Musical Space: When Are You Supposed To Clap?

Mar 18, 2014

As much as I love classical music, there’s one thing that bothers me about going to a symphony concert; it’s that awkward moment when the music stops and people don’t know if they should clap. Symphonies and sonatas are divided into movements; the question is whether there should be applause after each movement, or only after the whole piece.

Appreciative audiences in the nineteenth century would not hold back from clapping between movements and even during the music. The same is true now at a jazz club - it’s considered cool to clap after a good bebop solo; and similarly with ballet solos and opera arias. But, for the last one hundred years or so, common practice is for the audience at a classical instrumental concert to dutifully wait until the end of the whole piece for an ovation.

But what if you’ve forgotten how many movements you’ve heard? Or what if you really want to give the performers some positive feedback? You want to show your appreciation, but you don’t want to seem dumb, and you want your neighbors to be able to appreciate every shade and nuance. Here’s my opinion: at a symphony concert, don’t worry if it’s the “right” place to do it, clap if you like what you just heard. It won’t bother the musicians. Believe me, when it comes to applause, musicians are insatiable vampires.

But, if you want to seem intelligent, here’s a tip: a really good audience will wait 5 or 10 seconds to allow everyone to savor the moment as the last reverberations die away.