Benjamin Northey's guide to concert etiquette

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Benjamin Northey, Associate Conductor of the MSO, has put together a list of tips for both first-time and regular audiences

So you are coming to your first MSO concert and feeling a mixture of excitement and trepidation. You’ve heard humiliating tales of mobile phones ringing mid-performance, generating scowls from fellow audience members, and are possibly unsure of what the expectations are in a concert hall environment.

Firstly, we are absolutely delighted that you have chosen to give up an evening in front of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones to be with us (not to mention forking out for a ticket!).

We play music for you, our audience. Without you there is no concert. We all want you to have a stimulating and inspiring first experience listening to the Orchestra – hopefully the first of many.

Attending a concert is similar in many ways to going out to the movies. You share an experience with others. This sense of sharing our collective experience is one of the most important parts of a live concert. There is nothing like being united with others through the emotional power of orchestral music.

The main difference between the movies and the concert hall is that, nearly always, the orchestra is playing in a natural acoustic without the aid of microphones and speakers. Now orchestras can of course make a lot of sound, but it isn’t the same kind of sound as a movie soundtrack in a cinema.


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performing at Hamer Hall

In an orchestral concert, we often try to play as softly as possible: these are some of the most special and intimate moments in the entire repertoire. Even silence is an important part of our means of expression; we are dealing in highly refined subtleties of sound. Of course this demands a different level of audience discipline with regard to noise levels. We ask at the beginning of concerts that mobile phones and electronic devices be switched off as a badly timed ringtone can quite literally ruin a performance (especially if it is being recorded). And when I say ‘ruin a performance’ I don’t necessarily mean for the musicians, it is really for the other audience members who have come to listen.

Accidents happen and I encourage musicians and audience members to be tolerant of audience mishaps in performances. Sometimes things also occur onstage which can disturb a concert , somebody might drop a metal mute on the floor, or a violin bow (even a baton…). That’s life! I would simply encourage you to be respectful and tolerant of those around you. If there is something which is adversely affecting your experience at the concert, speak to an usher in between pieces and see if you can be moved elsewhere.


View from the stage at Hamer Hall

Some concerts are different than others of course. We have concerts for families, schools, young children and even special events featuring films. These are usually less formal and can be slightly rowdy!

My tips for having a great concert experience:

  • Research the works you are going to hear online and find out a bit about them and the composer, perhaps even have a listen. This can greatly enhance your experience and understanding of the music.
  • Be sure to turn your phone off (or at least onto silent mode if you need to be contacted for emergencies). Double check this after interval!
  • Generally audiences today will clap at the conclusion of a multi-movement work rather than in between movements. This was not always the case but has become common. I don’t think this is a big issue. If audience members wish to show appreciation at the conclusion of a movement then we welcome applause -in fact we love applause! It’s usually pretty obvious where applause is expected.
  • Singing along or tapping your foot loudly can be great fun, but spare a thought for those around you. Probably best to leave the music to the professionals on stage (or just try to contain yourself a little!)
  • Try to be respectful and tolerant of those around you. If something is really bugging you then see if you can discretely move seats in between works or at interval.
  • Please don’t let the environment in the concert hall make you feel uncomfortable or frustrated. We are so delighted you are there to share the music with us and want you to have the best possible experience. Let us know if there is anything we can do to make your experience more enjoyable.
  • Oh, and thanks for coming!!