Coughing in concerts

12th November 2009 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 5 comments

outside the QEH

outside the QEH

The other night, at the theatre, I was amazed by how freely people in the audience were coughing. At one point, the coughs became so frequent that it was like hearing bull-frogs calling to one another at night from different parts of the swamp. I actually started to count the coughs, which was counter-productive because when I got above twenty I realised I had momentarily lost track of what was happening on stage.

I have a theory about coughing in the concert hall or theatre, which is that people have got so used to watching things on TV that they are unfamiliar with the experience of having live musicians or actors in front of them. My theory is they don’t fully realise that the people on stage will hear them and be distracted.

However, today Bob called me to come and listen to a recording which seemed to explode my theory. Made in 1927, it was a recording of a live performance in the Royal Albert Hall conducted by Sir Edward Elgar. A great climax had just passed over, and in the quiet passage that followed, you could hear people coughing uninhibitedly. Over a quiet melody, coughs barked out from near and far, from the stalls and the galleries. This of course was well before the era of television.

Just as you’ve told yourself that coughing is unavoidable in the season of colds and flu, you come across an audience which seems to be able to exert mind over matter. This week I went twice to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear the wonderful Takacs Quartet play Beethoven, on days when the press was full of concern about rising numbers of  flu cases. There must have been over a thousand people in the QEH audience on each occasion, and there was scarcely a single cough the whole evening.


  1. David Gwilliam

    Hello Susan
    The coughing in 1927 may have involved a relatively few people coughing a lot. Many of the men in the audience would have been in the trenches and some at least breathed in gas. Coughing was a backdrop to the period between the wars in pubs, clubs and no doubt concerts too.
    I think the period from 1960 to 1990 was unusually cough free and this gives a wrong impression. Cases of asthma etc are increased markedly since 1990.
    What I don’t think musicians realise is that people do not go to concerts wanting to cough. To cough is embarrassing but sometimes trying not to only makes it worse. I hope nobody would suggest that people already restrcted by bronchial problems should avoid concerts as well.
    Why other people coughing should bring on ones own cough is something I have never understood. However, I can assure you that it is not a deliberate reply.
    The irritation of the musician is perhaps less than the embarrassment of the cougher.



    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, David, for an interesting historical perspective. Of course everyone is sympathetic to a person who really has to cough. I agree that trying to hold in a cough is torture! But the problem with coughing in concerts comes, I think, when it’s obvious that there is no attempt to stifle or quieten the cough. That seems inconsiderate to me.

  2. Helen Lewis

    Actually I think coughers (and there aren’t usually many-but those that there are rarely seem to make much effort to stifle their coughs), have no idea how their coughs carry round the concert hall or theatre. I long for a conductor to say something to an audience along the lines of:” Ladies and gentlemen, Wagner wrote the prelude to Rheingold for an orchestra, not the cough, so please get the latter over with before we start”. Yes there are occasions when individuals genuinely have dreadful difficulty, but too many coughs are of the clearing throat variety; they doubtless make the cougher more comfortable, but at a cost to the performance.

  3. Richard

    I was going to ask whether coughing and ruining concerts is getting worse. The Royal Albert Hall is really bad. This week’s carol concert was so bad that I nearly walked out as the coughing completley ruined every piece of music – a wasted £126?

  4. Rob4

    Watching Steven Isserlis at the Festival Hall last week, there was an outbreak of coughing as soon as each movement finished. Very considerate I thought, although it sounded horrible, but certainly far more preferable to doing it over the music. If a pianissimo can carry across an entire concert hall, some old git hacking his lungs out in the back row will too!


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