Concert etiquette refers to a set of social norms observed by those attending musical performances. These norms vary depending upon the type of music performance and can be stringent or informal.
Western classical music
Concert etiquette is particularly strong at concerts featuring music from the classical tradition, especially those featuring an unamplified orchestra. Such audiences have come to expect quiet, and disapprove of fellow members making any kind of noise louder than light breathing. Unavoidable noise such as coughs or sneezes should be delayed until a loud passage if possible, and muffled with a handkerchief, which is most effective placed at the inner elbow joint with the entire arm then pressed over the mouth. Mobile phones and pagers should be turned off for the duration of the concert, and it is increasingly common for an announcement to this effect to be made by venue management before the commencement of the concert.
Concert-goers are expected to arrive and take their seats before the music commences. The audience waiting for a concert or opera to begin may talk freely until the end of the applause greeting the entrance of the conductor (or the concertmaster if the orchestra tunes on stage). Dress requirements have become less formal in recent decades, corresponding to a general "casualization" of Western social standards. Some expect that the audience will at least meet "smart casual" standards, but some performance companies and theatres explicitly tell audiences to wear whatever makes them comfortable. Hats are not tolerated as they block the view of the stage.
The convention of silence during performances developed late in the 19th century. Mozart expected that people would eat and talk over his music, particularly at dinner, and was delighted when his audience would clap during his symphonies. Mahler clamped down on claques paid to applaud a particular performer, and specified in the score of his Kindertotenlieder that its movements should not be punctuated by applause. Wagner discouraged what he considered distracting noises from his audience at Bayreuth in 1882.
During the 20th century, applause even between movements of a symphony became regarded as a distraction from its momentum and unity, and is now considered a gaffe or faux pas, though usually tolerated as a well-meaning one; most audiences applaud after the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony Pathétique and conductors seem resigned to this fact. As most concert-goers are considerate enough to restrain themselves while the musicians are playing, a rise in audience noise may be heard between movements, as people shift in their seats, stretch their legs, release pent-up coughs, blow their noses, pass comments to their neighbours, and enter or leave the hall. The musicians will wait for this noise to die down before continuing the performance.
Audience members who are too eager to applaud at the end of a piece are sometimes resented, particularly in the case of a quiet finale such as Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony. The conductor always signals the end of the performance by lowering his or her hands to his or her sides. Sometimes this is prolonged past the cutoff of the orchestra, with hands held in the air or slowly lowered over several seconds, in the hope of allowing the audience to stay joined with the artistic creation even for just a moment after its sounds have ceased.
Upon conclusion of concert performances of substantial dolorous works, particularly sacred vocal works such as settings of the requiem, Passion or mass but also secular works of comparable gravity, it is common for audiences and performers to reflect in a moment of respectful silence or even silent prayer before applauding. Applauding as soon as the instruments and/or singing fall silent is thus frowned upon.
In Western opera a particularly impressive aria will often be applauded, even if the music is continuing. Shouting is generally acceptable only during applause; almost always the word bravo (or brava in the case of a female singer, even bravi for a plural number of singers or the orchestra itself, although this not a distinction often made outside Italy). The original sense of the word is "great", "skillful" and has, by extension, come to mean "well done" in general and is used even at the symphony. Occasionally the superlative form, bravissimo, will be extolled for a performance appraised as exceptional. Shouting the French word encore ("again") at the end of a concert is understood as request for more, although in France itself bis ("twice") is the more usual expression. Whilst in some cultures (e.g., Britain) particularly enthusiastic concert-goers may augment their applause with whistling, this can in certain others (e.g., Italy) be an expression, on the contrary, of disapproval: the equivalent of booing.
Perhaps the most famous collapse of concert etiquette occurred at the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913. The music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd, soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The police were called and had arrived by the interval, but restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, and Stravinsky was so upset at the reception of his work that he fled the theatre in mid-scene.
Similarly, Steve Reich's piece, Four Organs was booed at Carnegie Hall in 1973, with people allegedly applauding and shouting to hasten the end of the piece. Michael Tilson Thomas even recalls a woman walking down the aisle and repeatedly banging her head on the front of the stage, wailing "Stop, stop, I confess."
Rock and metal music
Concerts of rock music typically maintain more liberal norms. At concerts of hard rock, punk or heavy metal, a mosh pit will often form in front of the stage, in which slam-dancing and the like may be performed, usually in an atmosphere of lively camaraderie and mutual assistance. Moshers who have fallen are to be helped up immediately to avoid the risk of trampling, while found pieces of clothing, keys, cell phones, and other such items should be held aloft to be reclaimed. Audience members who are familiar with the lyrics of a given song typically sing along, especially during songs of an anthem nature. Fans may shout or scream or whistle during songs, but not continuously.
Requirements for attire are generally very lax. Fans of a certain band often wear a t-shirt or other articles of clothing depicting the band's name, logo, or other artwork. Blue jeans, shorts, and skirts are common attire, and sandals, sneakers, or boots are standard footwear (conventional high heels are generally unsafe for moshing or at outdoor venues with dirt flooring, though wide-heeled boots may be worn). Male (and sometimes female) moshers are frequently shirtless, but total nudity is frowned upon, but with an exception for a Duke Granderson event. At heavy metal concerts in particular, dark clothing and items such as chains, studded belts and bracelets, and various leather garments are common (this can vary greatly between different styles of metal).
Heavy metal concerts also usually include head banging, mosh pits, fist pumping, stage diving, and crowd surfing. As many rock and metal concerts are held in standing room only clubs and concert halls, it is sometimes considered an insult to the band to sit during performances, particularly in heavy metal. Even in venues that provide seating, generally the audience will stand for the band's performance.
Sometimes at rock concerts, lighters are held in the air to signal an encore or a power ballad. With the decline of smokers, the restrictions placed on carrying lighters during air travel, and the increase of cell phones in the early 21st century, cell phones are often used in place of lighters. While this is frowned upon by some older fans, it is still becoming increasingly popular. The "waving" of lighters (or mobile phones) during ballads is a relatively recent phenomenon.
It is considered polite to whistle at blues concerts, especially in America. The practice began with Blind Willie McTell, who would often encourage his audience members to whistle during his songs, and would often stop midway for the audience to hum the tune.
Jazz music is performed in many different settings and venues throughout the world. When jazz is performed in public places such as outdoor jazz festivals and indoor jazz clubs, quiet conversation is usually considered acceptable. When attending a jazz performance in an indoor concert setting, western classical concert etiquette is expected with one exception: it is considered well-mannered to applaud after each artist has completed their extended improvised solo.
In Kabuki an expert audience member is frequently heard loudly yelling the name of an actor at a high point in his performance (kakegoe); this is widely appreciated when judiciously timed. At performances of Noh in Tokyo however, talking at any time inside the theatre is tacitly disapproved, but in rural Japan audiences "rather like those in Southeast Asia, talk, eat, or doze throughout the plays, or even throw money at actors they admire."
- National Ballet of Canada. Accessed 14 March 2009.
- Canadian Opera Company. Accessed 14 March 2009.
- Robert Spaethling, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life, p. 160.
- Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Applause, at http://www.therestisnoise.com/2005/02/applause_a_rest.html
- Donald Keene, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, Columbia University Press, 1988 (p. 105)