To clap or not to clap – concert etiquette |

To clap or not to clap – concert etiquette

Column by Meadow DeVor and Ann Pelletier, Tahoe Conservatory of Music

If you’re happy and you know

And you really want to show it

If you’re happy and you know it

Clap your hands

A typical concert program includes the performance of a concerto and/or a symphony. A concerto is a work composed for both the orchestra and a soloist and most often consists of three separate sections, or movements. A symphony is usually divided into four movements. Though there may be a scattering of short solos, in contrast to a concerto, a symphony does not showcase a single instrument.

Symphony and concerto movements, it’s important to note, are generally separated by a pause during which the orchestra catches its collective breath, empties its instruments of spit (gross but true), and in some cases even tunes up again. During this pause, the conductor may pull out his handkerchief and wipe his brow, but mind you, he does not turn around and face the audience. That’s your biggest clue that the piece is not over.

The question we’re dealing with today is whether to clap during that space between movements. Believe it or not, this is a matter of some controversy, and there appears to be no Miss Manners who can speak for all symphony-goers.

There was a time, back in the days when classical music was popular music, when the audience was a rowdier lot – eating and drinking, clapping and cat calling, flirting and fidgeting – all the while the players were playing.

During the Romantic era things began to get more serious, with composers challenging the audience to listen more closely. Musicians certainly wanted to be cheered – concert organizers even posted professional clappers (called “claques”) in the concert halls. But they didn’t want the praise to interfere with the music.

Not too much, anyway.

Did the composer really expect an audience to refrain from showing their admiration at the end of the first movement of a concerto, say, when the soloist’s part calls for a dazzling display of virtuosity? Not likely. So it became customary to clap at the end of the first and final movements, but not during other pauses.

Yet since the 1940s, for some reason (birth of the “cool?”) the prevailing camp has called for even further restraint. To clap before the final strain of a symphony is to commit that most dreaded of crimes – a faux pas.

But lately the applause police have been looking away, letting a little more liberal expression slip into concert halls of some cities, including Reno. When audience members like what they hear, they’re less hesitant to show it.

What’s our take? Don’t let questions of etiquette keep you from attending concerts. Go and have a good time. Let the music be your guide.

Meadow DeVor is director of Tahoe Conservatory of Music. She can be reached at Ann Pelletier is a writer and student of music. She can be reached at

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