Classical Coughs: Concert Goers Cough More

Jan 5, 2017

Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Coughing - the bane of the live, classical recording. No matter what you do, if you pack hundreds of people into a quiet room - someone is bound to cough. 

The Gilmore's Cough Drop Test

Maria Schneider is the director of operations for the Gilmore Keyboard Festival. She says the Gilmore hands out more than 12,000 cough drops every festival. So, she says the Gilmore decided to do a cough drop test to make sure they were getting the most for their money.

“One of those needs is sound and the wrapper of each throat lozenge or cough drop and how they will translate their sound into a room,” Schneider says.

If coughs were complete accidents, they would be heard throughout the performance. Instead we tend to hear coughs in quiet pieces and slower movements.

Some lozenges had wrappers with too much plastic that made a loud, chip-bag sort of sound. Other wrappers were too thin and would tear. 

"You want also it to be strong enough so it’s not falling on the floor and tap tap tap down the, into the aisle there,” Schneider explains.

Ultimately the Gilmore settled on a cherry Halls lozenge for its quiet, papery wrapping.

I know what you’re thinking. Is that really necessary - a test to find the quietest cough drop? It might surprise you to know that - according to a study by Professor Andreas Wagener at the University of Hanover in Germany - people cough more in concerts, much more.

Concert Goers Are Coughers

On average, people cough 16 times a day. Concert goers cough 36 times a day - that’s more than double.

But why? There are a few theories. Classical music listeners tend to be older -  and older people have more health problems. Concert goers might dress up and wear irritants like perfume or cologne. It could simply be the air conditioning.

"A socially acceptable way to kind of, how can I say, expend that energy you're holding from not moving or not responding may be a cough."

“It could be because the concert hall is very dry and encourages coughing,” says Betsy Wong, artistic administrator for Fontana Chamber Arts.

“I’m also a performer and I’m very cognizant of when the hall is dry and I always have a bottle of water with me just so I can keep my mouth wet.”

Wong and Schneider agree that musicians don’t seem to cough as much as the audience. Wong says maybe it’s nerves or maybe musicians are just very focused at the time.

“I’ve been performing for a long time now and I’ve never had a coughing jag on stage during a performance. So I think that says something about our will to be quiet if we really need to be quiet,” she says.

Classical Coughing Is No Accident

In fact, Wagener’s study suggests that we can hold in coughs. Coughing might even be intentional. Wagener says if coughs were complete accidents, they would be heard throughout the performance. Instead we tend to hear coughs in quiet pieces and slower movements. 

The study says coughing could be a sign that those parts aren’t as interesting to the audience because they’re paying more attention to their itchy throats. 

Wong says hearing other people cough could be contagious.

“It’s sort of like yawning. If I yawn in front of you, you will probably want to yawn,” she says.

The study suggests it also could release extra energy - almost like fidgeting.

“A socially acceptable way to kind of-how can I say-expend that energy you’re holding from not moving or not responding may be a cough,” says Maria Schneider.

Wagener suggests it could be a way for the audience to participate more often. Concert etiquette says the only sound you should make is applause and only at the very end of a piece. Wong says feel free to ignore this rule:

“During Beethoven’s time there would almost always be applause between movements. And if there wasn’t, the piece was generally not considered to be a very good piece. And movements would often be repeated by the orchestra at the bequest of the audience.”

Schneider says she doesn’t see this extra participation in classical recordings as such a bad thing - even if it is coughing.

“It shows how a live concert hall sounds and it marks itself from a different situation from that recorded, sometimes more sterilized environment. So I think it’s wonderful to have that,” she says.

What should you do if you do want to stifle your cough? Schneider says you could try wearing a scarf to muffle the sound or pick up a cough drop.