Music for church weddings
Welcome to the Royal School of Church Music's wedding page!
Whether you are a couple planning for your church ceremony or a musician looking for practical advice, we hope you will find everything you need here.
Music is a wonderful way to uplift the marriage service, and also provides a chance for the congregation to play a full part in the ceremony. Careful selection of hymns, songs and music will reflect the couple's love and hopes for their future together and the commitment they are making to each other in the presence of God.
Click on the headings below to find guidance and suggestions to make every church wedding a joyful and inspiring occasion.
Planning music for a wedding, let alone all the other details of the ceremony itself, can seem a daunting task. But music, in whatever form, plays an important part in the service, and can make a huge contribution to a joyful occasion.
You may also find our downloadable checklist useful as you plan for the big day. (The timeline is a guide only; the earlier you book the venue and musicians the better.)
First things first
So, where are you going to get married? It may be at a church where you’ve been worshipping for a long time, or where you went to Sunday School as a child. Whatever your choice, it’s worth finding out whether the church is accustomed to hosting weddings. Some churches are very popular, with a number of ceremonies taking place one after the other on busy Saturdays in the summer. Such places are well practised at making sure everything goes smoothly on the day, but their busy schedule may affect what you can and cannot do for your special occasion. For other places of worship, a wedding might be a rare and special event.
- Go to a Sunday service, so that you can hear the musical set-up (instrument(s) and musicians) for yourself.
- You may well have some musical ideas, but be realistic; Widor’s Toccata sounds brilliant on a large organ, but it can be a bit of a challenge even for a proficient organist – especially on a small instrument in desperate need of renovation!
1. The initial meeting with the minister or priest
(Twelve months before)
The church authorities should be helpful and welcoming, and will help you plan your order of service. This will normally follow a set pattern, with appropriate 'slots' for musical items such as the hymns. At your initial meeting with the minister or priest, ask about the situation regarding the organist at the church, and at this early stage, ask to arrange a meeting with him/her. It is also worth asking about the availability of a choir; a good choir can do much to lead the singing of the hymns and add considerably to the musical impact of the service.
If you want something out of the ordinary, consider whether this might be possible, and whether the necessary musical resources and expertise are at hand to make sure your event is memorable for all the right reasons!!
You will need to ask about the following:
- All fees, including those payable to the church, musicians and verger, and for the marriage certificate.
- The order of service, including the placing of musical items.
- Filming the ceremony. There will be an extra cost here, including a possible facility fee to the church, additional fees to the organist arising under the Copyright Patents and Designs Act 1988 (see below), as well as the charges to cover a copyright licence fee on any music and poetry readings you include that are still in copyright.
2. Book the organist
(Twelve to six months before)
Weddings can be an important part of a church organist’s work, and many enjoy preparing for and playing for them.
It’s important to check exactly what fees you need to pay. It is not uncommon for couples to ask a friend to play for their special occasion; in this situation a fee may still be payable to the resident organist as part of his/her employment agreement with the church. This is a frequent occurrence, and you should be given clear advice by the minister on this.
Additional fees may be payable to the organist if you want to film your wedding; depending on the nature of the employment contract between church and organist, this can be up to 100% of the initial fee. Employment practices and arrangements vary greatly from church to church, so it’s worth asking at an early stage to avoid any awkward situations later. Such fees cover recordings solely for domestic and private use. Special copyright arrangements may need to be made if you pay someone to record your wedding, whether sound and/or video.
It would be a good idea to have an initial discussion about the church’s musical forces, including the organist, choir or music group at the church, and talk about choices of music (see below). If you are considering bringing in a soloist or other musicians, it is a good idea to mention this at an early stage.
You will need to ask about the following:
- The organist’s contract
- Musical forces
- Possible musical choices
3. Book choir and other musicians if necessary
(Twelve to six months before)
By and large, churches are used to accommodating the choices and preferences that couples make, so long as they are suitable, of course, for what is a religious ceremony. You may want to bring in a soloist, an instrumental group or choir, or even a friend to play the organ (see above). If you’re stuck, ask local organists; they may well know of a local choir or group of competent singers who could lead the music at your ceremony. Regarding fees, this is very much a free-for-all; £50 per singer in an outside choir is not unknown, but this is by no means a guide price!
4. Choose music and provide copies
(Four months before)
While you will want to choose suitable music that you both like and is meaningful, it’s important to involve the congregation in some good hearty singing! It’s useful to meet the organist with either a piano or even the church organ at hand, so that you can discuss and hear musical ideas. Here are a few thoughts:
- Choose familiar hymns. As Lindsay Gray implies on the RSCM website video, it’s embarrassing if the congregation doesn’t know the hymns, but wonderful to hear a congregation in full voice! Depending on your guests’ singing abilities (!) there’s usually room for two or three hymns, or some other suitable musical item. You might like to consider a rousing hymn of praise at the beginning. Places where you might include a hymn are:
- At the beginning – after the arrival of the bride
- In between the readings (or a musical item other than a hymn)
- After the Exchange of Vows and before the prayers
- After the prayers and before the signing of the registers
Coming in and going out:
- 'Here comes the bride' (Wagner’s Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin) has been a traditional favourite for decades, but there are plenty of other pieces which announce in no uncertain terms that the bride has arrived. See the music listing on the RSCM web page for some musical suggestions, both for the procession of the bride, and the joyous departure at the end; you will need to discuss these with the organist. The procession should be fairly short, giving enough time for the bride to process up the aisle and 'land', and for bridesmaids et al to move to their places. The favourite for the Recessional is often Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' (from A Midsummer Night's Dream), but there are plenty of splendid alternatives, not all of which are as difficult to play as Widor's Toccata.
Other musical opportunities:
- Before the service. Arguably it’s best to leave a choice of suitable music to the organist; with guests arriving, some of whom perhaps won’t have seen each other for a long time, there’s probably plenty of excited chatter! If you have a particular favourite tune, it’s perhaps best to leave this to a quieter point during the service. Of course, the bride won’t be around before the service to listen either.
- Between the readings. An anthem or a psalm sung by a choir or soloist, or a suitably contemplative instrumental item.
- At the signing of the registers. Plenty of opportunity here, for that special piece to be performed! Do choose something appropriate; the various settings of Pie Jesu are beautiful but the words are taken from the Requiem (Service for the Commemoration of the Dead).
Special choices of music need to be discussed thoroughly; some organists may feel equal to the task of learning a new piece, but some may only be comfortable with a set repertoire. It is important to talk to the resident organist in good time before the service.
Providing music copies
It is the couple’s responsibility to provide and pay for any copies of music not in the church’s or choir’s possession; photocopies of music that is still in copyright are illegal. They place the church and performers in a difficult position. Music copies can be ordered online through the RSCM website www.rscm.com/shop or by email: musicdirect(at)rscm.com. Our staff will be happy to advise.
Check copyright arrangements for music and hymn texts
Copyright fees can be payable for the reproduction of hymn and other texts in orders of service, as well as music notation. Many churches pay a blanket fee to Christian Copyright International Ltd (CCLI) www.cclic.co.uk to cover reproduction of words in orders of service. Check whether the church has a CCLI licence. If it does, you will need to include the church’s CCLI licence number on the rear page of your order of service. Some words ('Morning has broken' is an example) are not covered by this licence. In addition, there are rights issues involved when church ceremonies are filmed. More advice is given elsewhere on this page.
5. Prepare a printed order of service
(Two months before)
The church should be able to provide you with a standard order of service from which you can prepare a first draft. (See the example on the RSCM web page. The Church of England website also has a very useful tool for devising your own order of service online – see link on the web page.)
It should include the ordered sequence of events, the words of hymns, the titles of readings and names of readers, the text of any prayers, especially those needing a spoken congregational response, and the Lord’s Prayer (particularly if you’re using a shortened or modern version). And talking of versions, there are some different versions of some well-known hymns; it’s very important to liaise with the church on this. It’s always good to include the names of the hymn’s author and the composer of the tune, eg: 'Words: Charles Wesley; Music: SS Wesley'. It should also include details of any other musical items during the service (check this with the organist and other musicians), and the names of musicians taking part.
It’s important that this is circulated to minister and musicians for any suggested tweaks and amendments, and even any unwitting errors; one order of service was printed including the hymn 'Lord of all hopelessness' !! It has been known for there to be several updates before a final version is produced.
The church may be able to recommend a local printer who can reproduce your order of service quickly and efficiently.
6. Rehearsal arrangements
(One month before)
If you have booked visiting musicians, they will need some rehearsal time in the church, even if it’s on the day prior to the wedding ceremony itself. Obviously this needs to be arranged with the church authorities to take place at a time when the church is comparatively quiet. Some thought will need to be given to parking space for cars, refreshments for musicians, and the availability of changing areas.
A quick supportive phone call a few days beforehand of the 'everything OK?' variety to those responsible for the music at your wedding is always appreciated.
7. Payment of fees
(Two weeks before)
All churches and musicians will require payment in advance or on the day itself. If you’re paying fees by cheque, many churches will set a period prior to the wedding so that the cheque can be cleared. If you’re employing the services of outside musicians, their fees will be separate from those of the church. Such fees do not cover flowers or wedding stationery.
8. Enjoy the music
Yes – enjoy the music! All the preparation has been done in advance – so relax and be uplifted by the music during the occasion. Hopefully you’ll have chosen music that everyone can appreciate and join in with. Even if your musical requirements are modest, good communication with those providing the music throughout the whole process is vital.
This list includes suggestions for hymns, songs, choral music and organ music that would be suitable for wedding services, with the relevant sources from hymn books, music books and sheet music. It has been prepared by the team that produces the RSCM's quarterly liturgy planner, Sunday by Sunday.
Copyright exists in musical and dramatic works for the duration of the author's or composer's life and for seventy years after the end of the year in which they died. Thus works by a composer who died on 31 December 1939 came out of copyright on 1 January 2010.
Copyright exists separately in arrangements, so an arrangement of a piece of music by an arranger who died less than 70 years ago is still in copyright even though he or she arranged music by a composer long since dead.
If a wedding couple chooses to print words of hymns or poems on their order of service by an author who died less than 70 years ago, they will need permission to print the words.
Copyright fees can be payable for the reproduction of hymn and other texts in orders of service, as well as music notation. Many churches pay a blanket fee to Christian Copyright International Ltd (CCLI) www.cclic.co.uk to cover reproduction of words in orders of service. Check whether the church has a CCLI licence. If it does, you will need to include the church’s CCLI licence number on the rear page of your order of service. Some words (‘Morning has broken’ is an example) are not covered by this licence.
Performers have rights in their performances, which may not be recorded without their consent.
Until a few years ago recordings could be made for 'private and domestic purposes only'. This was altered by law and there are no circumstances under which a performer may be recorded without their consent. It follows, therefore, that permission must be obtained from the organist before any video recording, however informal, is taken at a wedding. This is Section 182 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and is not optional. It is the law.
The organist may refuse outright to allow his performance to be recorded, or choose to give permission on payment of a fee.
Many weddings are recorded these days, even when the couple and the clergy request that video cameras are not used. Many modern mobile phones have a video recording facility, which means that private recording is now almost impossible to stop. For this reason, we recommend that a higher fee is agreed for the wedding without any further payment of performing rights fee. It should always be remembered that the person officiating at the wedding has the right to control the conduct of the wedding, such as in matters of flash lights and siting of cameras. Payment of a higher fee to the musician(s) should not therefore be seen as allowance to disregard these other issues.
From time to time couples request that a friend plays the organ for their wedding.
Most organists are appointed on an oral or written contract that includes the right to play at all weddings in that church. (Frequently, organists' posts are advertised with the phrase 'about twenty weddings a year'.) It must be emphasised that the couple has no right to demand that someone else plays the organ.
The wedding fees are part of the organist's remuneration, and as a matter of contract law the organist has the right to play the organ or to take the fee if he or she permits someone else to play instead. In our view, this also applies if some other form of music is used at the wedding, such as hiring a music group or using pre-recorded music. The organist is still entitled to his usual fee.
Whether you’re a practised hand at playing for weddings, or someone for whom such a event is a rarity, there is a good amount of extra work involved in providing music which is meaningful to the couple at the centre of the whole event. In this article, abbreviated from a piece first published in the June 2006 edition of Church Music Quarterly, Anne Marsden Thomas gives a comprehensive overview of the logistics and issues involved. While primarily written for organists, choir directors will also find much of this advice useful.
Will you play the organ for our wedding?
The first time you receive such an invitation you may feel both excited and alarmed. You may feel even more alarmed when you realise that the engaged couple sees you as an expert on all aspects of the musical arrangements, even if you have never before played for a wedding.
What is involved?
At the service the organist usually plays:
- Quiet music before the service, for five to fifteen minutes
- Processional music, up to two minutes
- Hymns (usually two or three)
- Accompaniment to one or two anthems or songs, if requested …
- And/or quiet music during the signing of the register, about ten minutes
- Recessional music, at least three minutes.
Your first response to the invitation
Ensure that both you and the couple understand the commitment involved. You might like to double-check that the couple has already booked the church where they wish to be married! If you are not the regular organist, the couple must also seek permission for you to play, and depending on the resident organist’s contract, they should expect to pay the regular organist a fee for non-attendance.
Guidance on fees for organists, and choir directors where appropriate, is available from the RSCM to Affiliated churches and Individual Members. These vary according to the status of the church, the experience of the musicians involved, and whether the service is filmed. Advice for freelance organists is also available to those who are members of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM).
After agreeing these initial arrangements, fix a date for a planning meeting, and exchange contact details with the couple.
Preparing for the planning meeting
There are three main discussion areas:
- A music list
- A draft order of service
1. Music list
This is a list of the preludes, marches and interludes you are prepared to play, and some well-known, appropriate hymns. Organise your list into ‘very familiar choices’, ‘innovative ideas’ etc, so that the couple can readily identify which suits their style. In your music shop you will find many books of wedding music for organ and all of these contain arrangements of the most familiar marches. However, most of these include hosts of completely redundant notes, making the organist’s life unnecessarily difficult, so choose or adapt the arrangements to suit your realistic playing standard. Similarly, check that the hymns you are offering are well learned and comfortable to play.
2. Draft order of service
This is to help the couple see where their chosen music will fit in. Ideally, ask the officiating minister or priest to sketch this out for you, or use previous orders of services from weddings in that church.
Advice on fees is available from the RSCM to Affiliated churches and Individual Members, including additional fees for the filming of a wedding. These vary according to the status of the church, as well as the status of the organist. For freelance organists, further advice and guidance is available to members of the Incorporated Society of Musicians.
The planning meeting
‘Sell’ the music on your list: play snippets and talk persuasively about each item. Write down any item that gets a positive response, congratulate them on their good taste, and move on. Choosing their music should be a lovely experience for them, but you don’t want it to take too long.
If they ask for something not on your list, these are your options.
- If you think that their chosen piece will be suitable, fun to learn, and useful for future services, say yes, provided that they provide a legal copy of the music in an arrangement appropriate for your playing standard and instrument.
- Explain that you are able to offer only the music from your list. Unless you are charging a fee suitable for a professional organist, this is a fair response. It is unreasonable for the couple to ask an amateur organist to spend valuable time learning a piece which may receive only one performance.
- Explain that the piece will not suit the service, or the organ you play. Some couples request secular songs which have unsuitable texts or connotations for a church service; consult the clergy if unsure. Some couples request a non-organ piece or a pop item which would sound silly on a church organ. Recommend that they play the unsuitable piece at the reception instead and suggest the nearest alternative from your list.
- Suggest they bring in a professional organist to share the playing with you. (If they wish to replace you altogether with a professional organist you are still entitled to a fee for the planning meeting and/or, if you are the regular organist of their chosen church, for non-appearance.)
Choosing the hymns
While churchgoers will have no difficulty choosing suitable hymns, others may struggle to identify three hymns they even know. In this case try suggesting:
- Morning has broken (tune Bunessan)
- Praise, my soul, the King of heaven (tune Praise my soul)
- The Lord’s my Shepherd (tune Crimond)
- Love divine, all loves excelling (several possible tunes; check which one they want)
- Now thank we all our God (tune Nun danket)
- Lead us, heavenly father (tune Mannheim)
- Give me joy in my heart/Give me oil in my lamp (tune Sing Hosanna)
The following frequently requested hymns are usually chaotic in performance unless a strong choir leads the singing:
- And did those feet in ancient time (tune Jerusalem)
- Make me a channel of thy peace (tune St Francis)
- Be thou my vision/Lord of all hopefulness (tune Slane)
Further suggestions can be found in the music list on the RSCM web page.
There are two potential hazards regarding copyright. The couple may ask you to play from photocopied sheet music to play, and/or they may wish to print a service leaflet containing words (and even music) of hymns in copyright. Advice on copyright issues is available elsewhere on the RSCM web page.
At the service
Don’t forget to work out a reliable system of cues, for the start of the bridal procession and again for the start of the recessional march. Cues for the start of items can be relayed via a flashing bulb at the console, carefully adjusted mirrors, a clergy announcement ‘will the congregation please stand’, or a ‘runner’ to come and tell you. Make sure you know what each cue means: for example, ‘the bride has arrived’ needs a different cue from ‘the bride is ready to walk in’. Check you can see where the bride and groom will stand, so that you can judge when to conclude the processional march.
You need to know your organ music extremely well because you will be repeatedly distracted by cues, unexpected noises and various unforeseen events. Mark suitable termination chords in the pieces you will play before the service, for the bride’s processional march and for the music during the signing of the register. Try not to be disheartened by congregational bustle and chatter during your pieces: some people there will certainly appreciate your music, even if they have to struggle to hear it. If the congregation is exceptionally noisy during the prelude or the signing of the register, try alternating quiet pieces with loud interludes and/or silence.
Have some extra short items ready in case signing the register takes longer than expected, or if the bride is late. However, if she is more than ten minutes late there is no need to provide a free concert if you don’t want to – just stop playing and wait (you could gently warn the couple at the planning meeting that you intend to do this). Play the hymns boldly and rhythmically, whether or not a shy congregation is joining in – they might summon the courage to sing as the service progress.
After the service, take a few minutes to jot down what you have learned from your first experience, so that next time, you can reply with informed confidence: ‘Yes, I would love to play for your wedding!’.
Anne Marsden Thomas is a distinguished organist and teacher, and is Director of the St Giles International Organ School based at St Giles Church, Cripplegate in the Barbican, London.
Below is a handy checklist which you can use to make sure you don't forget anything in the planning for your ceremony.
- Download checklist (Word document, so you can amend it for your purposes)
- Church of England Wedding Planner - find a church and plan your ceremony
- Church of England Marriage Services - a book by Peter Moger with suggested readings, prayers and music
- Incorporated Society of Musicians - practical information about hiring musicians
- Church Copyright Licencing International Ltd (CCLI) - information for churches about copyright
- The Art of Music - music engraving and typesetting services
With thanks to: Sarum College, Anne Harrison and the Sunday by Sunday editorial team, Stuart Robinson, Barry Williams, Anne Marsden Thomas, The Art of Music
Photography: Tim Adams, David and Emma Gregory, Mike Tozer, Heather Bamber, iStockphoto
Video: Mike Jiggins