There are other ways of expressing appreciation in public than by slapping your hands together but I can't think of a better one. It is the obvious thing to do at the end of a performance or speech. Is it as simple as that? Is it worth a second thought? Humans must have the clapping instinct for babies do it spontaneously to express delight. Clapping, however, is not always a sign of appreciation. Slow hand claps express impatience and it is possible to clap ironically, too: yeah, yeah, you think you are so great... Clapping is expressive: the louder and the longer, the more is the sign of approval.
Clapping at classical music concerts has become a sign of sophistication: clap in the wrong place or at the wrong time and you are surely an ignoramous. At the end of an unfamiliar piece when no-one is quite sure if it has finished, the ensuing second or two's silence contains slight universal embarrassment for no-one wants to make a fool of themselves by clapping out of place, yet everyone wants to show appreciation. It would be so much more embarrassing if no-one clapped at all. As leader of my orchestra, I sometimes walk in to take a bow before a concert starts. At my approach, a single preordained clapper starts clapping. Instinctively, the rest of the audience can't help it; they join in with the ritual.
Where does it come from? No-one knows. The ancient Romans had a set ritual of applause for public performances, expressing
degrees of approval: snapping the finger and thumb, clapping with the
flat or hollow palm, waving the flap of the toga. Wiki says, that a claque
(French for 'clapping') was an organised body of professional
applauders in French theatres and opera houses who were paid by the
performers to create the illusion of an increased level of approval by
In Christianity, customs of the theatre were adopted by the churches and in the 4th and 5th centuries applause of the
rhetoric of popular preachers had become an established custom. Applause
in church eventually fell out of fashion, however, and partly through the
influence of the quasi-religious atmosphere of the performances of Richard Wagner's operas at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus the reverential spirit that inspired this soon extended back to the theatre and the concert hall.
That reverence in the concert hall has a stifling effect and may be a reason why audiences for classical music are harder and harder to come by; may be a reason why the young, i.e., those lacking reverence, are unsupportive. My contention is, remove the sense of reverence for the performer and the relationship between audience and performer intensifies. They can each then play their respective roles with more freedom and enjoyment. Ergo, audience numbers increase. Perhaps get the audience clapping over with at the beginning of an event and then forget it. Heckle and clap as an individual any time you feel like it, though. And show appreciation by coming again. Diminishing the sense of reverence won't diminish respect for a great performance. I don't hear clapping for my wise words. Is that because you have a sandwich in one hand?