Coughing music


We are drawing towards the close of the most bronchial season in our concert halls – those winter months when, despite heavy colds, blocked sinuses and raging sore throats, devotees of live music valiantly venture forth from their sickbeds to interrupt other people’s enjoyment of the performance….

A concert-going blogger friend of mine coined the phrase “coughing music” after a concert in honour of Steve Reich was replete with much throat-clearing, rasping and hacking between pieces (this was in November, at the height of the coughing music season). And the previous month a concert at the inaugural London Piano Festival was interrupted by much barking in the balcony (the offender refusing to leave the auditorium), so much so that a member of the house staff made an announcement requesting people stifle their coughing before the start of the next part of the concert.

But such behaviour is not entirely confined to the winter months and a number of studies have sought to examine why people cough at concerts. Professor Andreas Wagener from the University of Hannover examined the phenomenon in a study published in 2013, and concluded that it is deliberate, sometimes passive aggressive behaviour (to indicate boredom during a slow section of the performance), or may be intended to “test unwritten boundaries of courtesy, to comment on the performance or simply document one’s presence”. In other words, it may be attention-seeking….. Add to this the fact the many concerts goers are “of a certain age” and may suffer from common complaints and conditions of old age such as hypertension or congestive cardiac failure, one form of medication for which, ACE inhibitors, can have the side effect of a dry cough. Concert halls can also be hot, dry or air-conditioned places – the ideal atmosphere for the dread tickly cough to develop.

Coughing can also be infectious – listen during the break between movements of a symphony or quartet and you’ll hear one person start, then another, then another…..and before long there is a whole cacophony of coughing. Interestingly, people pipe down pretty quickly when the music starts again, which suggests that Professor Wagener may have a point, that such behaviour is not accidental. I also think people can feel tense at a concert: this anxiety stems from a concern to do the right thing at a classical concert, to observe the correct concert etiquette. A friend of mine used to fret so much about the possibility that she might cough during a concert and disturb those around her, that a nervous cough would start almost as soon as the music began.

For the performer, a noisy, coughing audience can be distracting. In her book ‘Sleeping in Temples’, the pianist Susan Tomes notes that performers generally feel sympathetic towards the “necessary cough”, the one that can’t be helped: “It is not nearly as annoying as the uninhibited bark of a cough ringing out from the stalls like a gunshot“. Other performers have felt moved to react to coughing: the pianist Alfred Brendel once warned the audience: “Either you stop coughing or I stop playing,” and I suspect that a command from a musician of such statue would have caused almost immediate silence in the auditorium.

The Wigmore Hall has a sensible approach to coughing which seems to work without making people feel uncomfortable. Boiled sweets are for sale with programmes (sucking a sweet not only moistens the throat but also provides marvellous, if short-lived, distraction from the tickliness) and an announcement is made before the concert, politely requesting audience members “stifle coughing as far as possible”. As soon as this request is made, the hall usually erupts in a storm of throat-clearing and nose-blowing before the audience settles quietly, ready for the performance.

The American avant-garde composer John Cage recognised the audience’s special “interactivity’ – coughing, rustling programmes etc – and used it as a compositional tool in his ground-breaking work 4’33”. Here, the ambient sound of the concert hall – the hum of air-conditioning, people moving or coughing, street sounds from the outside the hall – becomes the “performance”, thereby challenging received notions of what constitutes “a concert” and music itself.
Advice to concert goers
  • If you know in advance that your cough is likely to be disturbing to other concert goers (because you have a cold or virus), stay at home! In addition to the noisy interruption, coughing also spreads germs.
  • Take mints or boiled sweets to eat during a concert (but make sure you unwrap them very quietly, as this can also be irritating to other concert goers!)
  • Take a bottle of water to sip from during the performance. Most venues won’t allow you to take drinks from the bar into the auditorium but a discreet bottle of water is acceptable
  • If your cough becomes really noisy during a performance, leave the hall quietly

1 Comment

  1. I find that pinching the flesh near my elbow quite hard will usually suppress a cough during a performance.

Comments are closed.