Going to a classical concert

Get the most out of concert-going with our guide to what to expect

By Time Out Classical editor, Jonathan Lennie

So, what’s it like attending a classical concert? Who goes to them? What do people wear? What happens? The simple answer is that watching a classical concert is as varied in atmosphere and style as you might expect a theatre to be, except there are musicians playing on stage… and there are no actors. As to who attends, there is no typical concert-goer, either in age or status. Classical concerts are frequented by people who simply enjoy listening to the music.

The essentials

Most concerts start at 7.30pm and end at about 9.45pm. Somewhere in the middle there's usually an interval of approximately 20 minutes – just enough time to down a drink, have a stretch and complain about the conductor. If you're hungry you should eat beforehand or wait until afterwards, or both. As most concert venues are near restaurants you shouldn’t have to go far, and many offer pre- and post-concert meal deals. Why not make a night of it? After all, you should by rights spend at least some time giving your tuppence worth about the performance.

What to attend?

There's a huge variety of music to choose from, which is not surprising given that there are more than 600 years of composition styles and the scale of performances range from large symphony orchestras and singing choruses to solo pianists. If you're going to listen to a symphony (usually an instrumental work for orchestra) or a concerto (a solo instrument playing with an orchestra), then expect around 70-100 musicians on stage under the direction of a conductor. Many orchestral works involve a choir, too (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is known as ‘The Choral’ for this reason). There are many venues hosting these large-scale concerts, including the Barbican Hall, Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall.

For something on a smaller scale there's chamber music. These events feature only a handful of players – three for piano trios, four for string quartets, five for quintets… you get the picture. As such these events are much more intimate and are best catered for by smaller venues such as Wigmore Hall and Kings Place. With so few performers, a conductor isn't usually needed.

Are there any rules of behaviour?

In general, attending a concert can be as varied in atmosphere and style as watching a play or musical, though it's best to try not to make noise during a performance. There's no need to dress up; you can wear what you like (within reason!). And clapping? Although you may clap when you want, the audience tends to wait until the end of a symphony, for example, before applauding, rather than clapping each of the piece's individual movements. The best advice is to wait and see what everybody else does first and then join in.

What if I arrive late?

It's usually best to wait for a suitable lull in the music and then take your seat. Don't worry, there are usually ushers on the door who will tell you when that ideal moment is.

How do I know what is happening?

The programme brochures that you can buy (sometimes they are free, such as at LSO concerts at the Barbican and the OAE concerts) are chock-full of information on the music and the players.

Now you are ready. Have a look at what concerts are coming up in our concert planner, which we've grouped by theme to help you get started...