Deconstructing the Clap

Who could resist clapping along with Freddie Mercury?

Rock music is the only art form that invites amateurs to perform along with the professionals – like an oversize version of Kumbaya -- and with predictable results.

You’ve heard it spoken dozens of times, maybe even said it yourself: “That concert was like a religious experience!” Often gushed by people whose last official religious experience was 9th grade Catechism or a Hanukkah visit to the synagogue a decade prior, it is a compliment issued as if no higher praise can be offered.

Music is an art form with a unique ability to generate this sense of transcendence, to create a spontaneous communal experience in way that other art forms do not: A breathtaking art exhibit can arouse intense personal response, but you never see a gallery crowd collectively raising their lighters and cell phones into the air; live theatre can be emotionally moving, but you never see the first ten rows of patrons pumping their fists along with the recited lines.

People attend every concert with the hope that the experience will rise above mere entertainment and become something more ethereal. Many bands understand this desire, and do their best to manufacture an atmosphere that will fuel this desire. One of the primary methods? The mass clap-along.

The clap-along is a tried and true trick for creating a gospel-tent-esque experience on a crowded concert floor. It tears down the imaginary wall between band and audience, changing the crowd from spectators to participants. What better way to produce a quasi-religious sensation than with an oversize version of Kumbaya? In theory, it’s a brilliant means of making the evening’s performance feel like more than a rote delivery of oft-played hits.

Yet by the very nature of its participants, every clap-along is predisposed to failure for the same reason: the average concertgoer has a fairly undeveloped sense of rhythm, even for a rudimentary beat-keeping task like clapping. Rhythm is a nuance, a feel, and it needs to be practiced – just ask anyone who has lived next door to fledgling drummer.

Yet with our days spent laboring at work, making dinner, watching television, reading bedtime stories to kids, most people do not have an opportunity to practice musical rhythms. Life (and perhaps pride) doesn’t allow us to take time at home clapping along with the CD player.

As such, the concert clap-along is a participatory event for a tremendous group of untrained participants. Few art forms invite their amateur audience to participate in the creation of the art: At a restaurant, the chef never invites diners to chop food in rhythm with their cooking; at a gallery showing, it’s rare for the artist to encourage patrons to dip a brush and contribute to the works. Yet in rock music, musicians gratuitously clap their hands over their heads (the universal signal for “do this with me”) or come right out and ask (“put your hands together”, etc.) to drum up enthusiasm from the crowd.

Every one of these clap-alongs follows an nearly identical trajectory, from rapid ramp-up to teetering critical mass into crumbling atrophy. The arc is consistent through every crowd size, as this graph accurately displays:

The letters in the chart correspond to the changing status of the mass clap:

A: Command Response. Sizable percentage of the crowd immediately obeys the request for a clap-along, eager to demonstrate their solidarity with the band, or at least to indicate they’re paying attention.

B:Sympathetic Cooperation. As more of the crowd recognizes the applause’s growing volume, they join in, pleasantly willing to invest effort in the potential of the moment. Contrarians stare at the stage, arms folded or idly dangling, feigning unawareness of what they perceive as an awkward effort to bond with the strangers on stage.

C: Critical Mass. Majority of crowd is now clapping. For 30-40 seconds, room has thick, reverberating echo of semi-simultaneous hand claps. The clap isn’t on the beat, but the sheer number of claps falling slightly before, directly on, and just after the beat gives the illusion of a single, albeit elongated, clap.

D: Decay. A percentage of the crowd loses interest, refocusing on their beverage, the band, or the nearby cutie who may or may not be indicating an interest in closer proximity. As their claps drop off, those who offered sympathetic cooperation recognize the changing tide and, having not really been that committed to the clap anyway, drop out as well.

E: Resuscitation. The band has been focusing on the fanatics in the front row, generously offering moments of connectedness with smiles, winks, and “check this out” facial expressions in references to their individual musical sections. As they realize that the clap-along is fading, they try to revive it with the same gestures used to get it started initially. While the enthusiasts continue to obediently obey, most of the audience has come to think of the clapping as tedious. The decay continues.

F: Collapse. While fluctuations in clap timing weren’t audible when the bulk of the audience contributed, the smaller sampling now clearly reveals the inaccuracies of their individual timekeeping. The clapping becomes an awkward distraction from the music, and all but the stalwarts desist.

G: Demise. Some enthusiasts never recognize the arc until this point, so enthralled with the music that they have failed to notice that they are the only person within beer-spilling distance still clapping along. Everyone else has noticed. Without fanfare, without finale, they stop clapping, as well.

Interestingly, this consistent pattern of participation appears elsewhere in culture, even if the timelines and topics vary. Look at the enthusiasm for candidates in political races, how a following can grow as people become excited to participate and then wane as people get distracted and lose focus; look at the growth of social media platforms, which grow exponentially as friends invite friends and drop off as users move on to the next distraction; even the popularity of a restaurant that bursts onto the scene, enjoys steady crowds, then suffers a gradual decline as diners explore other options.

We’re all craving the sublime experience, a spiritual nirvana invoked by physical circumstances. We know that no candidate is a savior, yet we hope to be proven wrong; we know that Twitter may follow the path of Friendster, but we enjoy it while we can; we know that no restaurant can satisfy all of our cravings, yet we relish that honeymoon period when we excitedly anticipate that one can. It seems to be the way we’re built, and since it isn’t really “broken”, no one seems eager to fix it.

Except maybe the non-clappers, who vigilantly offer their silent protest every time the hands of the crowd members start coming together for another attempt at spiritual bonding. Perhaps these souls are to be commended for their refusal to contribute to a doomed cause. Perhaps their silent protest is a voice of reason in a chorus of ridiculousness. Perhaps, though it’s hard to say, because in venues everywhere, every night, the protest is usually drowned out by the clapping.

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