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What sounds are allowed in a concert hall?

By Jared Wolf

When attending classical music concerts, there is a certain behavior which is expected of audience members: people should silence their phones, remain silent, and be attentive to the performance. Typical sounds at a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert, for example, might be: people coughing, a rogue cell phone ringing, rustling programs, a child whimpering, or silent anticipation. Forbidden sounds at an orchestra concert might include: speaking with a neighbor at full volume, answering a cell phone, driving a car through the concert hall, or opening a bag of potato chips. The sounds made by classical audiences are regulated and distinct. As a result, it is jarring when we hear classical music performed in a soundscape that breaks those rules.

In the opposite sound clip, you heard the Allegro con brio from the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in two different contexts. In the first portion, the symphony is displaced from the concert hall. Cars drive by, conversations take place, and the wind hums in the background. In the second part of the clip, you hear the soundscape one might expect at a symphony concert: the music is in the foreground, and, in the background, programs rustle while someone opens a candy and someone else coughs. Notice your reaction to each part of the recording. The first half might evoke your annoyance, your amusement, or you might find yourself straining to hear the music. The second half may feel more familiar and comfortable. But, is there an ideal backdrop in which Beethoven’s music should be heard?

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Sound clip created by Jared Wolf

You may have felt that a Beethoven symphony is best enjoyed without a surplus of background noise—a “hi-fi” environment, as acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer would describe it. A hi-fi soundscape is one where background noises and individual sounds are both heard clearly. The typical symphony is written for a hi-fi concert hall where people sit silently and reflect on the sounds in their own, personal way. When classical music is performed indoors or outdoors, audiences expect the decibel level of background noise to be low. The performance hall at the Frick, for example, is ideal for small chamber performances, like a performance of Beethoven’s first symphony which requires a smaller orchestra than his later symphonies.

But would it be so terrible if audiences were given permission to make more background noise? One reason why some sounds have become “forbidden” in concert halls is that they contribute to a “lo-fi” soundscape, or a high-density sound environment. Some might feel that a lo-fi setting is not ideal, because it is more difficult to hear dynamic contrasts and nuances in timbre. They might argue that Beethoven’s music would lose its appeal, leaving it devoid of emotion, meaning, and purpose. In classical music culture, it is presumed that the orchestra’s sounds will be prioritized over the listener’s sounds. This behavior is an expression of respect and reverence for the music as well as respect for other audience members trying to hear the performance.

Yet, not all music performances require audiences to follow these classical “rules.”  Jazz audiences cultivate radically different rituals. Clapping, yelling out, or even dancing in the middle of a performance is expected, especially after a solo. This recognition of a musically virtuosic display has a long history in jazz and serves as direct feedback from the audience to the musician, communicating attentiveness, appreciation, adoration, and awe. In this sense, classical and jazz audiences behave differently. Attentiveness in a classical setting is realized through silence and clapping at the correct time (the end) whereas attentiveness in a jazz setting is realized through real-time participation and clapping when the listener feels moved to do so. Regardless of what situation one finds oneself, a knowledge of and respect for the unique rituals of a performance is expected to appreciate the work that went into them.

What sounds would make you uncomfortable at a classical music concert?
Select all that apply:
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