Background information

So why do we clap?

We clap to praise performers on a stage for a job well done. No matter where in the world. But we also clap for selfish reasons.

I was at a concert. And it was a really good one. That’s why the whole audience was clapping loudly throughout it and especially at the end. A hearty round of applause. Without it, the concert wouldn’t have been the same.

Why is that exactly?

Clapping out of habit

«We clap because we’re used to it,» says musicologist Jutta Toelle, who has studied applause for more than a decade. It’s a way of expressing gratitude when doing so isn’t possible on an individual level. «Maybe clapping is partly instinctive because the resulting sound is both rhythmic and satisfying. In any case, it’s definitely ‘instilled’.» Just like how we eat with knives and forks instead of with chopsticks or our fingers.

The phenomenon is fundamentally linked to European cultural history. «The ancient Greeks had a satyr – Krotos – whose name means «to clap» or «to stomp applause». In ancient Rome, the main actor of the theatre would address the audience with the words ‘valete et plaudite’, bidding them farewell and asking them to clap» explains Toelle.

According to her, in classical Indian and Chinese music, there was no applause. But thanks to globalisation, the whole world is now clapping – albeit with plenty of variation. «Italian opera-goers clap more enthusiastically and in a less 'disciplined' manner than German opera-goers,» she says. In the U.S., standing ovations are more widespread than here in Switzerland, and in Eastern Europe people often clap at a faster pace. «Applause is subject to a great many norms and practices, but none are set in stone.»

Applause is also good for the audience

But clapping isn’t only a way for us to express gratitude, it can also help us to release tension. «At classical music concerts where there’s no clapping between movements, the audience – after sitting in silence for such a long time – longs to applaud to satisfy their urge to move.»

At the concert I attended, the applause was joined by shrieks and whistles. Toelle confirms that applause is often accompanied by other forms of expression. «Everything has gotten louder, so sometimes the clapping almost gets lost», Toelle says. But smartphones are also a reason why in some places people no longer exclusively clap – or clap less. Because if you’re holding your mobile phone in your hand filming, you can’t clap your hands at all.

In my case, I was holding a drink.

Why does the second hand of the Swiss railway clock pause before a new minute? Why is popcorn served at the movies? And why don’t beverage glasses go in the same bin as other glass? Everyday life is filled with intriguing questions, the answers to which I’m determined to find. If you have a burning question of your own but no time to research it, shoot me an e-mail. I like doing the dirty work.

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My life in a nutshell? On a quest to broaden my horizon. I love discovering and learning new skills and I see a chance to experience something new in everything – be it travelling, reading, cooking, movies or DIY.

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