Classical Coffee Conversation

This is a new series for blog readers. Have a question about the symphony, a piece of music or composer, or something else you’ve been dying to know but afraid to ask? This section addresses those questions. If I don’t have the answer, I’ll find another expert who does! Leave your question(s) in comments, or e-mail me directly at

Question: What do I wear to the symphony?

Answer: This, believe it or not, is a common question. The short answer is: whatever you feel comfortable with. I’ve seen all kinds up to this point—formal, jeans, working-girl (and not the daytime kind).

But the longer answer boils down to how you want to spend the evening. Are you going out to dinner? Is this a special date? Or is it simply to enjoy the music? What kind of concert is it—typical symphony concert, family concert or gala event? What time of day is it—afternoon or evening? Evening attire is usually dressier. Most people tend to dress up a little—dresses, skirts or dress pants for ladies; sports coats, slacks and dress shirts for men—ties are sometimes optional. The conductor and musicians wear tuxedos and dress clothes, so it would be considerate to show respect for their hard work and neat appearance by wearing clothes that are clean and perhaps a bit better than what you might wear if you were going to hang out at your local coffee shop for the afternoon. However, it’s still a personal choice. The area you live in might also dictate what is “normal” symphony attire.

If you’re still concerned, call the symphony office ahead of time. They get asked this frequently and they’re more than happy to give you some ideas. The most important thing is to be comfortable for you. The orchestra’s main concern is that you show up!

Question: How can I enjoy the music if I don’t understand it?

Answer: The short answer is: don’t get bogged down into the details. If you like the sound of the music, just enjoy it!

But the long answer is: you won’t be left in the lurch. You can always find notes on the program (called Program Notes) either on the Web site of the particular orchestra you are attending, via search engines or in the program book when you arrive. The program notes gives descriptions of the composer and why he/she wrote that particular piece. The really good notes will tell you what to listen for during each movement or section of the composition. Sometimes the notes are revealing, describing where you might have heard the piece before, such as in a movie. If the notes seem to be written in such a way you need a music degree to understand them, often the orchestra program book will include fun facts, minor details and shorter descriptions of that piece. While it’s cool to have some background of the music, it’s more exciting to be at the orchestra to watch the musicians and hear the sounds bouncing off the walls of the symphony hall. You can’t get that feeling from any written notes.

Also, many symphony orchestras offer free concert previews hosted by musicians or other music professionals. You’ll get to hear some of the music ahead of time, learn about the composers and aspects about the particular pieces they wrote, ask questions and listen to others’ take on the music. If you can’t find the information on the symphony’s Web site, ask them the next time you call!

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