When to Applaud (and not to Applaud!) at Musical, Dance, and Theatrical Performances

Concerts in the Classical Tradition

In 18th-century Europe, it was customary for audiences to applaud—and even eat and drink—during musical performances in the classical tradition. By the late19th century, however, composers began requesting that silence be observed during movements; and by the 20th century, applause even between movements had become faux pas. So today, audiences of concerts in the classical tradition applaud when the conductor first appears on stage to begin the concert; when all the musicians make their way onto the stage and stand in unison, at the direction of the conductor, in order to signal the beginning of the concert; at the end of each piece, when the conductor lowers his hands to his side and faces the audience; when the conductor re-appears before the audience to begin another piece, and when he exits the stage at the end of a piece; when the musicians, in unison, exit the stage just before the intermission; when the conductor acknowledges the various soloists; at the very end of the concert; and to suggest an encore, when audiences, depending on the country, may offer sustained applause and even shout “Da capo!” (In Italy); “Bis!” (In France); and “Encore!” (in the English-speaking world). It should be noted, however, that after the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Pathetique, it has become customary for audiences to applaud. And in operas, after a great aria, audiences applaud and shout (“Bravo!” “Brava!” “Bravi!” or “Bravissimo!” depending on the gender/number of the performer[s] and the level of enthusiasm for the performance), even if the music continues. In Great Britain, however, audiences generally do not applaud after arias. Instead, they reserve their applause for the end of the act.

Concerts of Popular Music

Unlike concerts in the classical tradition, where concert goers sit, audiences at rock and other popular-music concerts tend to stand throughout or much of the concert—even if seats have been provided. And unlike concerts in the classical tradition, where concert goers do not enter and exit the theater while the performance is in progress, people attending popular music performances tend to enter and exit whenever it is convenient for them, even while a selection is being performed.

It is customary for individuals in the audience to dance in place. Audiences applaud when the band first takes the stage; at the beginning and at favorite points of popular songs, especially when the lead vocalist achieves certain challenging notes; and at the end of songs. On occasion, the performer may invite the audience to sing along on well-known songs. Cigarette lighters are lit and, increasingly, mobile phones are illuminated and waved overhead in synchronized, side-to-side movements during especially popular songs and to request encore performances.

Jazz Performances

Jazz is traditionally performed in “sets”—usually two-hour performances with an intermission—in intimate, dimly lit, smoke-filled jazz clubs where the audience sits at small tables that accommodate anywhere from two to about eight people. The typical jazz band/ensemble performs two, maximum three, sets per night. Food and drink are typically served in jazz clubs before sets and during intermission. Persons eating and drinking continue eating and drinking at their leisure during the set, but food or drink is typically not served during sets.

The audience applauds when the musicians first appear on stage. Typically without much ado—no speeches, no introductions, no acknowledgments—the first piece is performed. It is customary for audiences to applaud and exclaim at the opening bars of familiar tunes and at the end of each tune. Throughout a tune, at the end of any virtuosic display, audiences applaud and cheer. In selected tunes, each musician is afforded an opportunity to showcase his skill on his respective instrument, the other musicians serving as accompanists during each musician’s featured performance. After each such “solo” performance, the audience applauds and exclaims with enthusiasm commensurate to the performance. Featured vocalists are applauded upon first taking the stage; after singing the first notes of a familiar or favorite tune; after accomplishing any extraordinary vocal feat during a performance; at the end of any vocal segment of a tune; and at the end of a tune. Typically, towards the end of a set, the spokesperson of the band, during a “signature” instrumental selection, introduces each member of the band to audience applause. Then at the end of a set, the audience applauds.

Jazz is also performed at jazz festivals at outdoor and in arena-type venues. Under such circumstances, in addition to applauding as described above, members of the audience sometimes stand and dance in place as desired.

Dance Performances

Audiences sometimes applaud when a famous or principal dancer makes his or her first appearance on stage. At the ballet or other dance performances, it is customary for audiences to applaud immediately after especially beautiful, intricate, or difficult segments of the choreography have been performed, even as the music continues. And, of course, applause is offered at the end of acts, pieces, and at the end of the performance, with sustained applause offered during the curtain call and to encourage encores.

Theatrical Performances

When a famous or well-known actor makes his first appearance on stage during a performance, it is customary for the audience to applaud as a sign of respect and admiration. In comedic performances, it is proper for the audience to laugh at jokes. In musicals, the audience is expected to applaud at the beginning of vocal performances of well-known songs and at the end of all vocal performances. The audience is expected to applaud at the end of acts; and at the end of the performance. During the curtain call, members of the audience may stand to applaud and may shout enthusiastically in support of stellar or stand-out performers.

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