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Classical Music Perfomance: The Rules


Now that the season is upon us, get out there and enjoy the culture. If you are invited to the philharmonic or a chamber music performance, don’t be intimidated if you’ve never been. Herewith a simple list of what to expect and how to prepare.

Familiarize before you go - Find the music or video of the performance on the internet and listen to the work ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the music. You know, just like you would do if you were going to a Wilco concert. You’d spend the week before listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so you could jam along in the rare event that Tweedy performed one of the songs you actually knew the words to.
Dress up – If it’s opening night, black tie. If any other night, a suit and tie. At the very least a blazer. NO jeans.

Cell phone off – Turn OFF your damn cell phone when you walk into the hall. No vibrate, no text, no nothing. Disconnect from the outside world completely. You will never appreciate what is happening if you don’t let it flow inside and around you.

Make NO noise – Do not talk, whisper, rustle, cough, sneeze, what have you. If you have a cough that a drop won’t help, hold the cough until between movements. If it’s uncontrollable, leave the hall until you regain composure.

Caffeinate – Drink a strong coffee before you go. It isn’t easy sitting there in warm concert hall with mellifluous music wafting over you.  Concerts usually last 2 hours with an intermission in between.

Avoid the Wine - If you forget to drink coffee, definitely forego the wine that flows at all concert halls because you will zonk completely out. But if you do fall asleep, it’s not the end of the world.  It will be the most blissful sleep you’ve ever experienced. Of course, if you snore you will be humiliated so keep that in mind.

Sit on your hands - There is no clapping in between movements of a symphony or chamber piece. This is the biggest trap new comers fall into. It’s not the end of the world, but it is easily avoidable. Just don’t clap until the majority of people in the hall have begun clapping. Because this is such a no no, don’t even trust the people next to, behind or in front of you. Pieces of classical music have movements and when the first movement ends and the second one begins, you will look like a rube if you clap off cue.  Classical music was the movie, play and TV show of its day and hence the public’s main source of entertainment. The movements told stories. The audience waited until the end of the entire piece to applaud. Save the woo hoos and yee haws for the Wilco concert or the football game. Polite and enthusiastic applause is all that’s called for in a concert hall. Look in the program you receive from the usher as you enter the hall. This will tell you how many movements are in the piece.

Know the form - The normal four-movement form is:
1. an opening allegro
2. a slow movement
3. a minuet or scherzo
4. an allegro or rondo

For example, the program notes for Mahler’s First Symphony would look something like this.

1. Langsam, Schleppend (Slowly, dragging) Immer sehr gemächlich (very restrained throughout) D major
2. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving strongly, but not too quickly), Recht gemächlich (restrained), a Trio – a Ländler-
3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemnly and measured, without dragging), Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise (very simple, like a folk-tune), and Wieder etwas bewegter, wie im Anfang (something stronger, as at the start) – a funeral march based on the children’s song “Frère Jacques” (or “Bruder Martin”)
4. Stürmisch bewegt- Energisch (Stormily agitated, energetic)

SP Recommends jumping into the classical music pool. There are symphonic and chamber music organizations in most larger cities and college towns as seen in this map. Check it out. Handy Terms can be found here.


  1. Carson Chittom October 13, 2009 Reply

    I’m a classically trained musician (violin)and although I’ve never played professionally (largely, frankly, because I wasn’t willing to spend that much time to get that little money), in the past I’ve played with youth orchestras and university groups. I’ve also attended more professional and amateur performances than you can shake a stick at. While you’re certainly right that the “correct” thing to do is to wait until the end of a piece to applaud, I can’t help but feel that vehemently insisting on it is the wrong tack to take, particularly in an age where likely greater than nine-tenths of the populace wouldn’t know an allegro from a largo (and given the state of musical education in the United States, it would be unfair to expect them to). I’m much more of a mind with the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (which performs down the street from my office) whose website says (at, “The history of applause at orchestra concerts is long and varied. There was a time when audiences were expected to applaud after every movement of a multi-movement work. More recently, applause has been withheld until the entire work is performed. At MSO, our policy is simple – if you want to say thanks, we are happy to hear it at any time. We suggest you follow your heart.” I would be surprised if most performers didn’t feel similarly; perhaps – probably, even waiting until the end should be the default, but you won’t annoy the musicians if you applaud in the middle.

    Of course, being the only one applauding after every movement is quite gauche as it detracts from the experience for everyone else. But if your fellow concert-goers think you a rube for clapping along with a large group after a particularly moving, er, movement, I say let them. If you’re not going to the concert to enjoy the music, why are you there?

  2. Titus October 13, 2009 Reply

    Carson’s comments are spot-on: applause was far more frequent back when classical music was the popular entertainment of the day. It’s even more true still today with opera: applauding at the conclusion of an aria or duet is common, even if patrons today don’t tear the house apart like their nineteenth-century predecessors.

    “leave the hall until you regain composure.” — be careful here, however. The concert hall may have policies against re-entry, so check the program before excusing yourself unless you want to spend the whole movement in the lobby.

  3. j gettinger October 19, 2009 Reply

    Re applause: I agree w/ SP on concerts; however, it is customary to applaud individual arias at certain operas as well particularly spectacular solos or duets at ballet. The exception at opera would be through composed works such as Wagner’s, where applause is held until the end of an act. Such works don’t have set piece arias, but if in doubt, take your signal from the conductor. At Parsifal, the custom is not to applaud after the transformation scene (a taking of the eucharist w/ the Holy Grail) that ends Act I, but I find the hushing against the violators to be worse than the violation.

    No one should attempt to hold a paper or plastic bag in one’s lap during a perfomance. It will be quite safe under the seat.

    Finally, at any performance, I think it very rude for members of the audience to leave while the singers, musicians or cast members remain on stage receiving applause. If you weren’t thrilled, or even if you are in a hurry to leave, please remain seated until the bow lights go off and the house lights come up.

    Oh, one more thing. No matter if you know every note, do not hum or sing along: only one person ever got away with that and he was at the podium and his name was Arturo Toscanini!

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