Applause (Latin applaudere, to strike upon, clap) is primarily the expression of approval by the act of clapping, or striking the palms of the hands together, in order to create noise. Audiences are usually expected to applaud after a performance, such as a musical concert, speech, or play. In most western countries, audience members clap their hands at random to produce a constant noise; however, it tends to synchronize naturally to a weak degree. As a form of mass nonverbal communication, it is a simple indicator of the average relative opinion of the entire group; the louder and longer the noise, the stronger the sign of approval.
Applause by a large audience following an orchestral performance.
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The custom of applauding may be as old and as widespread as humanity, and the variety of its forms is limited only by the capacity for devising means of making a noise (e.g., stomping of feet or rapping of fists or hands on a table). Within each culture, however, it is usually subject to conventions.
The ancient Romans had a set ritual of applause for public performances, expressing degrees of approval: snapping the finger and thumb, clapping with the flat or hollow palm, waving the flap of the toga, for which the emperor Aurelian substituted handkerchiefs (orarium) that he had distributed to the Roman people. In Roman theatre, at the close of the play, the chief actor called out "Valete et plaudite!", and the audience, guided by an unofficial choregus, chanted their applause antiphonally. This was often organized and paid for.
Similarly, a claque (French for "clapping") was an organized body of professional applauders in French theatres and opera houses who were paid by the performer(s) to create the illusion of an increased level of approval by the audience.
In Christianity, customs of the theatre were adopted by the churches. Eusebius  says that Paul of Samosata encouraged the congregation to applaud his preaching by waving linen cloths (οθοναις), and in the 4th and 5th centuries applause of the rhetoric of popular preachers had become an established custom. Applause in church eventually fell out of fashion, however, and partly by the influence of the quasi-religious atmosphere of the performances of Richard Wagner's operas at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the reverential spirit that inspired this soon extended back to the theatre and the concert hall.
Protocol and variations
Well-recognized politicians or actors often receive applause as soon as they first appear on stage, even before delivering their speech or speaking their first lines. This accolade is given to indicate admiration for his or her past achievements, and is not a response to the performance the audience is attending.
Applause during church services is traditionally regarded as taboo, in light of the sanctity of the proceedings; stress is on the aspect of worship rather than the personality of the individual preaching or singing during the service. This rule may be relaxed to permit applause in honor of the bride and groom when the newly married couple may turn to be greeted by the congregation following the exchange of vows. Applause may also be permitted at certain services in honor of a specific individual, such as the investiture of a new priest or minister. In less traditional congregations, particularly in contemporary, evangelical "mega-churches", a more casual atmosphere obtains and applause may be encountered as frequently as at any secular performance.
Indiscriminate applause is widely considered a violation of classical music concert etiquette: Applause is discouraged between movements, reserved instead for the end of the entire work. There have been a number of attempts to further restrict applause in various circumstances, e.g., court theaters in Berlin prohibit applause during the performance and before the curtain call (although elsewhere in Germany this is felt to be beyond public tastes).
By contrast, opera performances have traditionally been interrupted by applause at the end of an aria or certain other set pieces, and many opera scores reflect a break in the music at places where applause would typically occur. Regarding this practice as a distraction, Richard Wagner headed it off by eliminating breaks in the score within each act; the arias in his operas do not end in a "full stop" but flow into the next section of the music, until the end of the act is reached. Even then, in light of the quasi-religious atmosphere of the first act of Parsifal, it is traditional for the audience not to applaud at all at the end of that act, but file out of their seats in silence.
On some occasions, applause occurs in the middle of an event. The President of the United States, in his State of the Union address, is often interrupted by applause; tracking the number and duration of such interruptions has become a trend on various television news channels. It is often customary for jazz performers to receive applause in the middle of a tune, after completing an improvisational solo. It is also typical to applaud at the end of a musical number in a musical theatre piece.
Extended applause at the conclusion of an event, usually but not always resulting in a standing ovation, implies approval above and beyond ordinary measure, and compels the performer to return in acknowledgement and at times proceed to an encore.
A golf clap is a form of quiet clapping, so-named because it is the preferred form of applause for golfers; louder forms of applause are discouraged at golf tournaments so as not to disturb other golfers, who may be in the process of attempting a shot. Golf claps are sometimes used at other events to heckle or to show sarcasm.
Likewise, string musicians of an orchestra usually applaud by bobbing their bows in the air or gently tapping them on their instruments' strings. Wind section members will generally lightly stamp their feet or pat one hand on their leg to show approval to a conductor or soloist. An even more subtle form of applause may be exhibited by a member of an orchestra during a formal rehearsal or performance when a colleague performs particularly well, usually a slight shuffle of the foot on the floor or hand on the knee. These subtle forms of applause may not be recognized as such by the audience. Outright applause by performers for other performers, although increasingly common, is traditionally regarded as gauche, self-congratulatory, and usurping of the audience's prerogative (and sole task in this respect) to provide accolades when they feel that the performance merits it.
A recent phenomenon in Britain is the use of a minute's applause to indicate respect for a recently deceased person, which has come to replace the traditional minute's silence, especially at football matches. However in most countries, applause for a deceased person is still widely frowned upon and not recommended because it may be misinterpreted as rudeness or joy.
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. However, in a situation more specific to hearing culture, the traditional clap is used.
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In some cultures, slow, synchronized clapping by displeased audience members is considered not applause, but the opposite: a form of heckling, or an expression of mocking dislike or disapproval of the performer. The person being slowly clapped at may interpret the clap as an insult, and a sign to leave the stage. Comedian Fred Allen, in his book Much Ado about Me, wrote that one noted vaudeville house developed a rhythm ("clap, clap, clap clap clap"), the maddening repetition of which could completely unnerve a performer.
A notable occurrence of a slow handclap took place during a speech made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on 7 June 2000, when he was heckled and slow-handclapped by members of the Women's Institute.
The slow handclap is occasionally employed to the opposite effect. In the tradition of London Livery Companies, for example, an assembled party (at, for example, a formal dinner) will routinely perform a slow handclap as a gesture of respect and deference to the arriving party of the Master and Court of the Company. In Hungary, it is known as vastaps (iron clap), so named because the theater audience is so impressed that they continue to clap even after the iron fire-proof curtain is lowered.
Slow handclaps in film
Another type of "slow handclap" is used as a dramatic device, often forming the conclusion of dramatic turning points in films. After some dramatic speech, one audience member claps slowly, then another, and then a few more, until the trickle of clapping gives way to roaring applause, often ending in a standing ovation. This is also referred to as a crescendo applause, named for the increasing level of volume it produces.
Slow handclaps are used widely in yet another popular dramatic device, this time both beginning and ending with a single actor. The clapping is usually accompanied by ironic dialogue such as "Well done", or "Bravo" to indicate disbelief of or show scorn for another character's comments. The satirical television programme Saturday Night Live once featured a sketch called The Sarcastic Clapping Family of Southampton (video)[dead link] where each family member would interrupt the previous member's denouement-style monologue with a slow handclap.
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, page 843
- Böttiger, Über das Applaudieren im Theater bei den Alten, Leipz., 1822
- Church History, vii. 30
- Marcel Berlins, The Guardian, September 12, 2007: "http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/12/comment.comment2 Can applause really replace the minute's silence?]"
- Tom Harrington, October, 2007: FAQ: History of Visual Applause for the Deaf
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0HgJIkSIXY (video)
- Slow Clap at TV Tropes
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- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Applause". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.