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Planning Music for your Civil Ceremony | Ultimate Guide

Arta String Quartet Performing at a Civil Ceremony

Your guide to the world of civil ceremonies—a trove of ideas, information, and all the inspiration you’ll need to plan a marvellous musical marriage.

When planning a civil ceremony, there are few key things to know to make sure you get the most out of your special day. In this guide, we’ll cover the lot! Civil wedding rules, itineraries, the most popular songs, case studies from actual Encore bookings, you name it. If you’ve decided to do a civil wedding ceremony, and are now brainstorming what kind of music would be perfect for your wedding day, consider this your one-stop-shop of musical ideas and inspiration.

Civil weddings don’t have a standard format – so you have full control over the order of proceedings, the choice of readings, and the tone of music. It could be joyful, reflective, or even themed. But with this freedom comes a dizzying array of choices.

Would a pop song suit the bridal entrance, or would it be better to have a piece of classical music? I really want to have a singing guitarist—when should they perform? My venue is much smaller than a church—what ensemble would work best for the space? Of course, the answers to these questions depend on your specific context. But, by reading on, we’re confident you’ll solve these and any other questions you might have about planning music for your civil ceremony with plenty of time to spare!

At Encore, we’ve booked everything from surprise engagements, to flash mobs, to UK-wide headline tours. Weddings, though, are truly our bread and butter. We’ve helped thousands of couples all over the UK find the perfect music for their special day. So whether it’s a civil or religious ceremony, you can be sure to find a musician or ensemble that will make your wedding unforgettable.


Contents:

  1. Civil Ceremony Rules
  2. Order of Events & Popular Songs
  3. Practical Considerations & Case Studies

The Travelling Hands First Dance


Civil Ceremony Rules

While there are a lot of freedoms that come with having a civil ceremony, there are still some rules that must be followed. Curiously, many of these rules date way back to the 1836 Marriage Act, and have not really changed much since then.

There are two specific rules that could influence your choice of music for your civil ceremony.

The first: the service must not include any religious references. 

This means avoiding hymns, for example, or songs with religious connotations. This also includes ‘traditional’ readings—passages from the Torah or Bible verses, for instance. The service will be officiated by a registrar, who will go over these rules with you prior to the ceremony (to avoid any surprises!). Because of this, it’s important to figure out what songs you’d like performed ahead of time, so you can run them by your registrar before your big day.

There are so many wonderful song choices out there that are perfect for weddings and which don’t include any religious references. You’ll probably already have some idea of the music you’d like performed (the kind of song you hear and say: “that’s our song!”), but we’ve included some musical inspiration further on to point you in the right direction.

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The second: in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the ceremony cannot be held in a religious venue and it must be held either at a registry office, or at a venue approved by the local council. 

While this might seem a bit restrictive, there are thousands of beautiful venues all over the UK that are approved for civil ceremonies. What’s more, the Law Commission is currently looking to abolish these venue rules in the future (especially since COVID-19 hit). These changes would allow couples to choose any location they like, as well as allowing for fully outdoor weddings. For those lucky enough to live in Scotland, this rule doesn’t apply—you can be married on the beach, in your own garden, or even out at sea.

Choosing the right ensemble or musician for your venue is even more important when your choice of location is limited. For instance: perhaps you would like to book a pianist or a singing pianist? Well, unless the venue you’ve chosen has a piano, the pianist will have to perform on a keyboard instead (although pianists can often bring keyboard shells to simulate the look of a real grand piano). These small details are easy to overlook. It’s a good idea to do plenty of research so you can lock in a venue that accommodates your particular choice of live music for your civil ceremony. 

You can find a huge list of approved civil wedding venues in England and Wales here.

The Woodstock Duo Performing at a Wedding Ceremony


Order of Events & Popular Songs

Unlike religious ceremonies, civil ceremonies don’t have any hard and fast rules when it comes to the order of events or timings, and generally last for about 30 minutes to an hour. Given the formal parts of the ceremony are fairly short (a few specific lines you must recite to be legally wed), you’ll be free to use the remaining time as you like. Along with the readings, you can even include live musical performances as part of the ceremony if you’re so inclined! 

Live musicians are usually asked to perform through four sections of a civil ceremony: the pre-service, as guests arrive and find their seats; the arrival of the bride and walking down the aisle; the signing of the register; the departure of the bride and groom. Below, you’ll find a bit more information about each of these, alongside wedding ceremony songs that complement the atmosphere. 

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Pre-service / seating of your guests:

The music you choose for the pre-service really sets the tone for the whole ceremony. You can go in whichever direction you want here! Our opening suggestion of Spring by Vivaldi—a jaunty, joyous piece of secular classical music—would be perfectly suited to a string quartet in a manor house, for instance. An elegant piece of music for a stately wedding. 

Any kind of uplifting, cheerful music usually works well at this stage. Equally, something more relaxed and cosy, like an acoustic duo playing ‘Lucky’ by Jason Mraz, could fit amazingly for those after a less conventional, more informal wedding atmosphere. 

Popular songs for the pre-service/seating of guests:

  • Spring – Antonio Vivaldi
  • Lucky – Jason Mraz feat. Colbie Caillat
  • Beautiful Day – U2

The Dotted Crotchets Performing

Arrival of the bride / walking down the aisle / processional:

Generally, the arrival of the bride and the walk down the aisle is shorter than in a religious ceremony—a shortened version of a song usually works best for this part of the ceremony. A verse and a chorus will usually cover it. The last thing you want is to be waiting awkwardly for the music to finish up! 

All the songs we’ve chosen below are instantly recognisable, which means a shortened rendition will work just as well as a full length one. Whether it’s the hyper-romantic ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ by Roberta Flack, the Elton John love anthem ‘Your Song’, Stevie Wonder’s light and easy ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, or the ultimate piece of refined classical music, ‘Air’ by Handel, whatever song you choose will work best if it’s one that means something special to you.

Popular processional songs:

  • The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – Roberta Flack (or James Blake’s version)
  • Air (from Water Music) – Handel
  • Your Song – Elton John
  • The Swan – Camille Saint-Saens
  • Isn’t She Lovely – Stevie Wonder (or Callum J Wright’s acoustic version)

Sarah Oschlag and Musicians Signing of the Register

Signing of the register:

The signing of the register is the bit where the music really comes to the fore. Here, it is less ‘accompaniment’, and more ‘feature item’. Given the signing of the register will last for about five minutes, a full-length song will work perfectly. If the song you want is a little shorter, you can always ask your musicians to pad out the intro and outro, or even repeat a chorus or two (the beauty of having live musicians rather than an iPod). If you’re also planning on including a musical item in addition to the readings, it’s a great idea to pair these two songs thematically—just make sure they aren’t too similar! 

It’s best if your song choice here reflects your shared musical interests, and even more so if the lyrics speak to your shared journey. The love songs below are classics in their respective genres. As a result, talented musicians can’t help but bring some of their own flavour and style to these well-known tunes when they perform them.

Popular songs for the signing of the register:

  • At Last – Etta James (or Eva Cassidy’s acoustic version)
  • All Of Me – John Legend
  • Kiss Me – Ed Sheeran
  • Unchained Melody – The Fleetwoods

Meredith McCracken Wedding Ceremony

Departure of the bride and groom / recessional:

Well, you’ve made it! The signing of the register is done, and now it’s time to take some photos and get to the reception. As with the seating of the guests, music that is upbeat and joyful works really well at this point in the ceremony. And it’s also at this point that a lot of the pressure is lifted: any fun music—or even a song that’s a little corny—that holds a special place for you as a couple is fair game! You and your guests will be all smiles by this point, so don’t let a downbeat tune detract from the atmosphere.

Popular recessional songs:

  • Here Comes The Sun – The Beatles
  • This Guy’s In Love with You – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
  • Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’ – Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • Better Together – Jack Johnson


Practical Considerations & Case Studies

Once you’ve collected all your civil ceremony music ideas—songs, timings, tone—it’s time for some practical considerations. This includes things like budget, your venue, and why you might choose one musician or ensemble over another. But rather than generalise, we’ve chosen two successful civil wedding Encore bookings as case studies. Both of these couples had a specific budget, location, and musical tone in mind when choosing their musician. Take a look and see what worked for them. We’re hoping this inspires you and gives you some insight into booking a musician for your wedding!

Sarah Munro, singing guitarist booked by Chris for his wedding in Solihull

Sarah Munro Signing Guitarist

Organising this wedding was no easy thing! With the COVID-19 laws changing week to week, Chris was chuffed to get Sarah to perform at his wedding ceremony last October. She was completely across the social distancing requirements, and her performance was stunning. His budget was about £300 to £450—a higher range for solo musicians. With this budget, he basically had his pick of some of the most talented musicians in the UK.

Like other singing guitarists, Sarah came fully kitted out with loud-speakers and high-end musical equipment. This made her setup easy and painless—perfect for Chris’ hotel venue and socially-distanced crowd. For this civil ceremony, Chris and his partner discussed the music choices with Sarah over the phone, and landed on songs already in Sarah’s repertoire (which they could view on her Encore profile). Sarah performed throughout, providing a musical accompaniment for the entire ceremony. She played everything from pop, to folk, to jazz.

Chris’ review absolutely beamed:

“Sarah – don’t think about her, just book her. She has the most amazing voice that I could listen to over and over again, and has a great range of songs. She was a total delight to share our wedding day and every guest asked about her. Would recommend her without hesitation.”

The Element String Quartet, booked by Julie for her wedding in Malmesbury

The Element String Quartet

For this booking, the review says it all, so we’ll keep things brief. Like other string quartets, The Element String Quartet usually charges about £850 for a two-hour booking. (Most ensembles will charge about £200 to £300 per musician for a two-hour booking.) They needed a performance space of about 3 x 2 metres, which the larger hotel setting in Malmesbury allowed for (and included additional social distancing room around). As with the vast majority of musicians on Encore, they are happy to learn and perform song requests. But keep in mind: their song list is pretty massive, so your favourites might already be on there!

Julie’s review couldn’t speak more highly of the quartet:

“After a lovely weekend away when the first lockdown finished we decided to get married. We booked the hotel for a date nine weeks later. COVID changed the rules a number of times in the nine weeks and the quartet worked with us throughout. They were booked, postponed, booked again and eventually played at our wedding.

We picked a two hour playlist and enjoyed every second. We chose classical pieces and pop songs from a long list of choices. Although originally booked as background entertainment, the Element Quartet became a very lovely part of our wedding and our guests listened and enjoyed. 

Other than the “I do’s,” this was my favourite part of the day.


As you can probably tell, it’s all up to you when it comes to the music for your big day! And now that you’ve read this article, planning the music for your civil ceremony will be a cinch. On Encore, we have thousands of excellent, friendly musicians who, like Sarah and The Element String Quartet, will work closely with you to make the music at your civil ceremony something truly special.

Browse Wedding Musicians →

If you haven’t already booked music for your civil ceremony, Encore is the best place to start. Once you’ve got a musician or ensemble locked it, you can sit back and relax—they’ve got the music covered!

Cover image courtesy of the Arta String Quartet

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Jonny Venvell

Jonny is Encore's Head of Artist Relations.

He's responsible for supporting and helping musicians on the platform and writes most of the musician-facing articles on the blog. He can usually be found singing in choirs, drumming in bands, or nodding meaningfully to particularly good chords in London's jazz bars.

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