Why do our concert halls so often sound more like hospital wards? A new study points the finger.

For years, sporadic coughing during concerts has evoked frustration yet remained a notoriously enigmatic phenomenon. However, a new report entitled Why do people (not) cough in concerts? may have some of the answers.  Research carried out by Professor Andreas Wagener from the University of Hannover suggests that coughing spells are deliberate, and are particularly prevalent amongst classical music audiences.

A healthy adult coughs around 16 times a day but Wagener’s report finds that your average concertgoer coughs at 0.025 times a minute, which works out at 36 coughs per day, more than twice the norm. Even allowing for the older demographic at classical concerts the statistic is startling.

What’s more, if coughing were purely accidental, it should be evenly distributed throughout a concert. But the professor maintains that the volume of coughing fluctuates, depending on the complexity of the music, with quieter, “boring” moments generating louder, more disruptive coughs than “interesting” sections. “It is the more modern pieces of 20th century classical music, it is the more quiet and slow movements that are interrupted by coughs,” Wagener said.

Worse still, it turns out that coughs in concerts are mysteriously contagious. The Professor describes them cascading through an audience like “coughing avalanches”.

From the early 19th century onwards, the development of concert etiquette has coincided with the implementation of regulations and protocols, culminating in our current concept of the audience as silent listeners. “Coughing in concerts occurs more frequently than elsewhere, implying a widespread and intentional breach of concert etiquette,” states Wagener, who is inclined to see something deliberate in it. “Concert coughs, thus, must be regarded as wilful and voluntary to a substantial degree,” he said.

The baritone Thomas Quasthoff once warned an audience before some Brahms: "Do not cough until the concert is ended. Because I love this music so much.” Pianist Alfred Brendel was more blunt stating, “Either you stop coughing, or I stop playing.” Wagener’s report suggests, however, that rather than being a performance-inhibiting action, coughing is a component of concert behaviour allowing for positive social interaction between audience and performer. As he puts it, coughing may be intended to “test unwritten boundaries of courtesy, to comment on the performance or simply document one’s presence”.

To the Professor’s way of thinking, subtle psychological factors may be in play. “You cannot really distinguish whether it’s a deliberate thing that happens, a sort of comment you wish to make on the music, or whether it’s something that’s just a reflex because you have an itching throat," he said. "This ambiguity makes a cough a rather attractive way to comment on the music, to participate in the performance and to show your existence in the concert.” In short, it’s more discreet than shouting, walking away or shuffling – after all, it can always be excused as a health condition.

The good news however is that Wagener believes that coughing in concerts can be “switched off” with reference again to Brendel whose performance was uninterrupted after he instructed the audience to “cough more quietly”.

Alternatively, we can just embrace it, like John Cage who recognised audience ‘interactivity’ in his ground-breaking composition 4’33”. By harnessing the audience’s behaviour as a compositional tool, the ambient sound becomes the performance while the performers refrain from actually playing their instruments.