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"Concert Manners"

There’s nothing mysterious or difficult about how to act at a concert. It’s mostly just common sense: the music needs silence, so the audience contributes silence; both the musicians and the audience want to concentrate on the music, so listeners stay put during a performance.

One aspect of concert manners can be a bit confusing: knowing when to clap. At most other kinds of concerts, people clap whenever the music stops, but in classical music you wait to clap until the very end of a piece.

The Naxos Complete Guide to Good Concert Manners
When music is playing:
1. Be quiet.
2. Stay put.
3. Don’t clap until the whole piece is over.

You don’t have to sit like a statue. You can breathe; you can shift your body in your chair. You can respond to the music, but your response will be inward. You might experience intense feelings while outwardly sitting quite still. This inwardness is part of the style and vibe of classical music. (Nowadays some classical events welcome more outward response, but most classical concerts cultivate an inner experience—emotion without motion.)

The basic idea is to help each other focus on the music. Making noise, fidgeting, or walking around can distract other listeners, and it may interfere with the musicians’ concentration. We’re all used to talking and moving around while the TV is on—it’s easy to forget that at a concert the performers can see and hear the audience! Your attention and silence will help the musicians to perform a better concert. They can feel your involvement, and it inspires them to give their best.

When to Applaud

A common concern of listeners at classical concerts, and one of the chief obstacles to enjoying the music, is the dreaded Fear of Clapping in the Wrong Place. It’s no wonder the audience is afraid: Classical musicians don’t usually make clear what they expect of the audience.

In other kinds of music, the audience claps whenever there’s an ending—if the music stops, people applaud. But in classical music, one piece may have several parts, each with its own ending. You are supposed to wait to the very end of the very last ending before you clap.

Believe me, musicians hate to
tell people not to clap. We love
applause. If somebody gets carried
away and claps in the “wrong”
place, most musicians don’t mind.
We’re happy to accept approval in
any form.

But here is why we like the
audience to wait until the very
end of a piece: we want everyone
to hear the complete piece as a
total experience. Long pieces may
involve several mood changes, and
it’s lovely not to disrupt these with

This can be tough. Sometimes you can’t tell if the piece is over. Sometimes you get so carried away by the music that you really want to clap. Sometimes you’re so enthusiastic after a section ends that you’ve just got to clap for the musicians.

Don’t do it.

I know it seems cruel to squelch that urge to applaud, but please wait for the very end of the whole piece.

How do you tell when a piece of music is really over? Quite often a classical piece has several sections, each with its own ending, and it can be hard to tell which ending is the final ending, the one you’re supposed to clap for. How do you know when it’s really the end of the whole thing?

I know of one snobby music critic
who has heaped shame on an entire
county because he thinks their
concertgoers applaud too much.
Such unfortunate mud-slinging
not only spatters concertgoers but
also stains the music. On behalf of
classical music, I apologize to all
victims of snobbery. As a performer,
I’d much rather play for overzealous
applauders than for snobs.

When in doubt, simply wait until lots of other people are clapping.

By the way, this tradition of waiting to applaud until the very end of a piece is relatively new. In other times and places, audiences clapped throughout the music. Mozart, for instance, was proud to report in a letter to his father that there had been wild applause during his latest symphony. So if you feel an urge to clap before the very end of a piece, you’re in tune with an authentic historical tradition.

One more thing about clapping: snobs might try to make this into a really big deal. Snobs are only too ready to sneer at people whose enthusiasm results in mis-timed applause. Such snobbery should be pitied but ignored.

Sounds that Get in the Way

  • Mobile phones, pagers, and beeper watches (Turn them off!)
  • Talking (You’d be surprised how many people get so excited that they forget they’re not watching TV.)
  • Whispering (You’d be surprised how many people think whispering is silent.)
  • Unwrapping anything
  • Coughing (If you have a cough, then bring cough drops—unwrap them beforehand, please!—or take cough medicine.)
  • Squeaking a chair
  • Opening a purse
  • Jingling coins
  • Rustling the program
  • Saying “shhh”

Activities that Get in the Way

  • Texting
  • Fidgeting
  • Passing notes
  • Adding or subtracting clothes
  • Messing around with belongings
  • Eating
  • Entering or leaving
  • Walking around

You don’t have to be tense or uptight through the concert. You don’t have to hold your breath! But do help to create a silence in which the music can thrive, and a stillness that helps everyone to focus on that music.

When to Applaud, Part 2

In some situations you can clap whenever you like something. This is often the case at opera and ballet. The audience may applaud the lights dimming, the curtain opening, the first appearance of a major star, an impressive dance move, a lovely song, or a beautifully designed backdrop.

But it’s not like this at every ballet and opera. If you get confused (and I get confused myself sometimes) just imitate the rest of the audience. And remember this: if you’re not sure when to clap, it’s not your fault. The performers are supposed to help you know when to clap, but they don’t always make it clear.

What about Children?

Concerts are not for everyone. Babies and little children, for instance, can’t be expected to follow the rules at a grown-ups’ concert. Leave them at home until they are old enough to understand how to behave. Even some adults can’t meet these standards of behavior. Some people can’t be quiet. Some people can’t stay in a chair. Some people snore. Use good judgment and consideration about whom you bring.

Legal Matters

At a concert you shouldn’t take pictures or make a recording, and don’t even think of making a video. It is distracting to do these things, and it is usually illegal. Besides, you are there to experience the concert, not to preserve it!

Introduction to Classical Music
  Music Categories
  Musical Instruments
  History of Classical Music
  Discover the Classics
     Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4

Glossary of Musical Terms

A-Z of Opera
  Synopses of Opera
  Index of Operas by Composer
  Opera Libretti

How To Enjoy A Live Concert
  A Note from the Author
  The Listener's Job Description
  Part 1: Before the Concert
  Choosing a Concert 
Kinds of Concerts 
Styles of Presentation: Formal, Informal, and Beyond 
Buying a Ticket
Sections of the Theater 
Getting Ready 
Getting There 
  Part 2: At the Concert
  "Concert Manners" 
The Concert Ritual 
Reading the Program 
Instruments of the Orchestra 
Ways to Listen 
Meeting the Performers 
Essential Life Support 
  A Brief Glossary

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