equipment, and songs, and ability to do it all!)

    • Jessica Nelson

      Is your FH the lead singer in the band? If not, do you trust the guy/girl who is? My dad’s band is going to be playing at our reception, but since they’re more of a pop-country band AND so that my dad can enjoy some parts of the reception, we’re going to have them take long-ish breaks and play some iPod tracks during the breaks. We’ll just plug the iPod into their sound system, but we’re going to have the lead guitarist of the band also be our DJ/emcee/guy with a mike and control of the music. My dad was also initially nervous about it and was trying to look for a DJ who would be OK with working with a live band as well…not very plausible. He felt a lot better about it once we decided to put control of the music, whether live or pre-recorded, in the lead guitarist’s hands.

  • Violet

    This is an amazingly helpful post! I used APW’s iPod playlist technique for our wedding, and I can’t agree with you here more, Liz. From it taking way longer than we anticipated, to in the end “Pokerface” being the hit song of the night ’cause my mom flung off her shoes and rocked it. My tips would be:

    – I used iTunes settings to shorten every song by like, at least the last chorus, and then crossfaded from one song to the next. And I cut out long intros to songs as well. People get bored from one song easily, so if you want them dancing, give them a taste, let them get into it, then transition away. (And I second advice from before about playing popular songs. I played a few semi-obscure songs that I personally really loved, but if you want them on the floor, you gotta play what they know.)

    – I also rated songs on iTunes using stars to denote the pace of the song (1 star for slow, 5 for fast). That way as we arranged the songs I could look for the rises and falls of the evening visually.

    – We put waaaaaay more songs on there than we’d ever get through, just in case.

  • Molly P

    I’m 3 months away from our wedding and have only just started compiling the playlist. I hope that’s early enough… this post came at just the right time.

    More than the songlist, I’m kind of worrying about who is going to man the iPod during the ceremony/reception. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. Maybe I’ll just have a musicless ceremony. Is that weird?

    • Jess

      Your wedding is not an imposition! If you want music, have someone hit play and stop and next when they are supposed to. Teenage cousin that would probably be bored anyway? Someone in the wedding party has a plus one that you know a little but aren’t close to? Awesome, problem solved. Not only are you not inconveniencing them, you are supplying them with something to do!

      But, if you really just don’t want music during your ceremony, then you don’t have to have it.

      • Molly P

        It’s not that I don’t want music necessarily. We weren’t planning on having the ceremony the day of the reception until like a week ago (we were going to go to the courthouse) so now I’m trying to figure out logistics… Fun times. :) still not having a bridal party so maybe one of my good friends can help me. :)

        • Jess

          There ya go! I’m sure a friend would love to help. Fun times indeed – definitely a change from the original version of the wedding. Good luck!

    • lady brett

      you’re not inconveniencing someone; you’re letting people who love you help you out. but if that’s not your thing…do you know a high school or college kid or friend of a friend who would want to make a few bucks to man the ipod? you probably only need it manned at all for the ceremony and the start of reception so the first dance or other planned songs get played at the right time – once you’re into the dance party part, you can just let it play.

      (p.s. 3 months ahead is a way better time to realize someone needs to man the ipod…i, um, didn’t put that together ’till the rehearsal…ahem. thanks, friend who stepped up then!)

      • Molly P

        I probably do have a little cousin who would be willing to help me out, now I think about it. Thanks!

    • emilyg25

      While I agree that you’re not inconveniencing anyone, we had a musicless ceremony and it was fine. We just didn’t want to deal with the logistics of getting music in our ceremony area. It helped that our processional was just us and we didn’t really have a recessional, but even if you had more of that stuff, I still think it’d be fine.

      The only other thing is that we didn’t have an officiant either, so without any warning, musical or verbal, our guests didn’t know we were walking down the aisle at first. That was fine by me (couldn’t handle the attention!), but you might want to figure out a way to give folks a heads up.

      • Molly P

        That is a good point. I’ll try to think it over and see, because I don’t really want to deal with the logistics of that either. Like I said to Jess below, we were originally planning to go to the courthouse the day before our reception, but (very) recently decided to have the wedding the same day so a few more people could come (it’ll still be small/private though). Because of that we’re not really having a bridal party, just my sister/his best friend as maid of honor/best man to sign the marriage license. I will see if there’s some way to give everyone a heads up that we’re coming down the aisle. Thanks :)

    • We split the playlist responsibilities between 2 different friends. The first worked through the ceremony and the first hour of the reception & then she found the next friend (who knew an approximate time they would be stepping get in) to take over for the remainder of the evening. We thought that would take the pressure off one person feeling like they needed to be within arms reach of the iPod the entire evening. Although honestly, once the reception gets started she didn’t even have to touch the iPod since we never stopped the music. She was there mostly in case of technical emergencies and so we could tell all the other guests who came up with song requests to “talk to E, she’s the only one with the password to the iPod!” – which allowed us to keep dancing & prevented guests from trying to add songs and/or accidentally messing with the playlist

  • artfulword

    I’ve been listening to Songza playlists to find good music to include on our playlist and I’m kind of tempted to just use Songza for the wedding – the data rates would be quite pricey though.

    • Chiara M

      I don’t know if you can do it with Songza, but if you’re in the States (i’m not, so I feel your pain if you aren’t either), you can download playlists from Spotify to listen to offline. You might need a premium membership to do that, but it’s a consideration if you don’t want to pay for data.

  • brendalynn

    Just want to say that we also included the “I promise to dance if you play ___” bit on our RSVP cards (probably copied right from here!). I think we rejected only two of the songs sent in, though quite a few others weren’t to our personal taste–but I think that made a huge difference in balancing out our playlist and everyone feeling like their music kind of fit into our party. We broke up our playlist by hours–in case anything went wrong it would be easier to restart–and had both backup copies and a backup device too.

    Our wedding playlist was probably one of the biggest successes of the evening–and we continue to love it. Every once in a while, I listen to it on my iPod on my commute :)

    • lady brett

      that is my *favorite* part of having done all the music myself – being able to listen to the playlists any time (and the dance list is brilliant road-trip driving music). partly because of what liz said about the wedding making the music meaningful (so now it’s not just good music, it’s *our wedding music*), and partly because i made some freaking great playlists, something i normally wouldn’t spend that much time curating.

    • Vic Horsham

      Oh! I love this.
      Heh. Although I’m now worried my RSVP will look a bit ridiculous what with “my dietary needs are” and “my preferred drink is” and also now “I promise to dance if you play”…

      But I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end to make sure everyone has a good time.

  • ok so i had totally forgotten there is music for the pre-ceremony, the cocktail hour, the dinner….oops. well, weve got three months!

  • My partner and I are just now starting this process. 46 days til the wedding. We have a friend who throws the most amazing parties because her music rocks. Of course it helps that we have similar taste (very old school). So our friend has lent us a few cd’s while she’s on a trip and we are going to use them as a starting place to create a playlist for the reception. My plan is to go from oldest music to newest music to please a wide variety of ages. We’ll see how it works out.
    We are not having a pre-ceremony music because our ceremony itself will be much like a regular church service. I asked myself, would it be the norm to play music over the speakers for a regular service before it began? No. So that’s one less thing we have to do. This post is really helpful. I really appreciate the tips and information.

  • I cannot second the “start early” advice enough. My husband and I were up until 2am the morning of our wedding downloading the last of our songs. While it’s a fun (or maybe not so fun) memory from our wedding, I really would have loved to spend those last few hours enjoying the many amenities the hotel suite we had splurged on offered instead.

    I also wanted to add the advice that may seem obvious: if your playlist is not meant to be put on shuffle make sure your attendant KNOWS this. That is, if you spent hours (so many hours) deliberating the pace of your playlist to make sure the energy and mood faded in and out just perfectly, then for heck’s sake take the time to mention this to the person running your playlist. Our playlist was thrown on shuffle and, while no one but us knew it was out of order, we were genuinely disappointed. I still feel a tinge of remorse every time I remember hearing the one line dance song we threw in as a gift to my mother (who had been taking line dancing lessons) come up multiple times OR the moment when my aunt had to interrupt my dancing to ask if there were any songs my grandmother could dance to on the mix, which of course there were and which, had our playlist been played in order would have come at even intervals. In the end I am confident no one but me is recalling this little snafu and it led to a wonderful “stop everything and play sweet caroline so I can dance with my grandmother” moment…but I can save another APW-er the small sighs of wedding wish-it-had-worked-a-little-differently, I’ll say it again: make sure your attendant knows if they are supposed to or NOT supposed to hit the shuffle button.

  • Beth R

    We also broke up our music into the same playlists listed in the article (although I think we combined cocktail hour/dinner and had a separate list for our first dance & the father/daughter dance), which worked out well for our friend who was manning the sound. Picking out the music ended up being more difficult than I thought it would be for us. We ended up creating a shared playlist on Spotify where we just added all the songs we liked and thought might work. Then, if one of us really wasn’t feeling one of the songs, we would nix it. We have pretty similar taste, so this worked for us, with a few “Aw, really?? You don’t like that song??”s thrown in. I think I ended up picking about 70% of the music, though, and did the ordering entirely just because I had more time to work on it.

    We are not dance-y people (husband especially) and we didn’t want to have a dance party where it was super loud and people would feel left out if they didn’t feel like dancing. So I crafted our “dance party” playlist to be in somewhat chronological order, that way if some of the older guests wanted to dance, there would be some older tunes played first thing that would appeal to them, and then some of the louder more modern stuff would be saved til the end for our friends and those who’d had a bit more to drink. Apparently this worked out really well and a lot of my relatives were up and dancing first thing. I missed this entirely because I got sidetracked talking with people in another room, but by the time we got to the 80s/90s jams even my husband was dancing and it was awesome.

    We used a laptop and spotify, but also had backups on our phones and a tablet. We set a password on the laptop that only us and a couple friends knew so that nobody would try to mess with the music. At my sister-in-law’s wedding a guest decided that he really had to hear a few songs right then and took it upon himself to stop what was currently playing so he could listen to them. This really pissed off my SIL/BIL. Folks, do not be that person at the wedding. You have plenty of other opportunities to listen to whatever you want.

  • Lindsay Rae

    “It’s the wedding that infuses the soundtrack with meaning, not the other way around.” LOVE THIS!

    My fiance and I are very into music as well – throughout our relationship concert tickets and photos with song lyrics written with them were very common gifts. I am trying to include song lyrics into our decor – my graphic designer cousin is helping me make some signs to frame. :)

    We are also planning to make a CD as our favor. Thanks for the advice that the two of us may be approaching this differently – while I write down a song that I feel we HAVE to include every time I hear one that makes me teary-eyed thinking about the wedding, he’s thinking more party-celebration-anthems.

  • Mary

    In addition to playlists for the ceremony, cocktails, dinner, and dancing, one playlist that saved us was adding a “clean-up” playlist, where we could put the songs that either my husband or I had a strong emotional attachment to, but that had to be weeded out of the other lists for some reason or another. We didn’t end up using that playlist at all (the sound system had to be cleaned up, just like everything else), but it did take the sting out of pulling a beloved song from another list, since it wasn’t gone from the wedding – just moved around :)

  • Winny the Elephant

    Anyone know what a good ratio of fast to slow songs is? The man and I are in the midst of an argument…

    • Violet

      I can’t think of a specific ratio that we used, but I second the advice from a few people above who suggested starting with older songs (eg “Sweet Caroline”) and moving gradually to newer ones. As for fast vs slow, it’s a good idea to start with something catchy that everyone knows, then begin building up in pace from there, then bring it back down slightly (not all the way down to baseline, but down), then build up again, then down a bit, then up to one last time and maintain that pace with several fast-paced ones in a row. Sort of like, two steps forward, one step back, if that makes any sense at all. And then if you’re into it, incorporate a smattering of slower ones here and there to let people get water/dance to slow songs.

    • Charise

      I think this is another know-your-audience thing. We weren’t going to have many older people at our wedding, and we and our friends and family are dance party people. I think in the 3.5-4 hours of dancing, we had maybe 4-5 slow songs is all (not counting first dance and father/daughter dance). But I’ve been to weddings where every half hour or so there would be 1-2 slow songs, which brought out more of the older or not-big-on-dancing crowd.

  • I think that it’s important to know who your audience is. Your wedding isn’t just about showing people how much awesome and obscure indie music you listen to. You also want your guests to enjoy themselves.

    Sure, play the songs that are important to you, and don’t play from your do-not-play-list, but your guests will also appreciate dancing to some familiar multigenerational crowd-pleasing songs, which takes a lot of time and research to compile.

  • KH_Tas

    My brain: ‘Start early’ ‘oh good, I can start now’ (14 months out)… ‘oh, you mean four to five months. Is this why my family looked so afraid when I brought up making the playlists for this thing?’

  • LydiaB

    I love how every practical wedding post gives SO much practical advice but always ends telling you that you are doing it for you and it won’t matter half as much to anyone else! The advice I always need to hear!!

  • Vic Horsham

    One thing I’m grateful for is that, at least for the dancing part of the music, my family has a pretty solid history of having certain songs make up the core of the playlist for pretty much every get-together we have, whether it’s a wedding or a birthday or just a random party. So while we will be inserting some of our own favourite songs into the mix, we already have a decent framework to build on that basically can be summed up as

    2 parts cheesy nostalgia (some for each generation in attendance), 1 part songs with fun dances associated with (oops upside your head, come on Eileen and the twist are family classics, but my grandparents did a surprisingly good job of keeping up with gangnam style at my aunt’s 50th), 2 parts stuff you can sing along to as you dance, 1 part swing because we don’t like slow couples dances so much, and 1 part stuff from the host’s youth that is suitably danceable.

    And seeing as me and the mister were both born in the 80s and have a family that also adores rock music, we’re pretty well set!

    Other than that, we’re going for Balrog Boogie for the first dance, because again – no slow stuff for us. I don’t think we’ve really thought about music for the ceremony itself, but it’s going to be a woodland thing, so possibly just the sound of the outdoors will be nice as it is.

    … I’m going to be wearing flats for our wedding. Possibly a nice comfy pair of DMs, I think!

    • Kat91314

      DM fistbump…..I wore a pair of white ones at my first wedding’s reception (not that anyone could tell under my dress, LOL). This time around, I actually may wear Jessica Simpson wedge heels :-)

  • Meg

    Literally the best thing about making our own playlist was that the next morning when we started our honeymoon road trip, we got to listen to it all again! I’d been so busy/happy/distracted during the wedding, I hadn’t really listened to the background music, but throughout our roadtrip I kept going, “oh, you put this song on! I love this song!” (My husband did pretty much all the playlist-making, so a lot of it was news to me.)

  • memery

    So, question for the crowd: is anyone doing no dancing, and working on a mix with that in mind? Also, if you are ipodding your reception, what’s an elegant way to pause or turn down music for toasts? Or is that the answer (pause and/or turn down)?

    • EF

      we’re not having dancing (literally the last thing I would want to do is dance. I.just.can’t.) and working on a mix! I’m a bit of a…hipster. The upside of this, with the no dancing, is people don’t have to know all the songs you have playing, but they will know ‘your sound’ as it were. We’re using plenty of modern music during the pre-ceremony drinks (definitely a thing) and cocktail times, but not typical dancing music. Right now the playlists for those looks like british 1960s rock and nick and norah’s infinite playlist had a lovechild, and I like that. Eventually I think it’ll be a nice combo of songs through the ages, and pretty much no one will know all of them, and that’s ok.
      if you’re using an ipod dock, then you should be able to fade the music down in the background by hand. people don’t really notice that’s going on until someone starts talking, and it’ll be fine.

  • DavidJennifer

    Cool ideas about the music for the special day. Though it is very important as the guests will enjoy the music, yet it is true that no one will care as much as you will do. So choose it according to what your heart likes.

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