Classical Music Concert Etiquette

General etiquette for concert of classical music, including appropriate dress for audience members.

Attending a concert of classical music is a very different experience from attending a concert of jazz or popular music (rock, rap, country, etc.) Although some audience members may be initially intimidated by the more formal general atmosphere of a classical concert, the rules of etiquette for such a concert are actually straightforward and simple once you get used to them.

1. Dress

Although you don't need to dress as if you were attending a state dinner at the White House or a royal wedding, you will probably feel more comfortable at a classical concert if you dress in a respectful manner. Different audience members will interpret this in different ways, but you should generally avoid clothing with holes, rips, or tears; very casual shorts, skirts, or jeans; and very casual t-shirts or tank tops.

A safe outfit for a female would be a nice dress or suit, and for a male, nice pants and a jacket and tie. Less formal dress may be acceptable, as may more formal dress, but a good rule of thumb might be to dress as if you were going to attend your church, synagogue, or other house of worship, visit the bank for a loan, or make an appearance to defend yourself in court.

For those attending classical concerts in major metropolitan areas, keep in mind that audience members will probably be dressed more formally than in smaller cities or suburbs. For example, a visit to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City would certainly warrant wearing some of your most impressive finery if you enjoy dressing up.

2. Entering the Hall or Auditorium and Staying Seated

The general protocol is to arrive at the concert hall at least five to ten minutes ahead of the scheduled concert, to find your seat (perhaps with the assistance of an usher), take a program, and be seated. Conversation with companions or those seated nearby is appropriate and welcome, but as soon as the lights dim, discussion should cease.

It is absolutely imperative that you stay seated (in your own seat), except in cases of dire need or emergency. Such cases would include matters of an urgent health nature (impending sickness necessitating a trip to the restroom, continued coughing, or anything that might disturb others) or obvious emergency (danger to audience members, such as fire, natural disaster, building collapse, etc.) Management of most concert halls require that you turn off your pager and cell phone before the concert begins. A considerate audience member would also check to be sure that his or her watch alarm is also turned off.

Despite your enthusiasm for the performance, standing up and dancing to the music is not acceptable.

3. No Talking, Singing, or Yelling

During the performance, it is absolutely important not to talk, sing along, hum, or yell (whether positively or negatively). If necessary, a discreet whisper to your companion may be acceptable if it occurs infrequently, but the general rule is to keep your attention focused upon the performance in front of you.

4. Clapping and Showing Appreciation

When you read your program, you will probably notice between two and five major compositions of music, with several movements listed as subcategories of each. It is best not to clap between movements of a larger composition. Certainly, though, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between movements and keep track of where the performers are in the course of the program, particularly if you are unfamiliar with classical music. Therefore, if you are unsure of whether or not clapping is appropriate, follow the lead of the experienced audience members around you. Also note that a slight pause after the end of a composition is sometimes granted by the audience before applause begins, which is basically a way of savoring the "magic" of the music before breaking the spell with clapping.

Please note, when applause does begin at the end of a composition, you may hear other members of the audience shouting "Bravo!" or "Brava!" This is completely acceptable when it occurs after the completion of a performance, and simply means "Well done!" Audience members may also stand (as in a "standing ovation") when a performance is particularly noteworthy. A further extension of appreciation by the audience or individuals is exhibited when flowers are presented to the soloist(s) during this time of applause.

5. Curtain Calls and Encores

Once applause begins after the completion of a composition, you will see that the soloist(s) and the conductor (if the performance involves an orchestra) may leave the stage for a few moments and then return to the stage. This is called a curtain call and may happen repeatedly if the applause continues. If audience enthusiasm remains sustained, after much applause, the performers may return to the stage and resume performance positions, thereby signaling to the audience that they will be performing an encore, or bonus performance. This may continue through several encores if the performers are feeling energetic and the audience excited, but will generally not last more than an extra half hour.

6. No Eating, Drinking, or Smoking

During a performance, you should not eat, drink, or smoke. If you are suffering from a cough, the discreet unwrapping and sucking of a cough drop is appropriate, but any other eating should be saved for intermission(s).

Special Notes for Outdoor or Pops Concerts:

The mood and atmosphere of outdoor or pops concerts is generally much less formal than a traditional indoor classical concert. For an outdoor concert, dress may be much more relaxed, with most attendees wearing casual wear, and eating may even be encouraged, such as at summer picnic concerts. Even so, talking and making noise during the performance is still inappropriate, though it may be more acceptable to move around, particularly if you are located a good distance away from the performers.

Despite these several and perhaps complicated rules of etiquette for attending a concert of classical music, once you get used to the general protocol, they will come as second nature. The rewards of following these rules are great, and will almost always result in greater enjoyment for you as well as for your fellow audience members.

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