Sunday, 11 May 2014

Why do we Applaud?

"If nothing else, there's applause...like waves of love pouring over the footlights and wrapping you up"
Eve Harrington.

Clapping or Applause is the most common human body noise that others are meant to hear that doesn’t involve the vocal chords. It is a collective social gesture that we use in groups, usually done an act of acknowledgement of something that has been performed well. We show approval by applause, the question is why do we do this? It has been suggested, by psychologists, that ‘clapping’ arises as a human behaviour from infancy, babies reach out to touch objects but in failing to do so, engage in the next best option, smacking their hands together. An alternative theory, proposed by Desmond Morris in his book 'People Watching, a guide to body-language', is that applause is a symbolic ‘Pat on the back’ for the performer, with one hand representing the others persons back whilst the other does the patting.


I would not be a fan of either of these theories.  Stephen Connor has argued that applause is a reaction to an overflowing of enthusiasm, a primitive reaction and states that ‘if the distinctive sound of the human is the sound of language, then the quasi-language of non-articulate sound produced from other places besides the mouth, always has the taint of the gratuitous or the excessive, a spilling over of feeling and enthusiasm’. It would seem though that clapping is a learnt behaviour, a cultural practice that has replaced any other exuberant mechanisms, stopping our feet, jumping around, slapping our thighs, as it is slightly less cumbersome and more refined than other examples.

The popularity of clapping then probably lies in the fact that it was considered as a civic duty in Ancient Greece, associated with governance, whilst Roman theater required applause during their performance. Throughout history it has been enforced as a means for the group to indicate approval, so that the crowd could have a single voice to give approval, often with professional ‘clappers’ hired so as to guide the performance of the audience. This ties in with the findings of Richard Mann et al (2013), ‘The Dynamics of Applause’, which found that an individual’s contribution to the applause seems to have less to do with their actual opinion on the performance and more to do with behaviour of the group. The more enthusiastically the crowd replies, then the more enthusiastically you reply and so a vicious circle of approval is created.

But then we also have some control over our clapping ability, as how we shape our hands, the momentum used, etc. all affect the noise we produce, from smacking one hand against our palm to the booming noise of the two-handed grasp clap. This method of ‘approval giving’ also then allows us to act in a group but maintain some individuality by manipulating the sound we make, we act like we fully approve of a performance and so maintain expected social norms but by weakening the sound we produce we can still show some disapproval. This subverting of ‘applause equals approval’ can probably best be seen in the phenomenon of the ‘slow clap’, the sarcastic applause, that signals anything but ‘I think you did a great job there’.


Clapping then is not always as simple as giving approval and it may not always even be appreciated by the performers. The  word ‘clap-trap’  supposedly arises from this seemingly automatic response to certain pieces of music, composers would deliberately insert ‘pauses’ in their music, often after surging crescendos, to lull people into thinking the piece was over and the ‘less educated’ members of the audience would give themselves away by clapping at these times. The classical music crowd though, are not always so snotty about applause, it is the expected norm at the end of the performance and once a year at least it is a central piece of a performance, the the Vienna New Years day concert highlighting the power of applause. 

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