This site has been created by Phillip Sear to promote the use of live music in general, and piano music in particular at civil wedding and partnership ceremonies (and, indeed, at similar religious or other ceremonies). The text on this site was drafted for a mixed-sex scenario – ie, bride and groom, but I hope that most of the suggestions will be suitable for same-sex ceremonies, eg, those available in England and Wales under the Civil Partnership Act 2004, and Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.
Planning the music programme
Overall- I have written this page with the UK civil ceremony pattern in mind, but hope my thoughts can be adapted for other circumstances. The choice of music must not, taken as a whole, give the civil ceremony the feel of a religious ceremony, and should be cleared in advance with the Superintendent Registrar. Different registrars will have different views on what is and what is not acceptable. The suggestions on this site assume the popular ceremony format where the bride makes an `entrance' and the bride and groom depart together before the guests, but this pattern may not necessarily be followed, and I have played for a very successful ceremony where the bride and groom sat with the guests in the room where the ceremony took place and were merely called to the front by the registrar.
While the guests assemble - discreet improvised `hotel foyer'-type music is probably best, as it can be played for as long as needed, and adapted to the background noise level from the number of people present at any time. However, specific pieces (eg, pieces otherwise suitable for the signing of the register) may be included if desired, perhaps just before the bride enters.
Entrance of bride - unless the wedding is in a very large room, it will not take long for the bride to walk from the door to the registrar's table. Therefore the music should put its message over in less than a minute. I suggest something bright and cheerful but not too heavy in tone - perhaps a baroque favourite - or else a well-known romantic tune.
Signing of the register - the signing and photographs may take more than five minutes, especially if the guests are to be invited to come up and take photos after the official photographer has finished. The music chosen should therefore collectively last at least three minutes, and can be more than one piece. If the piece(s) chosen are too short, the gap can easily be filled with an improvisation, and if too long, the last piece can be artistically cut short. There is a huge potential choice of music. I recommend something with a good tune and a flowing accompaniment that can both be enjoyed by guests wishing to sit silently and listen to it, and used as background music by guests wishing to talk amongst themselves. The pieces should not contain dramatic outbursts, otherwise the guests' attention will be overly diverted from the bride and groom. Many pieces with titles such as `nocturne', `barcarolle' or `song without words' and slow movements from piano sonatas will do very well, but one should be wary about inadvertently inducing an elegiac atmosphere by using pieces in a minor key (eg, most of Chopin's nocturnes). Contemporary minimalist music - eg, pieces by Ludovico Einaudi also works well. Alternatively, some longer popular or show songs, played through as piano solos, might fit the bill.
Exit of bride and groom - the music should be long enough to cover the bride and groom leaving, and also most of the guests. Tastes vary greatly on this - some couples may like something `light and bright', similar to the music the bride might enter to, others may like something grand and stirring, and yet others might like something romantic. This is usually the hardest music to choose, but avoid anything that, on piano, could sound like the accompaniment to a silent film!
Other music for the ceremony - just as many couples include readings, a ceremony can also include other musical items, eg piano pieces or (secular) songs - maybe items with a special significance to the bride or groom. A solo singer can be provided, or, if any songs used are well-known and the words are distributed, the guests can sing them. As there may be no formalities occurring during these items and the bride and groom may be sitting still, they should not give the impression of a `hiatus' in the proceedings and instil restlessness amongst the guests. I therefore suggest extra items should be kept individually short, announced by the registrar, perhaps as `musical interludes' and listened to in silence. The guests can be discreetly encouraged to applaud afterwards (perhaps by the best man setting the example).