In a story that has become legend in the classical music world, Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel stopped a performance in Hamburg and snapped at the audience: “Either you stop coughing, or I stop playing!”
As the story goes, not one cough was heard after the pronouncement.
He’s not the only classical performer who has complained about excessive coughing, naturally. In 2019, Yo-Yo Ma paused a recital of Bach Cello Suites in Mumbai to politely but purposefully ask any audience members who wanted to leave, to go. Some did actually exit at that point. He then led the audience in an exercise of collective throat-clearing and proceeded to complete the performance.
Did it work?
According to accounts, only for a little while. Gradually, the level and frequency of coughing ramped back up again.
Many other artists have made their feelings known on the subject, including Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, and Sir Simon Rattle, who told a 2007 Carnegie Hall audience, “This piece [Mahler’s Ninth Symphony] starts with silence and returns to silence. The audience can help to create the piece by remaining silent.”
The response to Brendel’s admonishment may serve as some proof of the theory that coughing during classical music is a conscious act of something akin to subversion.
A Purposeful Breach of Etiquette
In 2012, German economist Andreas Wagener made waves with a paper titled Why Do People (Not) Cough in Concerts? : The Economics of Concert Etiquette, published in the Association for Cultural Economics International, Working Paper Series, 2012.
In it, he posited the notion that concertgoers cough on purpose. “The statistics indicate people cough during concerts twice as much as they do in normal life,” he claimed in a BBC radio interview. At the time, the late professor Dr. Andreas Wagener taught at the Institute of Social Policy at Leibniz Universität in Hannover, Germany.
“Concert etiquette demands that audiences of classical concerts avoid inept noises such as coughs,” the paper asserts. It also claims that, “coughing in concerts occurs more frequently than elsewhere, implying a widespread and intentional breach of concert etiquette.”
His assertions are based on a statistical analysis of probabilities, but even so, he acknowledges that some coughing will occur. “Assuming that each person coughs purely randomly, independently of everybody else’s coughing and at a time-invariant rate (homogeneous Poisson process), a normal frequency of 16 coughs per day corresponds to 0.0555 coughs in a five-minute interval. The likelihood that an individual will cough during a five-minute interval then is 1 – exp(- 0.05555) = 0.05404, and the probability that nobody in an audience of N people will cough during a five-minute interval equals (1 – 0.05404)N. For a small concert hall with N=200 people (the Golden Hall in Vienna’s Musikverein or New York’s Carnegie Hall seat well above 2,000 people), this amounts to 0.0015 percent, making the undisturbed performance even of a short piece of music extremely unlikely.”
According to his numbers, the average concertgoer coughs 0.025 times a minute. That’s about double the average overall. “If coughing were purely accidental, it should occur evenly distributed over the concert, which is not the case,” he points out.
- Coughing increases during slower, quieter movements;
- It also ramps up during complicated passages, or those unfamiliar to the audience.
He posits that coughing is a kind of passive-aggressive commentary on “uninteresting” sections of the performance, or even an attention-seeking behaviour.
The Psychology of Coughing
It’s about the psychology of the experience as a member of the audience at a concert involving classical music.
Unlike most pop music genres, the audience in a classical music concert is expected to give the music and its performance the entire floor, figuratively speaking. No dancing, no humming along. Certainly, no commentary or chatter during the performance. Silence and immobility (at least, insofar as movement of the audience is as unobtrusive as humanly possible), are the standard for audience behaviour.
It leaves coughing as virtually the only response possible.
The psychological underpinnings of coughing were discussed in Professor James W. Pennebaker’s (University of Texas, Austin TX) seminal study Perceptual and Environmental Determinants of Coughing, published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology in 1980. According to his research, coughing is not only a physical response; it’s a behaviour with social and psychological roots.
In essence, it’s contagious.
“Unlike health-seeking behaviours and self-reported physical sensations, coughing is typically an immediate and observable response to the perception of a scratchy or irritated throat. Several studies were conducted on coughing behaviour in naturalistic classroom settings.”
The significant findings include:
- The larger the group, the more coughs per person
- People are more likely to cough if they hear others cough
- The closer a person is to a cougher, the greater the probability that they will also emit a cough
- Coughing varies as a function of external stimulus demands (i.e., when subjects viewed a movie that had previously been rated for its interest value every 30 seconds, subjects were more likely to cough during the uninteresting portions)
- High instructor evaluations were related to fewer coughs during lectures. Perceptual, physiological, and depth of processing issues related to internal sensations arc discussed.
There are, of course, alternative interpretations of the coughing phenomenon. For example, during a pop music concert, it’s possible to talk or respond, but the amplified music means that it generally involves shouting, and does not interfere with your neighbour’s enjoyment of the music. Not so, when it comes to classical music and opera.
In a BBC radio show, concert pianist Susan Tomes talked about coughing during performances. “I certainly do notice it, but I think it has something to do with the fact that people have gotten so used to hearing music amplified,” she said. “Many types of music are so loud, but classical music is not, and when you go to a classical concert, you forget how quiet acoustic instruments are.”
Some concert venues in London have attempted to stem the intrusion of coughing by offering free cough drops in their foyers, a practice which is obviously not COVID-era safe.
Other times, a more drastic approach has been taken. During a 2019 performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Vienna Staatsoper, Olympic hockey star Samatha Quek was escorted out of her seat, and watched the rest of the performance from a screen in another room after a coughing fit.
Up till about the first half of the 19th century, concerts were generally an informal affair, and audience members wandered about, and vocalized their approval or disapproval of the performance. Demanding absolute silence from modern audiences may just be outside the realm of the possible.
“Substantial evidence suggests that coughing in concerts is excessive and non-random,” concludes Wagener sternly in his paper, “[…] concert coughs, thus, must be regarded as wilful and voluntary to a substantial degree.”
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