Etiquette for Attending a Symphony

Symphony orchestra concert

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The prospect of attending the symphony might seem a bit daunting if you've never been. What do you wear to the symphony? When do you clap? Follow these symphony etiquette tips to make the occasion an enjoyable experience.

About the Symphony

You certainly don't have to be a classical music expert to appreciate the symphony, but it can help to have a little background knowledge.

An orchestra consists of many instruments—each with a different appearance and tone. The look of the instrument and the way it produces sound categorize it into a family. The four families of the orchestra include:

  • Strings: Violin, viola, cello, and bass
  • Woodwind: Flute, oboe, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, English horn, bassoon, and contrabassoon
  • Brass: French horn, trombone, trumpet, and tuba
  • Percussion: Snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, timpani, guiro, glockenspiel, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, marimba, castanets, chimes, piano, organ, harp, and more

Depending on the orchestra, there can be dozens of musicians on stage, along with the conductor, and not every instrument is always used. For instance, some pieces are heavy with percussion while others only have a single musician (or no one) on percussion.

Symphonies come in many styles, but the four-movement format has become customary. It typically goes like this:

  • First movement: Fast and cheerful
  • Second movement: Slow, gentle, and emotional
  • Third movement: Dance-like and usually in triple meter
  • Fourth movement: Loud, impressive, and powerful

Of course, music is not limited to that format, so your performance might be entirely different.

General Symphony Etiquette

Rules of conduct can vary among venues, but most symphony-goers can expect to follow some general protocol.

Attire

What to wear to a symphony is one of the first questions new attendees tend to have. It can depend on where you are attending the concert, but there are some universal guidelines. Symphony patrons generally wear semiformal or business attire. On certain occasions, such as an opening night, formal attire might be requested.

Children

Your particular hall or performance might have specific rules about children. Some concerts are even specifically designed for children. In any case, your child should be capable of sitting quietly during a performance. If you think this might be an issue, you probably shouldn't take them along. But don't hesitate to ask the hall about the appropriateness of a performance for your child.

Arrival

Patrons should arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the performance. This will allow you time to use the hall's facilities, find seats, and settle. In general, most halls open their doors 60 to 90 minutes before the concert.

Electronic Devices

Cellphones, watches, and any other devices that might disrupt the concert should be switched to silent mode or turned off before the performance begins. Doctors and others who need their devices for emergencies may give them to an usher, who will quietly alert the person if their device goes off.

Late Seating

If you arrive late to the hall, 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, move personal belongings or unwrap candy. Also, don't enter or exit the hall while a performance is in progress. If you must leave your seat, do so quickly and quietly, proceeding to the nearest door. Or, if necessary, ask the nearest usher for assistance.

During Intermission

Use intermission to visit the restroom, get a refreshment, and talk with other concert-goers. Watch for signs that you should return to your seat, or adhere to the intermission time limit. Some halls will flash the lights or reopen the doors to signal the performance is about to resume.

Applause

If you are uncertain when to applaud, follow the seasoned concert-goers' lead. Usually, there is applause when the concertmaster, or lead violinist, takes the stage, as well as when the conductor makes his entrance. During the performance, only applaud at the end of a piece. You should be able to determine these points by reading your program, which typically has notes to help you follow the orchestra's progress through each piece. And, of course, feel free to applaud at the close of the entire performance.

-Edited by Debby Mayne