The band finishes up their last song of the night, and they give a wave to the crowd and walk off the stage. The lights don’t come up, and within a couple of minutes, they’re back to play a couple more obligatory songs before the house lights come on for a final time. This pretty much describes any concert nowadays and any encore. But how did the encore start, and is it anything like it used to be?
The encore, which is the French word for “again,” began sometime in the 1800s when people at concert halls wanted music they just heard and liked to be played again. Since there was no recorded music at the time, this was the one chance they would get to listen to a favorite piece of music played again.
Orchestras might have played a piece of music that had gotten applause from the crowd sometime during the main performance, and the orchestra would repeat that portion of music during the encore. It was a way for the audience to show their appreciation for a good performance, and the orchestra would reciprocate by giving them an extra added taste of music at the end.
Encores also stem from actors on Broadway who would show their appreciation for the audience by doing an extra bow after the performance. Musical acts began to follow suit when the popularity of this form of entertainment rose. This is how the encore started and how it was meant to be, but how did it morph into what we know today as an expected part of the show when the band will play whether they’ve been good or not?
From the 1960s into the 1970s, encores were still used when the fans loved some kind of amazing performance. Some artists never played encores, however. The phrase, “Elvis has left the building,” came about because Elvis wouldn’t play encores. It meant there was no way he was coming out to do one. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted to have the audience always craving more, so he wouldn’t let Elvis do them. The Beatles also didn’t play encores in fear of getting mobbed before they would be able to leave the building. But other artists did, such as The Who, and they played them only when the fans gave them the indication to do so.
According to Washington Post columnist David Segal, things changed from the way encores had originally been intended because of “The Boss,” Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen would play concerts that sometimes lasted up to four hours, and his band would come back to the stage over and over. This part of the performance began to seep into the performances of other bands, and to accommodate their lighting and sound requirements, bands began to build the encore into their setlist.
As the years crept into the 90s, bands sometimes saved their biggest hits for the encore or barely left the stage before returning. One example was the band Nirvana, who ended a 1992 concert with their biggest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Some bands have tried to revive the way the encore was intended by playing songs that audiences wouldn’t expect them to play or playing songs again when the audience just couldn’t get enough of them the first time. But these instances are few and far between. The way the encore is automatically inserted into the end of a concert as a part of it seems to be here to stay.