Why do People Clap at the End of a Performance?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Audiences applaud or clap at the conclusion of a performance to express praise. Although applause has become conventional at the end of all performances, particularly loud or sustained clapping is considered to be high praise. The history of the use of sound to express appreciation goes back for centuries, with different cultures having prevailing traditions around applause.

Clapping at the end of a performance is a tradition that dates back to Ancient Rome.
Clapping at the end of a performance is a tradition that dates back to Ancient Rome.

The root word for “applause” is applaudere, a Latin word meaning to strike or clap. During Roman times, a mild expression of pleasure might be limited to snapping the fingers or patting the hand. An enthusiastic response to a performance would involve full blown clapping, striking the palms of the hands together repeatedly to generate a loud noise. In general, clapping is very rapid and arrhythmic, except in cases where an audience may clap to beat time with a musical performer, as is the case at some folk concerts.

Modern concert audiences also scream and whistle between songs at shows.
Modern concert audiences also scream and whistle between songs at shows.

Some rules do govern clapping at performances. By convention, the audience should wait to clap until the performance is concluded. During a theatrical performance, this will be indicated by the curtain call, a procedure in which the actors line up on stage and bow. In a concert or musical performance, the end may not be entirely clear. As a general rule, wait until the house lights start to go up to clap, or until the conductor sets down his baton and bows. An audience should not clap during or between movements or acts, as this may disturb the performers.

Sometimes, an audience will clap in anticipation. Famous conductors are usually applauded as they take the stage, and speakers and politicians are often applauded before they begin. Clapping during a talk also occurs, to express concurrence or praise for an argument or statement. However, sometimes an audience will be asked to refrain from clapping until a speech or debate is concluded, so that the event does not drag on.

A claque, incidentally, is a group of people hired to clap during a performance. Originally, claques were hired by performers who were concerned about a lukewarm reception. In modern performances, a claque is sometimes used to cue the audience, so that they will know when clapping is appropriate. Since many concert audiences are much less cultured than they used to be, the issue of applause breaking out in the middle of a major concert movement is much larger, leading to the need for cues suggesting when clapping is permitted.

Sometimes, an audience will clap in anticipation of a well-known speaker.
Sometimes, an audience will clap in anticipation of a well-known speaker.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I must say that I am an avid theatre and dance fan. I am at all of our local shows, and travel around the state to take in more. I love them with a ferocity that is often not seen anymore.

However, it is troubling to see so many people getting away from proper theatre etiquette. I don’t know if they just aren’t familiar with it or if they just have no respect for it.

I know that many locations are actually now posting etiquette rules on the backs of programs and playbills. I would think that anyone paying to see a quality show would already have been exposed to it.

One of the most eroded etiquette rules is always at the end of the show for the clap. Nothing drives me more insane than to be at a musical and some silly kids start, “Whoop, whoop, whooping!” at the actors.

Bravo is acceptable, as is a standing ovation for particularly gifted performers. However, yelling at the top of your lungs is generally frowned upon.


@manykitties2 – I don’t know how it works with professional performers, but I know how it’s generally done in smaller venues.

You see, I used to be the artistic director for one of our local high schools. We put on about nine shows per school year, including musicals and competition pieces that we traveled with.

So, you can see that we were pretty serious about what we did.

But, it does always seem like no one wants to be the first one to clap, even at shows where the audience obviously loved the performance. That hesitation can be devastating to high school performers.

So, I made a point to either be in the back of the house myself or have someone else dependable appointed to be there at the end of each and every performance;it was our job to be the first one to start clapping.


@ceilingcat - It may also be that some people simply felt too shy or uncertain to clap and then everyone followed suit. Have you ever noticed how at many public events, everyone hesitates to clap until one brave soul starts it off with a very loud and confident bout of clapping?


@amysamp - I couldn't help smiling at your comment. I've been to a few different graduation ceremonies now and couldn't help noticing the same thing. No matter how firmly the presiding announcer requested that there only be clapping at the end, there were always inevitably some families who would jump up to clap and cheer for their kids.

It's a shame really, because some kids who had few or even no family members present looked quite downcast when they had to walk across a very quiet stage. Since clapping is such a public act, it should definitely be done appropriately.


@alfredo - I love the encore call after a concert is over! Everyone is so excited and you can feel the energy pulsing.

I asked my husband who was a musician for many years how the band actually felt about the encore calls. For example, I wondered if they were just ready to be done, or if encores were still exciting.

He told me that encores were fun to do, but that asking for more after one encore has been played is a bit much!

My favorite clap to do is the slow clap (like in the movie "Rudy" - if you don't know what I am talking about and you like sports and inspiring movies at all go watch it immediately)!

This clap always gets people going and adds to that energy and emotion at the end of a show or concert.


@amysamp - I have seen a graduation without intrusive clapping! But I bet it was a little different from yours - our graduating class only had 16 people in it.

So therefore you knew everyone, and usually everyone's family, so maybe it was not felt as necessary to single your child out. Or maybe just because the ceremony was shorter everybody was about to wait.

I have started to go to some concerts and noticed that encores occur a lot after the show ends. Will bands always do an encore, where they play one or more songs when the crowd yells encore or chants for more songs?


@cloudel - I have yet to see a graduation of any kind that does not have somebody clapping or hollering out of turn, although all of the graduations have asked the audience to please refrain from clapping till the end.

Has anyone else seen a graduation actually make it to the end without some intrusive clapping?


I went to the first play I’ve ever been to besides those in high school not long ago. It was held at a community theatre, and I watched for cues from others for when to clap. I wasn’t about to be the first one to make a sound.

The play was “Steel Magnolias.” I knew the plot because I had seen the movie, but the actors really brought new life to it. At times when I thought applause should have burst forth, it didn’t, but that was because the audience knew to wait for breaks between sets to applaud.

Laughter was perfectly acceptable throughout the play, and tears were even expected. I cried a few myself toward the end. However, I waited along with everyone else for the actors to leave the stage before clapping my hands.


I sang in a local band for years. We mostly played bars around the area, and the first hour was always the toughest. The crowd had yet to become happy, and they rarely clapped. It made me wonder if I was doing a good job or not at first, but once I became accustomed to how the night would always progress, I knew it wasn’t me.

As more drinks flowed and more people got the courage to brave the dance floor, the clapping increased significantly. We started out feeling like background music, but by the end of a good night, we felt like rock stars with the great reception we were getting. At times, the applause was deafening toward midnight.


Some churches differ in the way they want the congregation to receive musical performances. Bigger, more formal churches at times frown upon clapping after a solo, while smaller, more relaxed churches expect it.

My church is very small. Whenever someone gets up to sing a solo, I always clap right after the performance to let others know it is okay to receive it with applause. People always feel better once you clap your hands for them.

I have to remember when visiting larger churches to wait and see if anyone else claps. I would hate to behave in a manner they deem inappropriate while being a guest.


At my college graduation, the man announcing the names of the graduates and their degrees asked the audience at the beginning of the ceremony to please refrain from clapping until the entire ceremony had ended. You would think at something as important as this, the audience would have complied.

Some people just could not contain their enthusiasm, however. When certain graduates with large families in attendance walked up to grab their diplomas, their kin erupted into loud yelling and clapping. The speaker shot them a dirty glance, but the mood had already been altered. It kind of made the grads with quiet families feel less important.


@ceilingcat - I feel bad for that poor opening band just reading your comment! I think a claque would have helped them.

I know it feels nice to have the audience clap for you after a performance. I was in the band when I was in middle school and I always loved when we did our concerts. Of course, most of the audience members were parents of the band members, so they kind of had to clap. That's beside the point though!


I think bringing back the claque might be a good idea. I was at a concert recently and the opening band got such poor audience reception I actually felt bad for them! After their show was over, almost no one clapped.

I think good spirits can be contagious, so maybe if they hired someone to clap for them the rest of the audience might have followed! Just something to think about.


For those that have been to operas, the ballet and classical concerts before is there someone in the audience that tells you when to clap?

I am interested in going to some new performances and have only ever been to things like pop concerts before. As far as clapping goes at events like those it is pretty much anything goes.

I am worried about embarrassing myself at a more formal performance if I don't know what to do or when to do it. There is nothing I hate more than looking foolish in front of others, so I would really like to know what to do before I get into the audience.


If you have ever had a chance to visit the shooting of a television show that has a live audience you will notice that they always have a sign that tells people when to clap. It is really surprising how many people have difficulty following natural cues when it comes to clapping at the end of a performance, or during breaks for that matter. I am guessing that quite a few scenes got wrecked before television studios started using applause signs.

I have always found it a bit frustrating how some people tend to clap spontaneously during movies or while watching something on TV. I suppose some people just have no natural rhythm.

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