author: niplav, created: 2019-04-11, modified: 2022-06-10, language: english, status: maintenance, importance: 4, confidence: unlikely

In western cultures, it is nearly universal for people to clap before and after pieces of classical music and jazz. An argument against this practice is presented, counterarguments are discussed, and alternative approaches to appreciation of music are proposed.

Against Applause After Classical Concerts

Silence is a hard virtue.

Scott Alexander, “The Virtue of Silence”, 2013

Arguing Against Applause

In visual art, curators try to create a well-fitting environment for the art: either a neutral environment in the case of modern or abstract art, or a culturally fitting environment in a tasteful building and well-lit rooms.

In this regard, it seems like visual art is curated mostly along spatial categories: buildings, rooms, space, and lighting. So, if one were to curate music, which categories would be important? Since music is curated, this is not a hypothetical: music is curated mostly after temporal categories such as time and order.

However, one ritual does not fit into this: clapping before, during and after concerts puts noise directly before and after a performance. An analogy with visual art would be putting tv screens with static next to pieces of abstract art (and not as part of the art work!). This could perhaps fit with some pieces of art, but would mostly be distracting and counter-productive to understanding the piece. So, why does a society put noise before, after, and sometimes even between pieces music?

On the contrary, treating classical music like visual art would imply creating a fitting soundscape around a piece of music. Concretely, this could consist of a fixed period of silence before and after a piece of music, or a fitting low complexity soundscape that prepares for the piece about to be played. I am much more in favour of having silence, since sorrounding music seems hard to pull of so that it fits.

There is some evidence that silence indeed is appreciated by people who listen to classical music in concert. For example, an acquaintance of mine told me enthusiastically about a performance of a symphony by Bruckner that ended in half a minute of silence before the applause started, which he highly appreciated (despite being against eschewing applause entirely). Furthermore, it is a great faux-pas to clap before the last note of a piece has ended, especially when interrupting a decrescendo at the end of a piece. A more crude observation can be made about interrupting sounds during a concert like talking or coughing, a cardinal sin for somebody in a concert hall, though this seems less relevant because there is a diffence between distraction during music and distraction before and after music.

Preventing Incorrect Clapping

The exact fitting moments of applause are a difficult topic in classical music and the source of many mistakes on the side of the audience, abolishing applause would remove these mistakes, but also prevent the ability to display status and knowledge by knowing where to clap (and the possibility to keep out ignorant philistines).

Examples for such incorrect applause is clapping prematurely, applause between different movements of the same piece (for different pieces, this is fine though‽) and clapping after a particularly impressive solo (which is okay in Jazz, but not in classical music).

All of this confusion could be avoided by eschewing applause entirely.


It seems like very similar arguments have been given in the history of music:

Schumann and Mendelssohn tacitly addressed the applause issue by writing certain major works without movement breaks. Call it pre-emptive composing, if you will. For example, Mendelssohn explicitly asked that his "Scottish" Symphony, which debuted in 1842, be played without a break to avoid "the usual lengthy interruptions." Schumann took care of the matter in a similar way in his piano and cello concerti as well as his Fourth Symphony.

As a respected critic of the time, Schumann also openly scolded audiences in print for their behavior. He went on record as chiding them: "You should be turned to stone pagodas."

New Yorker critic Alex Ross points the finger at German composer Richard Wagner for instigating this change in audience behavior. Ross says the ball got rolling in Bayreuth at the premiere of Wagner's opera "Parsifal" in 1882.

According to Wagner's wife, the audience raised such a ruckus after one of the acts that the composer spoke to them directly. He thanked them for their appreciation but mentioned the agreement he'd made with the cast -- "in order not to impinge on the impression, not to take a bow, so that there would be no 'curtain calls.'"

Applauders were apparently hissed in subsequent performances for failing to honor this request.

By around 1900, a segment of the public had embraced the concert hall as a hallowed space. Howard Shanet references a pre-World War I era Encyclopedia Britannica article saying, "The reverential spirit which abolished applause in church has tended to spread to the theatre and the concert-room."

As Ross documents, the movement gathered more steam in this country around the time of the Great Depression, spearheaded by conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Stokowski went so far as to propose audiences stop applauding altogether, lest it intrude on the divinity of the concert experience: “When you see a beautiful painting you do not applaud. When you stand before a statue, whether you like it or not, you neither applaud nor hiss.” On the other hand, Russian-born American conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch praised the southern Europeans who "shout when they are pleased; and when they are not, they hiss and throw potatoes." And he chided passive audiences: “It is a mistake to think you have done your part when you buy your tickets.” Halfway through the 20th century the conductor Pierre Monteux sided with the great composers of the past: "I do have one big complaint about audiences in all countries, and that is their artificial restraint from applause between movements or a concerto or symphony. … It certainly does not fit in with the composers’ intentions."

Jean Inaba, “The clapping question: Should classical audiences applaud between movements?”, 2014

Musicians have also given very similar arguments to the one presented here:

Chicago Symphony Orchestra bassoonist William Buchman asserted in 2012 that absolute quiet is as important to a work as the notes themselves: "The silence is as profound as some of the music, and when that silence is not allowed its space, you lose a lot of the emotional impact that the silence can otherwise generate."

Jean Inaba, “The clapping question: Should classical audiences applaud between movements?”, 2014

But, historically, this perspective is quite uncommon:

Mozart would've loved hearing the applause. So would Brahms. And Beethoven and Grieg and a lot of other composers.

In their day, audiences spontaneously clapped when they heard something they really liked – even if it meant breaking into the music before its conclusion.

Jean Inaba, “The clapping question: Should classical audiences applaud between movements?”, 2014

However, one could argue that the trend in classical music is from loud and frequent applause towards a more quiet and refined appreciation of the music, and that the logical conclusion of this development is absolute silence before, during, and after a classical piece.


Applause Fits Because of Cultural History

Just like the tuning of the instruments before a classical concert, applause can be considered an important part of the ritual that goes along with all forms of art. If that were the case, removing such an integral part would be not beneficial to the appreciation of the piece, but detrimental. I personally feel that removing the tuning of instruments at the beginning of a piece is not as urgent as removing applause, although they both have a negative impact on the pure experiential aspect of classical music (although, at least, tuning instruments is in the same category of sound as the concert itself, with the sounds being produced by instruments, and not just being white-noise-ish background sounds).

There is an interesting trade-off to be observed here: one between following art-intrinsic rituals, and optimizing for an optimal experience. Similarly, one could argue that painters do not matter, and images should be sold on their individual quality alone. This, of course, would violate the idea of brand-building in the artist community, render social gatherings of artists and collectors useless, and destroy the culture around the artists and their works. Removing applause wouldn't be as drastic, but in a similar spirit: Exchanging a socially and historically aware conception of music for a very puristic and theoretical one.

Still, it feels like not being offered a choice whether one wants to participate in the rituals of classical music seems unfair to purists. One could imagine concerts targeted especially at people who want to isolate listening experience from everyday noise, maybe even gaining popularity after a while because of a status as especially knowledgeable coinisseurs of classical music. And the status signalling treadmill turns and turns.

Applause is Useful for Appreciation and Communication for Feedback

Of course, all if this argumentation ignores the main function of applause: Showing appreciation for the musicians' performance in a clear way. Prohibiting applause entirely would make it difficult for musicians to assess the quality of their performance by observing different intensities of applause, though it seems unclear how often musicians really optimize for loud, long and frentic applause (and how often this kind of applause happens because of the quality of the performance compared to the celebrity status of some performers). It would also remove a major motivation for playing, namely, receiving appreciation for a performance.

On the other hand, applause is not the only possible appreciation signal available. One could imagine others that would both leave the musicians satisfied, for example Jazz Hands-like gestures used in deaf culture or the amount of time spent in the concert hall after the last note has been played.

Clapping on Chesterton's Fence

I have hinted at this point before already, but it is worth stressing that traditions like applause may fulfill old and useful functions that can't be seen, and removing applause might cause unforseen consequences.

One such possible function could be that knowing correct applause in a concert (before and after a piece, not between movements, but after an aria it is fine) strengthens group cohesion between concert-goers (because it is a useful in-group signal based on common knowledge) and perhaps contributes to the continued culture around classical music.

If applause were to be abolished, it could be that a similar display couldn't be found before this cohesion breaks up and classical music falls into oblivion. While this may seem like an unrealistically extreme scenario, there are a myriad of similar possibilities lurking behind drastic changes to the concert experience.

However, this point does not automatically mean it is right to reject experimentation with feedback for musicians, including "no-applause concerts".

Other Approaches

For now, I have only written about criticisms of applause without otherwise considering alternative options that fulfill the rudimentary functions of applause.

Existing Different Approaches

During the history of art appreciation, there have been different approaches to showing appreciation for art. For example,

The ancient Romans had set rituals at public performances to express degrees of approval: snapping the finger and thumb, clapping with the flat or hollow palm, and waving the flap of the toga […].

English Wikipedia, “Applause”, 2019

Here, I will only consider approaches that produce minimal sound.


It is perhaps not common, but at least regular that concert audiences stay in complete silence for a short period of time after a particularly awe-inspiring performance. Unfortunately, this is often followed by especially loud and disturbing applause. Perhaps the length of this period of silence could be another way of showing appreciation for a good piece, with longer periods of silence showing a high enjoyment of the piece. However, this could fail due to coordination problems, and leave the artists even more confused: Some people would start clapping instantly, while others would stay silent, confusing everyone on the opinion of the audience (using both clapping and the absence of applause as displays of appreciation could be very confusing).

Jazz hands

In Deaf culture, Deaf audiences will use a more visually expressive variant of clapping. Instead of clapping their palms together, they raise their hands straight up with outstretched fingers and twist their wrists […].

English Wikipedia, “Applause”, 2019

This practice, also known as "Jazz Hands", seems to be a good starting point: an already existing method, retaining most of the properties of applause (such as being visible, produced by the audience, requiring participation, mostly self-coordinating and less straining on the palms) and being favoured by a marginalized group connected to the social justice movement.

However, some good objections have been raised:

All of these objections can be raised against any form of inaudible forms of appreciation.

Possible new Forms of Appreciation

Since both jazz hands and complete silence, one could propose to make a leap and engineer a new form of appretiation that doesn't need as much noise as applause. Of course, this could carry several problems with it that go unnoticed for a long time.

Staying in the Concert Hall

One new approach could be to show ones appreciation for the performance by staying in the concert hall after the piece ends. The longer one would stay in the concert hall, the higher an appreciation this would entail. This is already a limited practice: to express their own extreme dissatisfaction with a piece, listeners sometimes leave the concert hall during a performance. However, this is rare.

Staying in the concert hall afterwards would make intuitive sense: It would show that the music was so moving that listeners are still listening to the after-sound of the piece in their mind, or are still processing the emotional impact of the music.


This method would only work at the end of a concert, but would not provide any feedback during a piece or between pieces.

Also, many people seem to have have a very physical reaction to good music, which requires some form of outlet. If this is true, then perhaps one could assume that applause is not for the musicians after all, but for the audience to release built up energy. This also holds true if some people have the need to whistle or humm the music after a particularly good piece.

Often, listeners meet up after concerts to talk with each other about the music and the performance. In this case, coordination would be more difficult since talking would be prohibited after the performance.

Since performances of classical music mostly take place in the evening, listeners who sit still could fall asleep after a while, making it difficult for personnel to close the hall in an appropriate amount of time. This would also be true with strong signals of appreciation (staying in the concert hall for hours).


Due to the arguments discussed above, it could be worthwhile to experiment with classical concerts by organising special events where applause is prohibited. While it could carry some problems, there exists a possibility of gaining a more pure experience of the music by allowing it to stay in the mind of the listeners for some time without being interrupted by loud applause. Research into how applause develops and disappears (e.g. Mann et al. 2013) could help determine how to prevent applause from arising in the first place.