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Symphony Etiquette Made Simple

Dear Dr. Dave and Dr. Dee,

My mother-in-law has invited me to an afternoon symphony concert. I have never been to a symphony and wondered if there was anything special that I need to know about symphony etiquette. I've heard that you don't clap until the entire piece is played, but how is one to know when that is? Doesn't that seem "snobby"?


Not a symphony snob

Dear Not a symphony snob,

Generally, it is not considered appropriate to applaud until the symphony has been performed because it detracts from the mood and flow of the entire piece. Although there are often long pauses between movements, audiences normally applaud at the end of each symphony, after all the movements have been played (usually 3-4 movements).

If you are not sure when to clap, look at the program and see how many movements are in the symphony. Another way to tell when it's time to clap is to wait until the conductor puts down the baton and turns around. Or, just go with the flow of the audience.

An exception to the waiting-to-clap rule is if a soloist is performing with the orchestra. If the audience is particularly enthralled by the performance, then they often clap after a movement.

People could be more relaxed about the no clapping between movements rule. The BBC News had a story by Mark Easton who attended a BBC Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall where people intentionally clapped between movements.

Easton also described a story about Parisian audiences liking Mozart's new symphony in 1778 (Paris Symphony) so much, that they clapped between movements. Mozart appreciated the response and wrote about it in a letter to his father.

Easton wonders, "Perhaps we are witnessing a gradual return to the musical etiquette of the 19th century when audiences would routinely applaud before, during and after a performance as the mood took them."