The Good Listener: How Do You Pick The Songs For Your Wedding?

Jul 5, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 12:11 pm

Click the audio link on this page to hear The Good Listener columnist Stephen Thompson and Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin discuss the intricacies of wedding music — where and when to play everything from sacred music to Salt N Pepa's "Push It." (The column below originally appeared on June 20, 2013.)

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the 30-plus copies of the latest CD by Jordanian singer Zade is a slew of questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, the challenge of whittling down a list of songs to play at a wedding.

Kim writes: "I'm getting married in July, and the DJ is allowing my fiancé and me to pick 10 must-play songs. I am struggling with this. Every time I make a list, depending on my mood, it's always something different — about the only thing that's consistent is Van Morrison's 'Into the Mystic' and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You.' Any advice on how to narrow this down to just 10 songs?"

Reading your letter for the first time, I was immediately overcome with righteous indignation: How dare your wedding DJ dictate how many songs you yourself get to choose at your own wedding? Your DJ works for you, not the other way around! This is your day, dammit!

In fact, I'd worked myself into such a lather that it took me a minute or two to think: How in the holy hell are your wedding guests supposed to dance to "Into the Mystic"? You can sway to "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," but "Into the Mystic" isn't a song for dancing so much as standing around in admiration. Only a stubborn few would argue that "Into the Mystic" is intrinsically inferior to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It," but I know which one I consider the best thing about wedding receptions.

Assuming you do stick to 10 must-play songs, I recommend making yourself a big list of everything you'd love to hear at your wedding — check back every few days in order to capture a decent cross-section of your moods — and then cross-reference that list against a list of songs to which wedding guests are likely to actually dance. (Good wedding DJs are happy to help with this sort of thing.) "Into the Mystic" would go great on a mix of music to play in the background during dinner, but once the reception is in full swing, you want songs that fit both your relationship and the occasion of your friends and relatives getting together to embarrass themselves.

Finally, I encourage you and your fiancé to document the occasion by making each other a mix CD — songs that capture how you feel as you embark on married life together. Put the songs that are most important to you there, and think of it as a soundtrack to your vows. Each disc will be a lovely and eternal keepsake, but just as importantly, it'll lessen the pressure to get every song right when it comes time to dance. Your wedding is just a party, so focus on the songs that will make it fun for everyone. The most important music is in the marriage.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at or tweet @allsongs.

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Not only is summer the time for picnics, but for many couples, it is also the time for weddings. Choosing the food, the flowers, the guest list - these are all important - but nothing quite defines the wedding reception like the music. And coming up with that elusive perfect playlist is no small feat. NPR Music's Stephen Thompson has his own music advice column called The Good Listener. You can find it on the ALL SONGS CONSIDERED Music blog. And recently, someone wrote in asking for advice, asking Stephen just how do you construct this oh-so-important playlist. Stephen joins me in the studio to share some of his secrets with us. Welcome to the program, Stephen.


MARTIN: So, where do you start? What are the first thing to think about when you're trying to come up with this very important list.

THOMPSON: I think the most important thing is to understand that your wedding has a bunch of discrete components, musically speaking. You have your wedding reception, you have dinner music and you have dance music. And so understand that at the end of your wedding, your wedding is a party and that means...

MARTIN: Hopefully, hopefully it's a good party.

THOMPSON: One would hope that your wedding culminates in a giant party, at which point the music you pick should be suitable for dancing.

MARTIN: So, can you give us an example? Is there such a thing as the perfect danceable song?

THOMPSON: It's incredibly subjective. You know, it's hard to say that there's one song that's perfect. For me, the song that embodies the spirit of a perfect wedding, dancing, fun ridiculous time is the song "Push It" by Salt 'n Pepa.

MARTIN: No way.



MARTIN: Not something I would have anticipated. Interesting.

THOMPSON: Every time that song is played at a wedding, I will have had a good time at that wedding.

MARTIN: So, a few years ago, I understand that your niece asked you to help her to come up with a playlist for her wedding. Tell us how you approached that.

THOMPSON: Well, the task there was to put together an hour of music to played over their dinner. But there was a lot of incredibly, I think, beautiful music that was in there but it's tied into notions of mortality and things that...

MARTIN: Longing.

THOMPSON: ...longing - and a lot of things that you're not necessarily meant to be thinking about at a wedding, which is very absolute. A perfect song that I did manage to fit in there that I do recommend for people's weddings, even though it is, ultimately, a bittersweet song is the song "As Long As the Grass Will Grow" by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Oh my God.


MARTIN: Always a winner in that song in my book.

THOMPSON: And, well, and part of that song this is being sung very near the end of their lives. And they have sort of achieved what you want your wedding to ultimately achieve. That's what you're after, is to, near the end of your lives, be able to look back on this incredibly warm, rich, complicated relationship. And so those tend to be the songs I love. They are not necessarily like "I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston in which you're just bellowing your love.

MARTIN: So, we mentioned before that the reception is just one musical facet of a wedding. There are also other key moments: walking down the aisle, the first dance, entering the reception. What advice do you have for picking out those songs that happen at key moments throughout the wedding?

THOMPSON: Well, I mean, remember that, first of all, depending on where you're getting married - a lot of churches insist on sacred music when you are in the church. So, some of your choices on that front - you're not going to play Salt 'n Pepa there.

MARTIN: Fairly limited, yeah.

THOMPSON: And I just don't recommend that in general. Beyond that, this is where you can get very, very personal. And often by the time you're getting married you really have in mind one or two songs that are just absolute requirements. Your first dance, the dance with the father, whatever. The one demand that I will make on my children, should they choose to get married one day, is that early on at some incredibly key point - doesn't matter where - the song "Find Love" by the band Clem Snide is played.


MARTIN: That is a beautiful song I would have loved to play at my wedding.

THOMPSON: It is maybe my favorite song of all time. Now, your message may vary. Whatever the equivalent of that song is for you, you know, make sure you go ahead and include that. But, boy, if you have not heard "Find Love" by Clem Snide, it is a mission statement for living. And as a parent, just thinking about my children having some key moment in their life, that song is very important to me.

MARTIN: OK. So, say you're a guest at a wedding. You're the reception. They're playing music. They're not digging it. Do you have any advice for those people?

THOMPSON: I recommend a lot of sarcastic snickering.


THOMPSON: But, no, beyond that, remember that you are at a party. Throw yourself into it. There is a time and a place for snobbery.

MARTIN: Get over the eye rolling and just...

THOMPSON: Seriously, like, let yourself have fun. Snobbery is the enemy of fun. Have fun.

MARTIN: I like it. I like it. NPR Music's Stephen Thompson. Stephen, thank you so much for the advice.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.