Noise at concerts — the sports connection

In all our fine discussion here about silent listening, there’s something obvious that I’ve forgotten to say.

We’ve talked about noise at concerts, whether it’s from people Twittering, or people talking, or applauding during the music. Some of us are worried that this would disturb the musicians. As in fact it might, but maybe only (as I said in a reply to a comment) because the musicians aren’t used to noise coming from the audience.

Just look at sports. A major league pitcher has to fire pitches at pinpoint targets, maybe at a particular cubic inch of space. At 99 mph. And meanwhile the crowd is shouting, even screaming, even yelling insults directly at the pitcher, using his name.

The pitcher makes the pitches anyway. And the players in the field make their plays. We shouldn’t underestimate how complex baseball strategy can be. A ball is hit, and the fielders have to understand immediately where it’s going, who’s on base, how fast each runner is, and what the strategy might be for the situation unfolding at that moment (based on who’s on base, how many outs there are, what the score is, how late in the game it is, and more). And then they have to react almost instantaneously, run for the ball (I’m thinking of outfielders right now), catch it, immediately throw it where it needs to go, and hit precise targets. All maybe in a fraction of a second, with the crowd screaming.

Same in football. Many complex plays, many instantaneous decisions, many targets to hit. Or, in the case of pass receivers, targets to catch. All with the crowd screaming and roaring.

Cut to golf and tennis. There it’s different. When someone’s serving, or making a difficult putt, nobody watching is allowed to make a sound. If the crowd screamed at Rafael Nadal when he was returning a nasty serve from Federer, maybe he’d be thrown off stride. But that, I think it should be clear, would only be because he’s not used to crowd noise.  If he were Johann Santana, pitching for the Mets, he’d make his shot no matter what the crowd was doing.

Maybe it’s different for classical musicians, because their art involves making sound, so they have to listen very carefully to everything that’s going on. I wonder, though, how much difference that would make, since concert noises aren’t likely to be loud. And because — if you’re playing in an orchestra — the orchestra itself makes so much noise that you very likely can’t hear the audience. And may well (depending on where you’re sitting) have trouble hearing all the other instruments. A back-stand violist, sitting right in front of the trombones, may not be well placed to hear exactly what the violins are doing while the trombones play.

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  1. says

    How timely! I posted this on my group page the other day, but a lot more people will see it here, and maybe I can get some thoughts. Although probably the best ideas aren’t going to come from people who are accustomed to the standard sort of classical concert…

    What about the ’12th man?’

    I read an interesting article yesterday in the UK Guardian called “Right strings – give it 110%:

    What could football managers teach conductors? Rather a lot. Andrew Mellor on the art of raising an orchestra’s game”

    In the article he was comparing the role of the coach in a football (read soccer) team with that of the conductor, and saying that the right person can turn an okay team or orchestra into a great one. Here is a quote from the article that got me thinking:

    “Of course, for an edge-of-the-seat orchestral performance, a few other factors need to come into play. You need what football calls the 12th man: a good crowd, supportive if not exactly vocal.”

    Having gone to my very first (American) football game in December, when my choir sang at the Steelers/Browns game, I discovered that there are things that the crowd is supposed to do to help out the team, like make lots of noise at certain points to confuse the opposition, etc. Basically, everything the crowd is supposed to do involves making noise, one way or the other (unless you count buying lots of stuff from the concessions to help make the game profitable for the owners.)

    Since the nineteenth century the “crowd” at a concert has been asked to be as inconspicuous as possible. Please, no rustling of programs or candy papers, no audible comments, and God forbid that you should applaud in the wrong place. I can scarcely think of anything less like being a crowd at a football match.

    So in what way is the audience supposed to be supportive, since Mr. Mellor comes down on the non-vocal side of things? Just asking. But I would also love to know if anybody has any ideas, great or otherwise, on how the audience could be involved in a more direct way in a performance. This subject interests me strangely, and I would appreciate comments and ideas from all and sundry. Preferably not ones saying that the audience should just shut up and be grateful that we graciously allow them to pay money to come and listen, and that should be enough… I’m looking for a classical equivalent of a mosh pit – not literally, but in terms of the experience. Maybe I’m looking for something that can’t exist by definition, but at least at this point I refuse to accept that as an answer.

  2. Michael Korman says

    Good point that not all types of public performers deal with noise the same way.

    However, I don’t think the solution is just to tell classical musicians to “grow up”. These activities are pretty different, somehow. Baseball and football are learned on the playground, recreationally at first. Classical music is learned in an academic atmosphere. Golf is learned in solitude. Thus, there’s a significant cultural difference right from the beginning. Not that I’m an athlete (baseball, football, or golf), so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Actually, I would expect classical musicians to be more tolerant than golfers of noise, since they are more dynamically engaged in their activity. How about bowling? And people play darts and pool all the time in noisy bars (seems similar to golf). Tennis, I can’t explain. I guess that just proves how relative this is.

    I really don’t think most performers would be bothered by casual concert noise, such as coughing or candy wrappers. If they are, their concentration probably isn’t too good to begin with. Actually, maybe the problem here is that classical musicians generally do have bad concentration.

    Right, to do any of these activities well, you have to block out distractions at will. The differences we see must be superficial.

    Oh, and many classical musicians seem to thrive on noise, or at least higher levels of energy than you’d expect (Andre Rieu, Virgil Fox?).

  3. says

    Of course rock, hiphop, and most every other type of pop musician deals with crowd noise when he or she performs, and usually thrives on it. A completely quiet crowd would be unnerving.

    The argument might go, well, classical music requires more concentration from the performer.

    But is that really true? Wouldn’t that depend on the particular musician and his or her level of skill, familiarity with the material, etc.? And as you say, Greg, whether he or she is acclimated to crowd noise?

    The sports comparisons I made seem to show that getting used to crowd noise makes a big difference. Baseball players are used to it, tennis players aren’t.

    In many of these discussions, I think we have trouble because people in classical music aren’t used to some of the things we propose. Something seems disruptive, but the truth is that the people objecting — and, to be fair, the people proposing whatever the thing might be — haven’t seen it in action.

  4. says

    This is a fascinating debate – thanks for starting it. I shared your original post on this with my postgraduate students, as it resonated so well with debates we’ve been having about the performer-audience relationship in both practical and philosphical contexts.

    I’m far from a purist, but I do think that the question of audience noise is not just about concentration, but also about modes of listening. Rock musicians have the technological infrastructure of foldback speakers to allow them to hear what they’re doing however frenzied the crowd gets. Unplugged musicians develop strategies for listening into the performing space to gauge things like volume levels, timing of pauses, balance and tuning. My close-harmony choir has performed in a range of contexts, from noisy Christmas dinners, to formal concerts in generous acoustics; the singers always have a better sense of control over what they’re doing when they can listen for the overtones.

    I think your baseball pitcher might get as precious about his working conditions as classical musicians do about noise distractions if he had to pitch with constant changes in light level. Professionals need to cope with distractions, but it’s legitimate to object to factors that directly interfere with the performance of one’s skill.

    Very helpful contribution, Liz. Thanks.

    Will be interesting to see how Rebecca fares — see her earlier comment — when she creates (as she says) a “classical mosh pit” for the very serious choral concerts her group gives in Pittsburgh. Rebecca, are you concerned about hearing the overtones if the audience makes noise?

  5. says

    An interesting middle ground between the silent classical concert and the loud, crazy rock concerts are jazz performances. I have always liked jazz music, and the freedom that the audience is given to listen and enjoy, but also to appreciate what the performers are doing.

    I can’t even tell you how many times I have been at a classical performance and heard an incredible solo passage, or amazingly complicated section passages performed in exact unison. After these passages I always have the urge to clap, to audibly recognize how amazing what I just heard really was – but it isn’t “allowed” in classical circles. Why? I think the performers deserve that kind of recognition. It doesn’t last long, doesn’t cover up what happens next – just appreciates what someone just did.

    I would love to see at least that incorporated into classical performances.

    That being said, the people with the wrappers really do make me crazy… Just open it already. :)

    I’m with you on the wrappers! Drives me crazy. They open their candy s-l-o-w-l-y, I guess so they won’t make much noise. Or so they think! They should just rip the damn wrappers over, as Lacey says, and get it over with.

    Nice to see you here, Lacey. Do you think the LACO will ever — just as an experiment — let the audience react? Why not try it?

  6. says

    Greg said Will be interesting to see how Rebecca fares — see her earlier comment — when she creates (as she says) a “classical mosh pit” for the very serious choral concerts her group gives in Pittsburgh. Rebecca, are you concerned about hearing the overtones if the audience makes noise?

    I suppose it would depend a great deal on what sort of music you were doing, and what one might expect to be an “appropriate” reaction on the part of the audience. In re the jazz comment above, I have performed Brandenburg 5 on various occasions as the harpsichordist. During the first movement harpsichord cadenza you can feel the audience excitement building as it gets faster and more virtuostic, (at least on a good night) and yet never once has the audience responded the way one senses that they would like to, because that isn’t the done thing. Would it bother the player if people clapped? Well, I can only speak for me, but to me it would seem only appropriate.

    As to choral music, I also think it would depend on what one is performing – something very quiet and meditative wouldn’t necessarily welcome audience input during the piece, but lots of things would. The problem is that audiences have grown to think that any spontaneous reaction on their part should be suppressed, unless at specially sanctioned moments, which sort of takes the “spontaneous” out of it. I think the difficulty is to figure out how to incorporate the possibility of more immediate audience feedback and/or participation in a way that everybody can feel comfortable with – a pretty tall order. But as I said earlier, I’m not willing to throw in the towel just yet.

    Thanks so much, Rebecca. Very helpful. And your feelings about that harpsichord cadenza are something we should all take seriously, even those of us who feel sure that musicians — all musicians — would be bothered by noise from the audience.

    Once I was sitting at a new music performance with a well known composer, a name most of us would recognize. At one point, in one of the pieces, there was a wonderful, unexpected chord. My composer friend and I turned to each other and smiled. Just imagine if many people had loved that chord, and a little ripple of sound or applause went through the audience.

    I’m reminded of a contemporary description of performances of Beethoven’s symphonies in Germany, from the years (1820 and after) when these pieces were starting to be performed very often. This is quoted in Mark Evan Bond’s book, “Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven”:

    “Imagine a public that prepares itself as if for worship in order to grasp the gigantic structure of a Beethovenian symphony. It was completely so during the performance. Here a barely repressed cry of the highest wonderment and joy, or of terror, when Beethoven in his demonic way makes night of day or day of night in the quickest transitions. There experts, with score in hand, making a sign at this or that when it seizes them as with ghostly arms.” The audience reacted to particular moments, in other words, even though they thought that listening to Beethoven was just about an act of worship.

  7. says

    I was talking to a friend of mine last night about this, and he brought up a situation where he was at pop music concert where the band was drums, a cello, and a harp. He said not only were the people talking so loudly he had a hard time really hearing the music, but someone even got a phone call mid song and picked it up. That’s obviously not the goal, but I think its important to realize that if people think they have freedom to do what they want, you’re going to get this no matter what.

    More importantly, I think classical music needs to make a more concerted effort to leave the concert hall. I think the concert hall experience is fine, as long as that’s not the only environment to hear the music in. I think we need to encourage more Opera on Tap’s ( and nontraditional environments for people to interact with the music in different ways.

    When the Wordless Music series started in NY — presenting indie bands and classical music together on concert programs — some of the audience was happy to see bands in a concert setting, precisely so they could listen without the distractions common in clubs. So this discussion cuts in many directions. Thanks for sending it in this one!

    One delight in following the link you gave is the graphic of the opera singer. Just watch it for a while, anyone who goes there, and see what it does.

  8. BPJ says

    I don’t go to a baseball game to hear the players play, so crowd noise isn’t a problem. I do go to concerts to hear the orchestra, so crowd noise is a problem.

    Is that just too obvious?

    I don’t think we’re talking about the same level of crowd noise. If we had a classical music culture in which people didn’t have to be absolutely silent at concerts, of course they wouldn’t start screaming, and drown out the music. They’d be there to listen, after all.

    As I’m about to post, I’ve realized that I’ve been at events like this — the annual Bang on a Can Marathons. And I have no trouble listening.

  9. says

    Funny about Brandenburg 5 – I had always assumed you were supposed to clap after the cadenza ’cause the ritornello comes back in such unadorned form. It took my mom to tell me how wrong I was.

    If you let people react more at classical concerts – i.e., respond audibly to the music, rather than just aimlessly chatterboxing – I would tend to assume that they would pick mostly appropriate times like that to do it. Maybe I have an excessive amount of faith in people.

    Finally, I go to baseball games in part to hear the players play – the first hard crack of the bat of the year is always a thrill, even if it’s coming from the bat of an opposing player (though I will never admit that last part when I am actually at the ballpark).

  10. christopher says

    Every poster but one seems to miss the point…

    Noise is bad because I paid money to LISTEN TO THE MUSIC – all of it, every whisper, every inflection, every breath of it.

    As a musician I have never once been distracted by the noise or lack thereof in the audience.

    As an audience member, I am routinely distracted by the victims of 30+ year of failed schools and insular arts organizations taht have failed to teach people how to LISTEN to music.

    The concert hall is dedicated to the music. So long as the noise you are making is somehow in reaction to that music – fine. Otherwise, take it outside please.

    But that’s what we’re talking about! Reactions to the music, which might involve sound, in the form of cheers or exclamations or clapping.

    An interesting fact. Of course you feel strongly about this, Christopher. You’re used to concerts where the audience is more or less silent, and that’s what you like. But when my students — at Juilliard and Eastman — learn what audiences were like in the past (which means noisy, in their reactions), almost all of them wish they had audiences like that now. It’s a curious dichotomy. You sit there silently, immersed in the music. Young musicians on stage, meanwhile, wish they knew for sure that you cared, and wish you’d react while they’re playing.

  11. Jo says

    Usually I respond to these posts from a marketing/admin point of view, but I spent the weekend on the other side, performing violin in a festival of folk music in Birmingham (UK).

    I and my group were sitting in front of the stage, playing folk music for the dancers. It wasn’t a classical concert or audience, and as is usual they were clapping along, not always in time, and there was plenty of reaction, chatting etc.

    At times I found it impossible to a) hear the rest of my musicians (7 of us altogether, so not big or spread out) and b) to hear the singing from the stage. This seriously compromised my ability to keep in time with what was on stage (these were no pros, so adrenaline meant they often got faster or slower), and keep the rest of the band in time with me. We did OK, but it made it terribly hard work! And I left feeling unsure whether I had given as good a performance as I would have liked to the audience who had paid for their tickets.

    Whilst the clapping and whooping was welcome as it demonstrated the enjoyment and appreciation of the performance, the chatting definitely was not. If we allowed audience reaction in classical concerts, would this also green-light chatting, rustling, shuffling and coughing? Informality of a good kind may breed informality of an unwelcome kind.

    Interesting! Thanks so much for sharing this, Jo.

    I wonder how you’d deal with the talking if you played that same gig often. Do you think you’d get used to it? Do established folk groups play gigs like this, and handle the distraction? I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. I also might wonder about the venue, whether it’s ideally set up for playing music. And I wonder how musicians fared in past centuries, when the audience could be very noisy. Of course, there weren’t many rehearsals then, so things would be scrappy in any case. But still I wonder how musicians coped. Lully’s operas, for instance, were performed in the midst of what seems like cacophony, to judge from the descriptions of Lully’s audience I’ve read. Maybe that’s why he banged so hard with his stick to keep time! (And banged it right through his foot, leading him to get gangrene and die.)

    A worthy question might be: What kind of venues would we have, if we expected the audience not to be completely silent? I’m thinking of the Winter Garden in New York, where I’ve heard very intricate new music played (and played very well) for an audience that walks around and feels free to talk. I think the space creates a stage area where the audience noise isn’t very strongly heard.

    But about informality spreading beyond reasonable bounds — why should it? I’m thinking again of those concerts at the Winter Garden in NY. People walk around and talk, but they talk softly. There’s an atmosphere of real respect for the music, so people wouldn’t think of doing anything that would truly be disruptive. Nobody even talks very loudly.

  12. Gavin says

    One sort of during-the-music audience response that doesn’t ever seem to be a problem is laughter, for those rare pieces like Mozart’s Musical Joke or Haydn’s Symphony no. 60 which invite it. In my concertgoing experience, listeners chuckle all the way through these, and nobody seems to mind. This could be an argument that other sorts of audible responses wouldn’t be a problem either–or it could be an argument that audiences don’t really feel all that oppressed by the convention of concert-hall silence: they laugh when the spirit moves them but remain quiet the rest of the time because they choose to, because they get the most out of a performance that way.

    Good line of thought, Gavin. Interesting to think about.

  13. says

    In response to Jo’s comments, I used play chamber music in NM, mostly as a harpsichordist, and several of us would often get hired to play a party. Well, a flute, a cello, and a harpsichord don’t carry very well when people are talking loudly (and generally they were, by the time they had a few drinks in them.) So we took the opportunity to read through new music, run through music we were thinking of performing, and so on. One gets pretty good at ignoring the distraction. I would never say that this is an ideal situation, but just think how awkward it would be if somebody ran around shushing everyone and saying “You must listen to the music now!” I think that would have felt really uncomfortable, to know that people felt they had to listen to us. And after all, we took the gig knowing full well what to expect.

    I agree that this is different than a situation where people have paid for tickets, but if you couldn’t hear each other, probably the audience wasn’t hearing the fine details either. As long as they had a good time, does it really matter?

    I have to admit that I wouldn’t welcome people deciding to have lengthy and audible conversations during my formal concerts. I actually think that isn’t terribly likely in a formal setting. (I definitely agree with Greg that encouraging people to react to the music is not an open invitation to noise of any kind.)

    If one performs in an informal setting I suppose one is opening oneself up to that possibility, and therefore you have to decide whether you can tolerate that, and therefore whether you are going to book that venue, or take that gig, or whatever. But I have the sense that this whole discussion may end up being equivalent to arguing about the flatware placement in the dining room of the Titanic. It may be that we have to change, or die, or even that it is too late to change, at least for some of us. At any rate, surely we have a better chance to change ourselves and our expectations in the time frame that we may have to work in than we do to suddenly change the entire upcoming generation of potential attendees.

    Amen to that last thought, Rebecca! I wish more people would think this through. So many of us look towards music education — in elementary school, no less — for a solution to our problems. We forget two things: how long that would take, and also the chances of getting classical music education established all over the country. If our problem, after all, is that not enough people care about classical music, how are we going to get states and municipalities to change their curricula, and spend money to teach what we’d like them to?

  14. Jo says

    To Greg re the hall:

    The concert I was playing in at the weekend took place at Symphony Hall in Birminghams; home of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, built in the early 1990s, designed for music and one of the best acoustics in the UK. In my experience, talking escalates. Once one person starts, others start. They raise their voice a little to be heard above everyone else. The result – a crescendo. No, I do not trust audiences to behave wholly in the way you suggest they will.

    To Rebecca:

    As a musician I find the suggestion that I shouldn’t worry about the quality of my playing because the audience doesn’t worry about the fine details utterly bizarre!! Yes it matters! Whatever happens with audiences in the future; whether they chat, eat, tweet, walk, make phone calls; whatever, we MUST MUST MUST MUST remember that the music and the quality of the performance needs to shine through. Otherwise why do we bother?

    I too have played in quartets at parties and gatherings and not worried one iota about the talking and lack of concentration on the music, using the situation to run through new rep – usually quite badly – whilst taking the plaudits for what they think is an amazing performance. But that’s because they haven’t paid for a seat specifically to come and watch us play. Different situation altogether, and one we’re not discussing here. We’re talking concert halls and ticket buyers.

    Finally, Greg, please write a blog and let us know about your experience Tweeting from the Met last night. I’d like to know whether you a) got stopped, b) got huffs from those around you c) got any replies from others in the audience, and d) whether anyone who was not there was enlightened in any way but what you wrote… thanks!

    Jo, thanks as ever for furthering the discussion. I’m glad to have your thoughts here!

    I’m afraid I was a wimp at the Met last night. Only tweeted before the opera started, at intermission, and after it ended. Partly that was because I was caught up in the show, at times, bad as it was. And partly because I just couldn’t quite bring myself to bring my iPhone out and tweet, even when I was bored. Seemed a little transgressive, even for me. And even with the screen dimmed. At a new music concert, I’d probably not hesitate.

    Maybe I’ll get my courage up next time I go…

  15. Yvonne says

    There’s a distinction – which needs to be held clearly in mind in this sort of discussion – between:

    (a) distracting noise, ambient or otherwise unrelated to the musical experience, and

    (b) audience response to the performance, which might result in noise, but very well might not.

    I find (a) bothersome. When the woman with the bracelets behind me rummages in her handbag and adds Turkish percussion to the performance then it’s plain annoying.

    But (b) wouldn’t and doesn’t bother me much at all. Mainly because, even as I hear it, I can hear how it relates to the music. It may well echo my own response to the music. So it becomes a contribution to the performance. And unless it were so long and loud as to drown out the performance (in which case I’d debate its being a genuine response from a fellow-listener) it’s unlikely it would prevent me hearing and enjoying the music. Chuckles in witty music, spontaneous applause after fast/loud movements in the Classical repertoire, even something like a sharp intake of breath or a sigh – none of these seem out of place or “distract” when they are directly inspired by the music instead of merely happening at the same time as the music.

    There’s a wonderful description I may have posted here, somewhere, from the early 1820s about German performances of Beethoven symphonies. Talks about barely repressed exclamations of amazement and awe, at various points in the music. Another description from the same period, of Beethoven performances in Paris, talks about applause after the transition from the 3d to the 4th movement of the fifth symphony. And then the two movements together were always encored.

  16. says

    To Jo – I would like to defend my honor, as it were. I would never suggest that you should not worry about the fine details in a performance, assuming that it was possible to have them. But under the circumstances you described, it wasn’t, and there is no sense worrying about it.

    As a teenager I began giving organ recitals, and when people told me afterward how much they enjoyed it, I would begin a litany of everything that went wrong. A friend of my mother’s gently took me to task for that, explaining “you could always just say thank you.”

    This actually taught me a good many valuable lessons as I thought about it in the ensuing years, the main one being that I have to make a distinction between evaluating my playing (or the singing of my group, or whatever) and evaluating the success of a performance. I think that students are often taught how to play but not how to perform. It is a different art, and I think important to this larger discussion, because we are trying to feel our way to making a better experience for the audience. And in some cases, I can imagine that it might involve making the experience a bit less satisfactory for us as musicians.

    A live performance can never be perfect (at least not one of mine,) but I believe that the sense that anything could happen is actually part of what creates the excitement. After reading that Jennifer Hudson’s performance at the Superbowl was pre-recorded, I was expressing my disappointment to a young (20-something) friend, who said the following: “well,…maybe you wouldn’t have thought she was fabulous otherwise… would have thought she was amazing and real and vulnerable and accessible and IMPERFECT – heaven forbid.” Wise words – from a classically trained singer, BTW…

    That’s a powerful point (or series of points), Rebecca. I wonder how many tenets of the orthodox classical music way of doing things — absolute silence in the hall, worshipful awe for the great composers, a sense of high formality, and so much else — please only a core ingroup, and not many others. Or at least aren’t necessary for many other people. The equivalent, in expanded form, of your thought about doing things that make a concert better for the audience, but a little more difficult for the musicians.