Choosing your wedding music: Background music

Welcome once again as we work our way through a guide to choosing your wedding music. Today we're stepping out of the spotlight and taking a look at background music, just the thing to serve with cocktails or during your sit down meal.

Background music header image

On a dance floor the purpose of music is clear - to get people out of their seats and moving. But background music? A lot of the time it's simply about presence. Like a movie soundtrack you might not notice it, but you'd definitely notice if it wasn't there. Likewise you'd notice if it were completely inappropriate, or just completely terrible.

The style of music is often less important than the quality. A pop duo for something quirky, jazz trio for something classy or string quartet for something traditional are all perfectly good choices. Factors like volume, intensity and skill at reading a room will effect the success of background music more than the style.

We wrote a whole post on genres, which you should check out if you need a bit of help deciding what kind of background music would suit your wedding.

Common background music issues

Here are some of the most common complaints from guests about background music:

1. The music is too loud

Your guests want to chat, and they can't if the music is too loud. Sometimes the sound system is simply turned up too high, and if this is the case ask the band, DJ or venue staff nicely to turn down. It can be hard for a band to accurately judge their volume level when playing right near their speakers, so they probably weren't aware they were too loud for the room. At Bright Young Music we always bring a foldback (a speaker we face towards the band) so we don't have to turn our room speakers up super loud to hear ourselves. You'll find most professional bands will do the same.

Sometimes you get a bad room where everything booms around and is amplified by the architecture, including conversation, which the band has to compete with. A professional band will know how to set up their equipment to mitigate this, but it can be challenging, so be kind to them if they tell you they're doing their best with the space.

Be aware there are some instruments you can't turn down. Saxophones, horns and strings will generally be played acoustically for background sets, and there's a limit to how softly they can be played. This level is usually fine, unless you've placed the band right next to a table of guests.

2. The music is too quiet

You don't want the music to be in your face, but you want it to be easily heard if you bring your attention to it.

If you book a jazz or pop band to play acoustically (ie not plugged in to any amplifiers) they'll probably be too quiet, unless the room is very small and cosy. A classical ensemble on the other hand will usually play acoustically, as their instruments are designed to project.

Some people think that amplifiers = loud, but they do have volume settings below 11. A professional band will know how to set their levels for a room, and most of the time they're just boosting their acoustic sound. Electric guitars and basses need some amplification or the sound is pretty much non-existant, and it's much healthier for a singer to use a microphone so they're not straining their voice to hear themselves.

If you think the band are too quiet ask them nicely to turn up, but be aware they will need to blend their sound to any acoustic instruments like saxophones or trumpets. If they're playing completely acoustically they will have a maximum volume they can comfortably play at, so they won't be able to play louder than this.

It's worth taking some time to find a good spot for the band so they can be heard. A corner of the room or along a wall is usually fine unless there are partitions or other strange architecture to obstruct the sound. If the reception space has more than one room or inside / outside areas the band will probably only be heard in the room they're playing in.

3. The music is too depressing

This is a tricky one, and it often comes down to personal taste, but there are definitely times when background music is inappropriately depressing. It usually happens when the "background music" direction is interpreted as ballads, and guests are then assaulted with an unrelenting two hours of morose, pining love songs.

If you're putting together your own iPod playlist you don't need to stick to ballads. Mid-tempo and upbeat songs will fit in perfectly when played at a lower volume, but save any really danceable tunes for later in the night. Imagine you're making the playlist for a night out with old friends at a cocktail bar. You want the music unobtrusive enough for conversation, but lively enough so you don't feel like crying into your martini by the end of the evening.

If you've booked a professional band they will know how to put together an appropriate set. At Bright Young Music we pay special attention to our wedding setlists, and make sure we're only playing tunes that will make people feel good.

4. The music is just plain bad

Unfortunately sometimes a band is booked and they just sound bad. Maybe they were an inappropriate choice (eg your cousin's screamo band), they've brought dodgy equipment that sounds terrible, they're out of practice, or perhaps they've been playing weddings so long their heart just isn't in it anymore.

There's not a lot that can be done on the day of your wedding if this happens, but if you do your homework when booking your band you shouldn't run into these problems.

Choosing the right band for background music

Listen to their demos

First, you have to like their sound, and it has to be appropriate for background music. Second, assess how natural the recordings sound. Natural, minimally processed demos are a good indication what the band will sound like live. Lots of electronic effects, particularly on the vocals, can't usually be replicated by a live band, and are often covering a multitude of sins. Anything that's sounding like Cher's Believe is a sign of way too much autotune.

Look at their song list

Do you like the songs on their list? Is there a good balance of slow and upbeat songs? Are there plenty of happy, wedding appropriate songs? Do they play songs you'd consider appropriate for the kind of atmosphere you'd like to create?

Look for professionals

We don't necessarily mean professional agencies with slick marketing campaigns behind them. Although that's one sign of quality it can be misleading, as it's not the marketing managers who are turning up to your wedding to play.

Look for bands that feature professional musicians: the kind who are trained and do lots of work outside weddings and functions, including playing their own original music and session work for other bands. These musicians will be high quality, versatile players, and will adapt themselves to suit to many styles of music and situations.

Be wary when booking indie bands or friends

It's tempting to book your favourite local band, or your cousin / sister / primary school friend to play at your wedding because you love their music and want to support them. There's nothing wrong with this, but make sure you discuss with them what kind of music you'd like them to play. If you just want sets of their original music that's easy, but if you'd prefer they play covers make sure they know this, and ask for a sample list of songs they'll play.

Also make sure they're aware they'll be playing background music. It sounds obvious, but some bands will just prepare to play their usual style of music, which could be loud and gritty depending on the band.

Finally, make sure the band know to bring all their own equipment, including a vocal PA and microphone for the singer, powerboards and extension leads. Most indie bands are used to venues providing the PA, so they'll possibly have to hire extra equipment for the day.

Be clear about what you want

Communication is key to any successful relationship. Cheesy, we know, but it's true even in business. Tell your band what you want and what kind of atmosphere you'd like to create. A good band will tell you if it's not appropriate to their repertoire or style of playing. If you set out your expectations from the beginning you're less likely to be disappointed on the day.

Trust your professionals

If you've hired a professional band trust them! Their experience and skill will reduce your planning workload considerably, as they don't need to be managed down to the finest detail. Also take on board any suggestions they might have, and do your best to provide anything they ask for, such as a room to store their instrument cases or shelter for outdoor sets.

Be nice to your band on the day

Sounds simple, but it's amazing what rising stress levels can do. If you think the band are too loud, or they are playing too many slow songs, just ask them nicely to turn down or add in a few more upbeat numbers. Any professional band will happily oblige, unless the request is for something completely different to the service they were booked to provide.

Music requests from guests

Sometimes wedding guests will approach the band during background sets and ask them to turn up or down. While the band may be genuinely too loud or quiet, other times they are playing at a level already requested by the wedding party or venue. Uncle Harry, who is slightly deaf and loves music, might ask the band to crank it up, much to the annoyance of Aunt June who is trying to have a conversation with friends she hasn't seen in several years.

It happens less frequently that guests might also ask the band to change the type of music they're playing if they think it's inappropriate, for example to play more upbeat songs. Again, this might be a legitimate request, but the band could simply be playing the music they were booked to play.

It can be frustrating for bands to be given conflicting instructions by guests, the bridal party and the venue throughout their performance, so it's better to ask your band to only take directions from a few key people. The bridal party, MC or venue staff for example. If a guest does approach the band, the band can direct them to one of these people who will make the final decision on any changes.

Background music sorted? If not and you'd like to chat about it with us get in touch.

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