If you've ever attended a classical concert, you've probably experienced that awkward, hesitant half-clapping that sometimes occurs at the end of a symphonic movement: The music stops, the hall falls silent and, whether out of nervous habit or honest enthusiasm, a few audience members start to clap. But like a slow clap that doesn't catch on, the applause is quickly quelled by those in the room who are following the traditional "rules" of the genre (no clapping between movements). What results is a sort of flaccid, uncertain response that leaves everyone feeling awkward ("Eek, I shouldn't have clapped!" or "Argh, those idiots don't know when to clap").
In his recent review of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's ReMix concert, Dallas Morning News classical music critic Scott Cantrell posed a question: "It's great to see new audiences at a symphony concert," he noted, "but is there some non-snooty way to suggest holding applause between movements?"
Well, Mr. Cantrell, probably not, especially in reference to a concert that was clearly billed as relaxed and informal. Anytime you tell someone who paid for a ticket to hear a performance that their response to that performance was somehow wrong or incorrect, it is definitely going to sound snooty. It's like saying, "We're glad you imbeciles came to see our fancy schmancy art music, but your response was totally gauche." Not a particularly inviting sentiment for an art form that needs to cultivate younger audiences if it is to thrive in the future.
The bulk of the confusion over applause in classical concerts centers on the form of the music being performed. Most contemporary music is short and sweet: A band plays a song, the song ends, the audience claps. A lot of classical music is long-form, like a novel rather than a short story. A typical symphony has four parts (like chapters or episodes). These parts or segments are called movements. The common "rule" is that the audience should refrain from clapping between individual movements in a work so that they can appreciate the overall structure of the larger work.
The movements of a symphony or concerto are almost always outlined in the program, so if you want to or care to, you can follow along and wait to clap until all movements have been performed. That being said, it's not always easy to follow the movements of a symphony or song-cycle, especially if you are unfamiliar with the music. Sometimes a conductor will choose to move from one movement into the next without pause. Other times there are pauses within a movement that sound very final. Once you get lost, you get confused: "Wait, is this the end? Was I supposed to clap? When am I supposed to clap?" The worst part of all this is that you end up thinking about clapping rather than actually listening to the music.
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Two simple "rules" can clear up this problem. Here they are:
Listen. Enjoy. And Respond/Clap Whenever and However You Want. Basically, clap whenever you damn well please. And likewise, don't clap if you don't feel like it. This is not school or a court of law. This is a concert. This is entertainment. For whatever reason, a long time ago, we humans decided that slapping our hands together percussively was an easy, convenient way to show our approval when someone says or does something we like. When someone claps at the end of a movement, more often than not it is because they are responding positively to what they just heard. Most musicians love positive feedback, even if it is given at technically "inappropriate" times. They are human beings after all, and ones that are being vulnerable with their emotions, talent and ideas in front of a huge audience. They might feel intense anger if your cell phone goes off in the middle of their performance, but they're not going to get mad if you clap for them at anytime.
Watch the Conductor. A good conductor is communicating to the entire room with every part of his or her body. If you're not sure whether or not a piece is over, watch the conductor. If the conductor's arms and fingers are still actively engaged or lifted, they are holding the orchestra and the audience at attention as if to say, "Wait! There's more!" When the conductor relaxes completely, you'll see it. That's when their job is done and it's your turn to respond. You'll learn a lot from watching a good conductor anyway, and it's much easier and more engaging than getting bogged down in a program.
Sometimes, when a piece of art music is performed with incredible beauty, the silence at the end of a movement can be magical. If you're really in that moment, it can be frustrating when that silence is broken by an awkward clap. Still, I don't see how criticizing honest, heartfelt responses to art or music is beneficial. In fact, sometimes I love it when someone claps at the "wrong" time. I've heard some of this music many, many times and sometimes my preconditioned response is snooty. But to someone else in the audience, it is new. And their enthusiastic response -- even between movements -- often reminds me of why I first fell in love with the music we're listening to together. So let's quit worrying about etiquette and focus more on enjoying the music. Can I get a slow clap?