Swedish researchers in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface have found that the quality of performance does not affect the length of an audience’s ovation.
Instead, once one or two audience members begin clapping, others follow suit – and when a couple stop, the rest stop soon afterwards.
The study also showed that the social pressure to start and stop clapping was greater than the pressure to copy a neighbour’s actions.
Lead author Dr Richard Mann, from the University of Uppsala, told BBC News: ‘The pressure comes from the volume of clapping in the room rather than what your neighbour sitting next to you is doing… You can get quite different lengths of applause – even if you have the same quality of performance.
‘You have this social pressure to start (clapping), but once you’ve started there’s an equally strong social pressure not to stop, until someone initiates that stopping.’
The question of when to applaud in a classical concert is a fraught one, and the deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine recently explored the subject in a podcast in which he spoke to pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and conductor Andrew Litton about how conventions surrounding applause vary from country to country.
Litton said: ‘In Bergen if they like you they will launch into rhythmic applause quite soon after you get the orchestra up, and they’ll keep that going, but they don’t cheer or scream. In America standing ovations are quite common and they’re usually instant, along with a lot of vocals.
‘In Germany you can actually count to five after the final note before the applause starts, it’s almost like they want to have the aura of silence – and then they clap for much longer than anyone else on the planet.’