Classical Concerts—What Are The Rules?

It’s fun to ask classical audiences whether people should clap between movements.  Passionate response invariably leads to questions of just what a classical concert is all about. I think the problem is that we just don’t know the rules.  Call it the New Informality.  There are “casual” concerts, concerts with visual media, concerts with pop musicians, concerts that encourage social media interaction, etc. Presenters work very hard to stay relevant by embracing the current cultural milieu to appeal to younger generations. The problem is that no one really knows what is expected anymore. Some people that’s a good thing, but talking with many audiences as I do, I sense people would rather feel more comfortable.

Here is some good news: bassoonist and composer John Steinmetz has actually  thought deeply about concert etiquette and created a wonderful guide called “The Naxos Guide: How To Enjoy A Classical Concert.” You might forward this to all your friends.

Many questions arise from this New Informality in classical concerts—what to wear, when to clap, when to talk, when can and can’t you take pictures, when should and should you not use your phone, how long will a piece or concert half last, how long is intermission, when is it polite to leave, etc.? Innovative programmers embrace the New Informality for freshening the air in concert halls after centuries of stuffy elitism. They are quick to point out that clapping between movements and even during performances was the earlier tradition during the times of the very composers we listen to now in rapt silence. They rightly point out that the snobbery and judgmental atmosphere of the typical 20th century concert hall does not serve classical music well today.  Some go beyond that, insisting that live classical music join the rest of society, so to speak, by embracing our modern technological lives—encouraging audiences to tweet, text, take and post pictures and video.  

But…what a tension that creates for today’s audiences, a mixed bunch of regular concertgoers, newcomers of all ages interested in classical music, and one-time shoppers interested in a novel music experience. Unsure what is proper, audiences many times experience vague discomfort. We all know those moments where there is a trickle of applause that then quiets down only to then erupt a little a few seconds later—those are examples of confusion and embarrassment, not enthusiasm. Looking around and feeling either overdressed or underdressed is another common experience. It sounds good to say, “Anything goes,” but the reality is that we feel most comfortable when we don’t stick out. 

Composers learn that creative freedom best arises from a set of structural constraints. Perhaps concerts can benefit from some general constraints as well. It might not be a question of whether to clap between movements or not, but a question of what is expected in this particular performance.

I heard a funny story from LA Philharmonic musicians about their confusion at how to dress for the first “Casual Friday” concerts. “Casual Fridays” seek to create a more informal concert experience with a shorter program and drinks afterwards so the audience and performers can mingle.  At first, many of the musicians took “casual” literally and came to the concert in jeans and other less formal wear. Management quickly established guidelines to define “casual!”

Why not the same with audiences?  If we know the boundaries of dress, we will dress appropriately and it becomes a non-issue. Pre-concert announcements already present the rules for cell phones. Why not add information about the length of the program and whether clapping is preferred to be held back till the end of entire pieces or not. If all of these also become “non-issues,” we can all get right to listening to the music itself.

What do you all think? I know you all have thoughts on this subject. What conventions should we adopt to preserve what makes the experience of hearing live classical music so special, but also makes it more comfortable and welcoming for everyone?


John Steinmetz “How To Enjoy A Classical Concert”

     The Naxos Complete Guide To Good Concert Manners

    Getting Ready

    Concert Rituals


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