Music for Weddings

A priest phoned me recently to ask about guidelines on suitable music for weddings. As a result of a recent unpleasant experience, he exclaimed: “Hell hath no fury like a bride-to-be whose choice of I want to wake up with you as a communion hymn is questioned!”
Disagreements over the selection of music, as well as other aspects of the marriage liturgy, arise because of misunderstandings about the nature of the celebration. Often the couple consider the wedding as “their day” (or “the bride’s day”) and want to “personalise” the ceremony completely, down to composing their own vows and including popular songs that hold special meaning for them. In fact, it is culture, customs and memories of past weddings rather than individual creativity that influence what happens at weddings.
Marriage in the church is not a private matter; it is a sacrament, a sacred liturgical action in which every gesture, word and symbol reveals something about the nature of God and the faith of the couple. Private actions and idiosyncratic preferences are not appropriate in what is an official, public rite of the church.
Catholic liturgical music is music that gives worship to God. A lot of popular songs are about worship, but it is worship of love itself or of the object of one’s love. Music at a Catholic wedding must express praise to God for the mystery of love which God created and transforms in the sacrament of marriage.
A popular song is not automatically suitable for a church ceremony simply because it has the word “love” in the title. For example, the song The One I Love by REM is apparently often requested by couples. But how appropriate is a song in which the singer describes his lover as “a simple prop to occupy my time” and becomes so bored with her that he ditches her for another? What a wedding liturgy expresses is the mystery of human love as a covenant relationship. Songs that do not have this focus are best kept for the reception afterwards.
It is not a matter of priests being narrow-minded and banning “secular” music. The distinction between “sacred” and “secular” music is unclear and unhelpful anyway. There are secular songs which express beautifully the religious dimension of love while some so-called “religious” songs are shallow and sentimental.
The following questions are a useful guide for making good choices of songs for weddings:

Do the words express a Christian view of love? Will the words helpthe guests understand that marriage is a religious event in which God is present?
Will the music and words only serve to remind people of recent movies, video clips or stage shows?
Will the guests be able to join in the singing or will they feel like spectators at a performance?
Does each piece of music respect the spirit and purpose of that part of the celebration where it will be used?
Will many of the guests be from another Christian tradition? What music do we have in common that we might use?
Are the musicians competent? Semi-talented friends and family performing in a strange church with unfamiliar acoustics may prove an embarrassment. It is usually better to use the parish’s own experienced music ministers.

Elizabeth Harrington