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I'm a philistine, myself, but on the few occasions I've attended a classical-music performance, the audience seemed to know to applaud immediately after a piece ended, but to not applaud between movements. How did they know the difference (unless perhaps by being already familiar with the piece played)? Is there, perhaps, something the conductor does immediately on finishing a piece different from what he does on finishing a movement (other than the last) — or what?

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A conductor typically will not face the audience until the end of the piece. BTW, I'm a protoanarchist who believes the audience should be free to applaud whenever they like (end of movement, great solo) just as is acceptable in jazz or opera. –  Carl Witthoft Nov 11 '13 at 12:24

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Some audience members will be familiar with the piece. It is also possible to pick up visual body language cues from the performers (if they are continuing to ignore the audience after finishing a movement, that's a good sign that there is more to come).

But more than all of this, is the fact that the performance programs (handed out by ushers or available at the door) have the movements listed in them. Technically speaking, the ability to follow along in the program is a kind of aural skill; but, it is not difficult to develop, and as you have noted it is indeed a skill that experienced concertgoers possess.

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I'd also just like to add here that the conductor will also keep at least one arm raised while the other readies the score for the next movement. Composers will often write the music so that it will sound unfinished, helping listeners know there is more to come, but odd movements here and there end so strongly as to beg for applause. Lastly, sitting quietly and listening to music is actually a recent invention historically speaking. –  jjmusicnotes Nov 13 '13 at 5:05
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Generally true, but you can't go strictly by the arm thing--particularly if the piece in question is particularly long, and as a result lends itself to longer pauses ( cough _Mahler_ cough). –  NReilingh Nov 13 '13 at 5:38
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Ha - agreed. I should clarify that the conductor should keep at least one arm raised in between movements. Also, people who show up for Mahler typically know the work and have cleared out their entire evening for the concert. –  jjmusicnotes Nov 13 '13 at 14:08

Simple. Wait for others to clap first. If the applause is sporadic and accompanied by embarrassed looks from one audience member to the other... don't join in the applause. If the applause is confident, join in!

It is customary to applaud only after the completion of an entire work. The audience knows when the work is over by reading the program and by being familiar with either the specific work, or the genre in general.

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Plus, it's a good way to avoid being That Guy. You know, the one who cuts into the moment after the piece has ended but when the final chord is still ringing. (+1) –  Micah Nov 11 '13 at 23:40
    
This doesn't answer the question, which was how the applauding audience knows to applaud ("How did they know the difference"). –  msh210 Nov 12 '13 at 4:39
    
edited to answer the OP's question, albeit tersely. –  Matthew Briggs Nov 12 '13 at 16:34
    
@msh210: no, it does answer the question, because "waiting for the others to clap" is what perhaps most people actually do. Some guys will always know the piece and either clap confidently or shush down others between movements; if most of the audience just listens to those then everything "works out right". –  leftaroundabout Nov 14 '13 at 0:03

This is a rough translation of this entry. You should read the whole of it if you understand french, this is a complete guide to Opera / Classical Music concerts, of what to expect during the performance and what is generally expected from the audience.

When should I applaud?

a) Concert (symphonic music, chamber orchestra, etc.) :

It is customary not to applaud before the end of an entire piece, as you don't want to interrupt its progression or contrasts. For instance, in a four movements symphony, a quatuor, a group of melodies from the same composer, a lieder cycle, you only applaud in the end, even if musicians stop playing, and even if they have to retune their instruments. Applauding during pauses between movements isn't a crime (at worst, it will get you some exasperated "shush"), but it will probably annoy the public, who like to see the piece in all its continuity. And the musicians usually don't like it. (Beware during a lieder cycle though, you might risk your life if you applaud before the end). In any case, you never applaud while the music is still playing. As a conclusion : better wait and see. Don't rush into an applause when you're not sure if the piece is over, there could be a pause in the music. Even if you're enthusiastic, wait a little and watch what the rest of the public is doing, it's safer.

b) Opera

The opera is along the same lines, with a few exceptions. The general rule is to applaud after the ending of each act (except for the first act of Parsifal in Bayreuth for historical reasons). You generally applaud longer in the end of the entire piece. However, there are exceptions:

  • You can applaud after a single piece (generally a known aria or choir performance) if you found it particularly good. It's not always very easy to applaud at the right time though, as the conductor might want to immediately continue. Don't overdo it, especially in seria operas (about thirty scenes...).

  • In some opera houses (for instance, the New York MET), some star singers or even decors get applause when they come in. It's not very good taste though.

In any case, once again, you should never applaud during the music. And you can sometimes be surprised by false endings, so beware. Even when it's over, wait for the resonance to end, a few seconds, before starting the applause.

Things not to do:

  • Applaud a high note in the middle of an aria.
  • Applaud too early on an enthusiastic ending
  • Applaud at the exact moment of the last note (this is considered to be the epitome of bad taste by some, as it is done to show you know exactly when it should end).
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Sometimes the conductor acts differently at the end of a movement vs. the end of the piece. For example, if the sound stops, but the conductor doesn't put the baton down, that may indicate you are still within the same piece.

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I wouldn't trust that -- a conductor will put the baton down unless he is planning a strictly timed break between movements. It's not unusual for him(her) to put down the baton and wipe his brow, let the winds re-tune, etc. –  Carl Witthoft Nov 11 '13 at 18:09

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