Great Moments In the Modern History of the Handclap

One cloudy day last August, at the Rock En Seine music festival in Paris, me and Kat were lucky enough to see one of my favourite bands, Broken Social Scene, perform to a rapturous crowd in the rain (see the pics here). While we missed the band’s opening numbers, a surge of excitement pulsed through my body when the opening bass lines of “Stars & Sons” crackled over the loudspeakers. It’s my favourite song of theirs, partly because of said bassline but mostly because of the joyous handclaps that kick in at the end of the first verse. The handclap’s not back: it never left.

Those of you who are familiar with BSS will know already that it’s a kind of collective, with a constantly changing cast of band members. That day, as the section where the handclaps were supposed to kick in approached, I wondered how they were going to replicate that special moment, given that every member of the band had his or her hands full playing instruments of one kind or another. Then, just when I thought it wasn’t going to happen, a group of about six women marched onto the stage and started clapping. Instantly, every member of the audience was clapping too, in the rain. It was simply one of those moments when it feels impossibly good to be alive.

That was when I started thinking about the power of the handclap, and the sad fact that not many people are interested in the history of the handclap, modern or otherwise. As the band’s set finished, a Frenchman turned to me, looking quite angry, and said something to me in French that I obviously couldn’t understand. I apologised in my Lonely Planet French, upon which he asked me, almost accusingly, whether that was the end of the set, and how long had they played for anyway, and wasn’t that a pity.

As I smiled politely and turned away, the better to pretend to study the festival program, all I could think of was another series of questions: who invented the handclap? What’s so special about it anyway? Is it possible to use a handclap in a song incorrectly? Who will write the history of modern handclaps? And why doesn’t anyone care so much about these big questions as I do? Since that time I’ve come to learn that my initial assumption was both arrogant and false – there are people out there who care just as deeply about the handclap as, say, the incidence of bagpipe solos in modern Australian music.*

I’m still in the initial stages of my historical research, however even the most cursory appraisal of the miles of extremely reliable information available on Wikipedia (!) has revealed, apart from many other things, that seals are among the animals that clap; that clapping is an integral feature of gospel music; that concert-goers (in the West at least) usually show their approval by clapping; that the golf-clap is a form of sarcasm, modelled on the distant sound of clapping heard during televised golf tournaments; that Steve Reich has composed a piece of music performed entirely by clapping; and that this last-mentioned piece is called funnily enough, Clapping Music. Also, apparently, “Clapping can be used in acoustics to check the reverberation time of a room. The clap’s decay time determines this.” Like, wow!

Oh, and have you played the clapping game? Yippee!!

Some of the things that Wikipedia won’t tell you include the following facts: John Farnham’s incendiary call-to-arms “You’re the Voice” utilises what could be a synthesised handclap in its electrifying introductory section; The Clash used handclaps to great effect midway through the verses of their equally barnstorming “Rock the Casbah” (note that, shamefully, no mention is made of this fact in the Wikipedia entry on this song); Outkast revitalised the handclap with their still-popular “Hey Ya”; The Cure’s “Close To Me” is a handclapping triumph of human-machine cosmology; and finally George Michael deserves some kind of award for giving the world not only his stubble but the awesome display of perpetual handclap-motion that is “Faith”. I wasn’t going to mention U2 but unfortunately no history of the handclap is complete without critical reference to the abomination that is “Desire”.

These songs, surely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a future archaeology of handclaps, give me hope that one day, we will all be clapping to the same beat, at the same time. Or else, that a kind of pan-national mass syncopated handclap is somehow possible, despite many peoples’ inability to hold a tune, count in the beats or even appreciate flamenco dancing. Otherwise I fear that we will, just as in that over-used koan, destroy not only ourselves but the entire planet through the misuse of that one hand, clapping or not.

Your comments on this issue are, as ever, welcome.

*Surely the subject of a future PhD. See for example The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”, John Farnham’s aforementioned “You’re the Voice” and AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top …”


  1. at the end of the tempest prospero calls for the audience to ‘release him’ – partly an appeal for applause, but partly something more, about the nature of reality perhaps.

    makes me think of when the member of a band will raise his or her arms, & perform an exaggerated handclap, in order to get the crowd to join in. similarities? how ‘real’ is said musician if no-one claps at all?

    fascinating stuff. fodder for phds.

  2. ‘Clapping music’ is written for two performers! This is given me new ideas about cooperation between us… i wanna clap you hands!
    X Kat

Express yourself