Concert Etiquette

Beastie Boys Mosh Pit Guide

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. Etiquette is especially valued at concerts featuring music from the classical tradition.

The cardinal principle at work is to let others listen to the music undisturbed. Instruments and voices are typically unamplified, the music is rich in detail, wide in dynamic range, and poetic in intent. Audiences want to hear everything.

Any noise louder than light breathing is best avoided. Experienced concertgoers try to suppress coughs and sneezes until a loud passage arrives, and muffle these with handkerchiefs. Electronic devices are turned off for the duration of the concert. Concertgoers try to arrive and take seats before the music commences. Late arrivals wait until a break between pieces allows seating by an usher. Conversation at a concert or opera normally stops at the first entrance of the chamber ensemble, or that of a soloist, concertmaster or conductor.

Dress expectations for the audience are today rather informal in English-speaking countries. Audiences usually meet ‘smart casual’ standards, with some performance companies explicitly telling audiences to wear whatever makes them comfortable. Hats are removed as they block others’ view of the stage. Dress expectations may still be very formal for special events, events that are difficult to attend, that take place in traditional venues, or that take place in certain countries.

Concert etiquette has, like the music, evolved over time. Late eighteenth-century composers such as Mozart expected that people would talk, particularly at dinner, and took delight in audiences clapping at once in response to a nice musical effect. Orchestras often stood while playing, and individual movements were encored in response to audience applause. The nineteenth century brought a shift in venue from aristocratic gatherings to public concerts along with works featuring an unprecedentedly wide dynamic range. Mahler clamped down on claques paid to applaud a particular performer, and specified in the score of his ‘Kindertotenlieder’ (‘Songs on the Death of Children’) that its movements should not be punctuated by applause. Wagner discouraged what he considered distracting noises from his audience at Bayreuth in 1882.

With the arrival of recording technology in the twentieth century, applause between the movements of a symphony or suite came to be regarded as a distraction from the momentum and unity of a work. Today it is usually considered something of a faux pas, though a minor and well-meaning one. Movements that make a strong kinetic effect, such as the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Sixth Symphony Pathétique,’ are still often applauded, as the audience’s reaction seems a natural continuation of the music’s momentum.

Quiet endings have a lingering magic that can be too easily broken by insensitive audience members in a hurry to initiate applause. Conductors signal the finality of a performance by lowering their hands to their sides. When their hands remain in front of them the expectation is that the music continues, even though it may be very quiet or even continuing through the silence. Until the conductor’s hands are lowered audiences normally refrain from making a sound. Sacred works offered as worship are not applauded. Such works include settings of requiem, Passion, mass, or Kaddish prayer. Presented in an artistic context, such works, along with secular works of comparable gravity, still often get respectful silence for a long moment before any applause.

In opera a particularly impressive aria will often be applauded, even if the music is continuing. Shouting is generally acceptable only during applause. The word shouted is often the Italian word ‘bravo’ or a variation (‘brava’ in the case of a female performer, ‘bravi’ for a plural number of performers, ‘bravissimo’ for a truly exceptional performance). The word’s original meaning is ‘skillful’ and it has come to mean ‘well done.’ The French word encore (‘again’) may be shouted as a request for more, although in France itself ‘bis’ (‘twice’) is the more usual expression. In some cultures (e.g., Britain) enthusiastic approval can also be expressed by whistling, though in others (e.g., Italy) whistling can signify disapproval and act as the equivalent of booing.

Collapses of decorum have occurred often in music history. In 1861 a Paris performance of Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Tannhäuser’ was deliberately sabotaged by audience members bringing noisemakers. The premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’ in 1913 prompted catcalls and whistles from the crowd that degenerated into fistfights in the aisles and police intervention. Steve Reich’s ‘Four Organs at Carnegie Hall’ in 1973 featured audience members sarcastically applauding and shouting to hasten the end of the performance. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas recalls a woman walking down the aisle and beating her head against the front of the stage, wailing ‘Stop, stop! I confess!’

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.

Concerts of rock music typically maintain more liberal norms. At punk or heavy metal shows, a mosh pit will often form in front of the stage for slam-dancing (a style of dance where participants push or slam into each other), 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. Mosh pits are also the appropriate venue for aggressive head banging, fist pumping, stage diving, and crowd surfing.

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. 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).

As many rock 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, mobile devices 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.

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