“Clapping should be more a spontaneous part of the performance. Exploding in applause
after a movement of a symphony—this does not bother me. We are trying to reach the heart of the people.” 
– Gianandrea Noseda, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Clapping in the concert hall has been greeted with mixed enthusiasm over the centuries. Opera fans will tell you that a giant, sometimes vocal outburst of excitement—or displeasure—is quite common. Fans of the symphony tend to be a more structured bunch, subscribing to the long-held belief that one should hold applause until the end of an entire symphony or multi-movement work.

In the 19th century, there are instances of composers writing consecutive movements without pause—“through composing”—to maintain the mood of the symphony. In the early 1900s, several noted conductors including the likes of Toscanini and Stokowski, began insisting on the sanctity of the symphony and the concert hall, demanding that audiences remain silent until a work’s conclusion.

Scholars and critics have advanced various theories about why this controlled-applause practice caught on so thoroughly, whether due to the ego of the conductor, who enjoyed rock-star status in the early 1900s, or the move of classical music to the standing of “high art” in response to shifts in popular culture in the 1920s and ’30s.

But no matter why, classical music has a set of unwritten “rules” that dictate audience reaction. Popular genres like rock, country, pop, and so on tend to be noisy affairs, both on- and off-stage. Listeners often applaud after solos at jazz concerts and even after particularly beautiful arias at the opera or a show-stopping Broadway hit.

Ideally, the performer or conductor should provide subtle queues about when to applaud and when to remain silent. They do this by the way they hold their arms or “hold the space” at the end of a movement or piece. For example, if a conductor leaves their arms up instead of dropping them by their sides, most likely there is another movement to follow shortly and by continuing their command of the performance with their arm posture, they are signaling to hold the moment in suspense, without applause. Arms dropped by a conductor’s side is a resolute gesture, signaling that the piece has reached its conclusion.

So, what should you do?

Let the music and the performers be your guides. If a movement or work ends softly or contemplatively, perhaps let the moment linger for a few seconds longer and don’t immediately jump up out of your seat with loud cheers. Alternately, if a movement or work ends with gusto or ferocity, it is perfectly natural to show your enthusiasm with applause. But most of all, don’t take it too seriously. Performers like to be appreciated for their hard work and if that includes a spontaneous round of applause in an unexpected point in a performance, so be it.