Symphony Etiquette

Proper Behavior at the Symphony

Symphony orchestra concert
  Barros & Barros / Getty Images

Attending the symphony is always such an exciting experience. There is just something about the magnitude and majesty associated with the whole dynamic of being there and being surrounded by others who enjoy good music.

While preparing for the symphony, there is a great sense of excitement in researching the music, the composers, and the history behind the particular performance you will be attending. Still, the whole prospect of attending the symphony or any big concert production may seem a bit daunting if it isn't something you've experienced. Don't hold back from going out of fear. Follow a few of these tips to make the process more enjoyable and less intimidating.


Preparation and education are both key to minimizing any anxieties and optimizing your experience. Keeping this in mind, here are some ways to prepare and remember too, if you are going to be taking children or novice symphony-goers along to the performance, you must take the time to acquaint them with symphony etiquette so that they might enjoy the experience as well.

Let's talk symphony. The word symphony is derived from Greek συμφων?α, meaning "agreement or concord of sound," "concert of vocal or instrumental music," from σ?μφωνος, "harmonious" (Oxford English Dictionary). The word was originally used to describe a reed instrument in the Bible or Torah book of Daniel. The Latin word symphonia was used to describe various instruments.

The normal four-movement form looks like this:

  1. First Movement includes an opening sonata or allegro.
  2. Second Movement includes a slow movement, such as adagio.
  3. Third Movement includes a minuet with trio or the alternate Beethoven-style four-movement solo sonata": scherzo.
  4. Fourth Movement is a final allegro, rondo, or sonata.

The orchestra includes many kinds of instruments. Each has a different look and tone color. Think of each as a different home within your neighborhood housing a different family. Just as each home has a different name, the orchestra is made up of families too.

The four families of the orchestra include: The String Family which are the violins, violas, basses and cellos. The Percussion Family includes the harp, piano, cymbals, triangles, timpanis, bass drum, snare drum and the marimba. The Woodwind Family is made up of the piccolo, flutes, oboes, English horn, bassoon, clarinets, bass clarinets, and the contrabassoon. The Brass Family has the French horns, trombones, tuba and trumpets.

What Is Expected

  • Arrival. Patrons (that is you) should arrive no later than 30 minutes prior to the start of the performance. This will allow you and your party ample time to use the hall's facilities, find seats, and settle in for the performance. In general, most halls open their doors 60 to 90 minutes before the concert.
  • Silence Electronic Devices. Cell phones, beepers, watches, electronic organizers, and any other noise-alarm device that might potentially disrupt the concert should be switched to silent mode or turned off.
  • Attire. There is quite a bit of misinformation about this one on the web. It is true that this may depend upon where you are attending the concert; however, here are some general rules for dress at the symphony. Patrons of the symphony generally wear semi-formal, elegant, and business attire. On certain occasions such as an opening night, formal attire may be requested.
  • Late Seating is usually allowed during a convenient pause in the program. Please wait patiently for an usher to direct you accordingly.
  • During the performance. Once the concert has begun, show respect for the performers and others around you. Don't talk, whisper, sing, hum, or move personal belongings. Refraining from any and all of these will ensure that you, other patrons, and the performers enjoy the full benefits of the performance. Don't enter or exit the hall while a performance is in progress. Ushers are stationed at entrances and exits, and they will direct you. If you must leave your seat, do so quickly and quietly, proceeding to the nearest door, or if necessary, asking the nearest usher for assistance.
  • Applause. If you are uncertain, follow the seasoned concert goers on this. Usually there is applause when the concertmaster or orchestra first chair violinist enters the stage as well as when the conductor makes his entrance. During the actual performance you should only applaud at the close of a full piece of music. You should be able to determine these by looking over the program page which generally lists individual movements of longer compositions. In addition, the program notes should help you follow the orchestra's progress through each piece.
  • Children. Your particular hall or performance may have specific rules about children. Some concerts may be specifically designed for children or families with children under the age of 12 years old. In either case you should make sure your child is capable of sitting quietly during a long performance. If you think this may be an issue you should probably not take them along.
  • During Intermission you should take the time to visit the restroom, get a snack or other refreshment and visit briefly with other concert-goers. Watch for signs that you should return to your seat or adhere to the intermission time limits. Some halls will flash the lights or the doors may re-open.

An evening at the symphony hall offers concertgoers an opportunity to experience the power and passion of live music. This is an enriching occasion that everyone should enjoy at least once in a while. Prepare your heart and mind for a great adventure and enjoy the time spent taking pleasure in the sound of music.

Edited by Debby Mayne