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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