Funeral Music

A History of Funeral Music

photo of a white cross against the blue sky Historically the view of music for funerals was very sombre. We expected to hear a few traditional hymns and perhaps a funeral march, and several classical composers have included music in this vein within their compositions. The most famous funeral marches from classical music are from Chopin's Piano Sonata No.2 Op.35 in B-flat minor, Beethoven's 3rd Symphony Op.55 in E-flat, and some of the symphonies of Mahler. Many classical composers have written "Requiems" which are Mass services for funerals or to commemorate or mourn the dead. The folk music of various countries often includes examples which are suitable for funerals. Indeed the oldest example of a complete song, the Seikilos Epitaph, was discovered engraved in ancient Greek on a tombstone. The celtic music of Scotland and Ireland and other countries includes a type of music called a "lament", many of which were composed for specific funerals or tragic events. One style of "lament" is played on a solo bagpipe, but others are folk songs or instrumentals which can be played by a variety of instruments. A similar concept is a "Threnody" meaning a "wailing ode" of mourning for the dead, a concept which has been picked up by various classical composers notably Krzysztof Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" which literally includes wailing strings.

These days there is much more flexibility, and the music for a funeral service or subsequent wake may include favourites of the deceased, songs ancient and modern, and general expressions of love, tenderness and even humour. Among celebrity examples of the latter trend are Glen Miller's "In the Mood" played at Peter Seller's service, not because he liked it but because he hated it and wanted to play a joke on his fellow Goons. Eric Idle's rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was especially poignant at the funeral of fellow Python Graham Chapman. It should also be noted that the approach to funeral music differs across the world, and a mood of joy or celebration is as common as one of sadness. Think of the funeral scenes in the Bond film Live and Let Die where a funeral dirge breaks out into lively Dixieland Jazz. This illustrates the concept of the Jazz-style funeral which originated in New Orleans, and mixes traditional funeral music and hymns with more upbeat jazz numbers.

Suitable funeral music from the mfiles catalogue:

photo of a church with a cemetery in the foreground Here are some suggestions from the mfiles catalogue (both the classical and traditional sections). If you want an organist or other musicians to play at a funeral, these sheet music examples are a good guide to suitable music. (There are also MP3 and MIDI versions available for each of these items.) You will notice that some of these are also in the Wedding section, because gentle classical music can be quite versatile in this respect, however for some of these pieces you might want to consider using a slower tempo when played during a funeral.

Classical Music for Funerals (Piano / Organ / Keyboard)

Here is a selection from the mfiles Classical catalogue which are suitable for funeral services. This section has keyboard music for Piano or Organ, while the next section includes other instruments.

Hymns, Folk and other Traditional Music for Funerals

Some of the classical items above are often considered to be hymns. Here are some additional Hymns and some folk music suitable for funeral ceremonies, plus some bugle calls which are frequently used at military funerals or remembrance day events.

Original Music Suitable for Funerals

For original suggestions with sheet music listed on ScoreExchange, try the following:

Biographical Note

In my teenage years, I was the organist at my local church (in Kennoway, Fife). In my late teens and early 20s I was the organist at the local Masonic Lodge (also in Kennoway). For both of these posts I played at funeral services, usually with a selection of hymns and frequently with some solemn or peaceful classical music. These experiences have influenced the music suggestions listed in this article.