Coughing and the art of concert etiquette

How we behave at classical music concerts, as performers and audience members, has been in the news again lately, following a recent speech by Max Hole, CEO of Universal Music, in which he called on orchestras and conductors to “loosen up”  and shed their elitist image in order to attract more people to concerts.

Those of us who go to concerts regularly are perhaps a little puzzled by Mr Hole’s comments which do not chime with our concert experiences (popular programmes, sold out concerts, enthusiastic and committed audiences). Music journalist, blogger and novellist Jessica Duchen has written a sensible blog post in response to Mr Hole’s comments, summing up succinctly what most of us “regulars” feel about classical concerts.

And now, as if this wasn’t enough, Andreas Wagener, a professor from the university of Hannover, has published a learned paper on the “economics of concert etiquette” in which he examines the extent of coughing in concert halls and what is behind the phenomenon.

When I first heard about this via Radio 4’s Today programme, I roared with laughter – because a 32 page document on this subject does suggest an academic who’s got too much time on his hands. But to show willing, I downloaded the text and read a bit of it with my breakfast. I was listening to Radio 3 by this time and Professor Wagener’s paper was causing quite a stir on the ariwaves, with listeners suggesting – via all forms of social media available to them – reasons as to why people cough at concerts. In his paper, the learned Prof suggests that it is deliberate and subversive, a form of civil disobedience. Eh?

Coughing at concerts can be irritating: I was at a Beethoven recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last spring, given by the French pianist François-Fréderic Guy. The coughing started fairly early on in the proceedings and reached a crescendo during the iconic opening movement of the Op 27/2, so much so that the pianist actually turned and stared at the audience for a moment, clearly disturbed by the cacophony of coughing. But I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever seen a performer react to coughing (the pianist Alfred Brendel once warned his audience: “Either you stop coughing or I stop playing!”).

A professional pianist colleague of mine told me he likes to hear the noise of the audience, a reminder that the event is “live” – and there are plenty of other noises that can be far more distracting: phones going off (turn it OFF, not to ‘silent’, FFS!), someone trying (and failing) to extract cough sweets (oh the irony!) from a foil blister pack, the woman who emptied the entire contents of her handbag on the floor at the Wigmore (and then picked everything up and replaced it), the man who fossicked around in a selection of very crunchy plastic bags during an encore, hearing aids whistling (common at the Wigmore). Not to mention the hummers….. Some years ago I attended a rather special recital at the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands in Surrey, at which the pianist performed music by Chopin on a Pleyel piano, thought to have been owned by Chopin himself. Throughout the recital, the man to my right hummed, loudly and lustily, but at no point was he ever in tune with the music!

I don’t know why people cough at concerts. It is probable more noticeable in the concert hall than elsewhere because we are all sitting in concentrated silence. The atmosphere in concert halls can be dry and/or hot, which can provoke a coughing fit. A friend of mine gets so anxious about not coughing in a concert that she inevitably coughs, and I think anxiety is a common cause of coughing at concerts. Another friend, and regular concert companion, has special “concert sweets” which she passes around before the performance begins. Sucking a sweet is often enough of a distraction to prevent the dread tickle in the throat, and many concert venues sell boiled sweets in the foyer. One tip from a regular, though – don’t come to a concert if you have a cold, chest infection, sore throat. It can be miserable trying to blow your nose/stifle a coughing fit during a concert: if you’re ill, you should probably stay at home and listen to the concert on Radio 3.

A well-prepared performer should not be overly troubled by coughing and other “living” noises from the audience. When we prepare for performance, we train ourselves to concentrate, to be “in the zone”, and this ability to shut oneself off from extraneous noise is a key part of practice and performance (Glenn Gould famously practiced while his mother vacuumed around him, or with the radio playing).

I suspect that one of the most common reasons why fellow-audience members get annoyed by coughers is that they are listening for tiny changes and variations from their favourite recording, a peril of listening to music in the age of high-quality recordings. I will be examining this subject in more detail in a separate article.

So, let’s try not to get too worked up about coughing, or what the conductor wears, or whether the female soloist’s dress was on or off the shoulder (if you’re focusing too much on her outfit, you’re probably not listening to what she’s playing!). If you’ve got a bad cold/cough, it’s probably best to stay at home; if not, come out and enjoy the fantastic classical music that is on offer, every night of the year, all around the world.

More “faff” about concert etiquette here

And more good advice on concert going here


  1. People coughing at concerts or in the theatre etc irritates me in the extreme. If you have a cough, just don’t go. I think that academic had a bit too much time on his hands…

  2. The worst thing of all is somebody coughing during the final phrase or the very last note of a piece. Why can’t they wait another couple of seconds? It’s unforgiveable. The Wigmore is the worst. Among other recital halls, the audiences at King’s Place and LSO St Lukes are so much better. It confirms one’s suspicions that a proportion of the regular Wigmore audience consists of people who aren’t genuine music lovers.

  3. Normally I don’t have a problem with coughing myself in concerts (and often I think giving way to the urge to cough just irritates the throat further, prompting a vicious circle), but during one prom in 2002 I did manage to sneeze in the GP towards the end of Dvorak 9! I battled the sneeze for what seemed like an age, and finally lost the struggle just as the orchestra fell silent

  4. I accidently set my iPod playing whilst at the Opera and spent five minutes glaring at my neighbours and muttering before I realised it was me. I was SO embarassed.

  5. Another source of audience-generated anxiety at concerts is noisy chairs. I was listening, in the front row of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, to Angela Hewitt playing the Goldberg Variations. I badly needed to squirm after an hour of tense stillness (the performance was utterly captivating). As I did so, at a deeply meditative moment in the music, my chair gave out a loud squeak, to my intense embarrassment. I adopted that strange pose of mid-squirm motionlessness, with all sensory antennae trained on whether anyone had noticed. On another occasion, at a concert in Petersfield Festival Hall, having a bad back made it almost impossbile to keep still. Cue chair noises. Note to conert hall managers: oil seats regularly. Note to concert-goers – add bad backs to the list of reasons to stay home and hear it on the radio!

  6. I think it’s mainly psychological. At work, I can quite happily sit in my chair working all morning, without getting up; but if you tell me I *have* to sit in the chair all morning, then I’d be desperate to get up. Something similar happens, I’d guess, at concert halls: the very knowledge that one mustn’t cough makes one want to.

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