History of Applause

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George Hatcher, via Flickr

Are there special customs for applause in your home country? Bruce Gulland and Liz Waid look at clapping, cheering and other kinds of applause.

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Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Bruce Gulland.

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And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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People communicate thoughts and feelings in many different ways. Sometimes a group of people will share one thought or feeling. They can communicate this together.

Listen to a crowd at a football game. 

A symphony concert.

A political speech.

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Can you hear how these crowds communicate? It is applause! Applause is a way to show support. Applause also says ‘thank you.’ And it can show how much a crowd likes something. People applaud for many things. But when did people start to make noise with their hands in this way? And what affects how people applaud? Today’s Spotlight is on the history of applause.

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Applause is a form of cheering. A group of people make noise at an event like a music show or a sports game. They sometimes make noise with their mouths. But applause usually includes clapping hands. People hit both of their hands together to make a sharp noise. When many people do this at once it can be very loud!

people cheering at a concert
Photo by Nicholas Green
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People have been clapping for thousands of years. In ancient Rome, theatre shows were very popular. Actors performed a show. Then they would ask the audience for applause. Applause was a way for the crowd to say ‘thank you’ to the performers. But it was also more than this. People could also communicate how much they liked the performance. If they liked it very much they would applaud very loudly and for a long time. But if they did not like it, they would only applaud a little bit. In this way, a crowd could communicate as a group.

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Applause also connected people to their leaders. Political leaders in ancient Rome gave long speeches to the people. And people could talk back through applause. Greg Aldrete is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He studies politicians in ancient Rome. Aldrete told The Atlantic magazine that leaders would listen to the applause of the crowd. They would measure how long and loud it was. From this they would understand if the people supported them.

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Politicians and performers even began to pay people to applaud loudly. They hoped that if the crowd heard people clapping loudly, they would all clap loudly too. In 17th century France, there was a group of people called the ‘claque.’ An actor or politician could pay them money. The claque charged money for different kinds of cheering services. They would clap and shout. The claque would even boo a performance. This showed that they did not like it.

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Applause developed into a complex system of clapping and other noises. In this way, the crowd did not just watch the theatre or political speeches. They were able to be involved. Greg Aldrete explains some of the different ways a crowd could communicate:

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“Their ways of using applause included much more than clapping alone. Crowds made noises like thunder but they also buzzed. They also trilled. Crowds developed ways to express how much they liked the person or persons before them. They used claps, snaps of the finger and thumb and even waved the edges of their clothing.”

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In more modern times people stopped using this kind of complex clapping. It became more important for a crowd to know when to clap. For example, at some kinds of music performances, people should wait to clap until the end. This is good manners. Aldrete says:

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“Knowing when to stay silent, as well as when to clap, became a mark of education and class. It was a new kind of system for audiences to learn. Applause became a matter of “do” or “don’t,” “all” or “nothing”. It lost much of its old complexity.”

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But people still applaud in many ways. People in different countries also applaud differently. Andrew Litton is a musician. He conducts symphonies, guiding all the musicians to play their instruments together.  He has performed all over the world. He told BBC music magazine:

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“In the northern countries, if they like you they will launch into rhythmic applause quite soon. And they will keep the rhythmic applause going. But they do not cheer. They do not shout. And in America standing up to applaud is common. People stand immediately and make lots of vocal sounds – lots of shouting ‘Bravo.’ In Germany, you can actually count to three or five slowly after the music stops. Then the applause starts. It is almost like a spiritual feeling. They want to have that spiritual feeling or silence. And then they clap for much longer than anyone else on the planet!”

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Some countries even applaud with special kinds of claps or other noises. A writer from China commented online about a special applause used at the Peking Opera:

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“Sometimes an actor does an especially good job on a song. Then a few members of the audience will call out “Hao!” in a loud voice. This means “Good!” in Chinese. People will call out one here and one there, faster and faster.”

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But even within a culture there may be differences in how crowds applaud. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a concert pianist. He thinks that the size of the city affects applause. He told BBC music magazine:

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“In most of the big capitals people are used to going to a concert. So they will have a similar experience with applause. But sometimes I go to very small places where they do not have so many concerts. Then you hear they have the most incredibly warm and excited response.”

people watching a soccer match
Photo by Michael Lee
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Applause may depend on the country or size of the crowd. It may come in many forms. But one thing does not change. Artists, sports players and speakers all enjoy hearing applause. It is an important part of their job. Musician Andrew Litton explains:

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“An audience’s approval is part of the satisfaction that goes with what we do. People have paid money to attend your concert. And you play this music which hopefully the audience will find joyful and encouraging and spiritually satisfying. So in the end you would like some thanks for it. It is not for the money that we perform. It is really for the sense of sharing this great music. Part of the sharing process is the applause at the end.”

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Are there special customs for applause in your home country? Leave your comments on our website at www.radioenglish.net. Or you can email us at radio@radioenglish.net.

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The writer of this program was Rena Dam. The producer was Luke Haley. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. This program is called: “The History of Applause.”

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We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Do you remember the last time you clapped your hands? Who or what did you clap for? Write your answer in the comments below.

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