I hope you enjoy your first classical music performance! Sometimes the etiquette can seem a little foreign. I’ll try to help you understand what to do, and why classical music fans do things that way.
The most important thing is not to distract the audience and the performers. Some common concert etiquette “rules” include:
- Be in your seat before the music starts. Then, stay there until intermission (if there is one) or the end of the concert.
- Don’t talk, even at a whisper.
- Keep cell phones silenced, screens off, and put away.
- No snacks.
- If you have kids who might have trouble staying still/quiet, consider leaving them at home. (Except for designated family-friendly concerts.)
- Applaud only at the “right” times. (More on this later.)
- Avoid unnecessary fidgeting, coughing, and anything else that makes noise.
Why are the “rules” so strict? One reason is that classical music is usually performed in a special concert hall. Usually the music isn’t electronically amplified. The concert hall’s special design makes even the smallest sounds clear from a distance. That’s good when it’s a hushed moment in a violin solo. But it’s bad when it’s an audience member’s crinkling candy wrappers or ringtone. At an amplified rock, country, or hip-hop concert you can make noises like that, and no one will hear. But at a classical music concert people might hear those sounds even if they are far away. The performers can maybe even hear them from the stage.
Classical music wasn’t always such a stuffy affair. Some of the music was originally performed in more boisterous settings. And there are people in classical music interested in changing the current etiquette. But for now, the (mostly-unspoken) “rules” lean toward pretty strict and formal behavior.
And, for classical music fans, it’s one of the things they might love about it. The quiet atmosphere is a blank, unblemished canvas for the musicians to paint on. It’s a chance to hear every fine detail of a performance by highly-trained musicians. It can be immersive and meditative. You might find you enjoy it too.
To seasoned classical music fans, a disruptive audience member (even unintentionally!) might feel like someone standing in front of the TV during a crucial moment in the big football game. And, unfortunately, they might react like a sports fan, with dirty looks, unkind words, or other rudeness. That’s bad too, because it can scare away potential new fans of classical music. But it probably comes from a place of wanting to experience the music in a pure, uninterrupted way.
A polite audience member also shows appreciation to the performers, usually with applause (not so much yelling, whistling, “woo,” etc.). But pieces of classical music sometimes have multiple parts, with silence between. It can be tricky to know when is the right time to clap. If there’s a printed program, that might help you figure it out. But if you’re not sure it’s best to follow the lead of some of the other concertgoers. (There’s no prize for being the first one to clap.) Sometimes there’s a long silence between the end of the music and the start of the applause. Audience members may be waiting for the last note to finish echoing in the hall. And they might even wait a little longer to savor the magical moment of silence at the end. Don’t worry. The musicians will appreciate that too, and won’t take your hesitation as a lack of enthusiasm.
If you find all this off-putting, there are ways to appreciate classical music performances from home instead. If you enjoy it you can work up to an in-person concert. Or you may be able to find free or inexpensive concerts in your area, especially if there’s a university with a music department. You can try one of those and leave at intermission if you’re bored or uncomfortable.
Thanks for your interest in live classical music, and I hope you enjoy!