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Symphony Etiquette

By Robin Bickerstaff Glover
Edited by Debbie Mayne and the Maryland Symphony Orchestra

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.

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 intimidating if it isn't something you've experienced.

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.


Preparation and education are both key to minimizing any anxieties and optimizing your experience. Keeping this in mind, here are some ways to prepare. 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. According to a wikipedia article, "A symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, arranged and scored almost exclusively for the orchestra. A symphony usually contains at least one movement composed according to the sonata principle. Many symphonies are tonal works in four movements with the first in sonata form, which is often described by music theorists as the structure of a "classical" symphony, although many symphonies by the acknowledged classical masters of the form, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven do not conform to this model."(Wikipedia)

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 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.

About the Conductor/Maestra

The conductor is in charge of the entire orchestra. It is customary to applaud when the conductor first comes out on the stage. She will bow to acknowledge your applause and the concert will begin. 

About the Concertmaster

This person is the First Chair Violinist and is second in command of the entire orchestra. At the beginning of the concert, the concertmaster will come onstage. The audience claps as a welcome, and as a sign of appreciation to all the musicians.

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 Maryland Theatre's facilities, find seats, and settle in for the performance. We open the doors 45 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 Patrons of the symphony generally wear semi-formal, elegant, and business attire. However, there really is no dress code for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. While some audience members do choose to dress up for concerts, please dress in a way that is comfortable for you. Sunday performances tend to be less formal. In consideration of those seated near you, please use fragrances sparingly.
  • 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, we kindly ask that you be courteous and respectful to 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. It is, however, appropriate to excuse yourself if you experience a prolonged bout of coughing or sneezing.
  • Photography, videotaping, and sound recording are prohibited at all times.
  • Applause If you are uncertain, follow the seasoned concert goers on this. Usually there is applause when the concertmaster enters the stage as well as when the conductor makes her 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 Some concerts may be specifically designed for children or families with children under the age of 12 years. As a rule of thumb, 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 (usually 20 minutes). Theatre staff will flash the lights and ring chimes to provide you with a 5 minute warning that the concert is about to resume. You are welcome to bring any food and/or drinks purchased at concessions into the auditorium. However, we do ask that you avoid opening prepackaged food items during those quiet moments in the music. Wrappers can be quite noisy!
  • Smoking is not permitted in the Maryland Theatre.

Applauding Made Simple

For whom to clap
Always clap at the entrance of the Concertmaster, any soloists, and the Conductor/Concert Maestro, at the end of each piece.

When to clap
Most classical works are broken down into parts called "movements."  There is often a brief pause between each movement, almost like chapters in a book. The tradition in the concert hall is that applause should only occur when the work is finished and not in between movements. 

To find out the number of movements in a particular piece, turn to the program page in your MSO Bravo! magazine. Applause should occur only after the last movement and the conductor has dropped her hands and has turned around to fully face the audience.

While some are fans of Mahler Symphony and others only look forward to the Pop Series the symphony should be experienced by everyone. Now that you know the basic protocol of the concert hall, you can experience the symphony with comfort and confidence – enjoy!