Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme, Tuesday

28th January 2013 | Concerts, Daily Life | 5 comments

Tune in to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme at 8.35am this morning, Tuesday 29 January, when I’ll be taking part in a short discussion about coughing in concerts.

We’ll be discussing the research of Professor Andreas Wagener, who believes that coughing in concerts is both ‘excessive’ and ‘non-random’. Apparently people cough more in concerts than they do in everyday life. Is it a form of joining in? Is it a form of protest?  Do performers mind it? Tune in to the Today programme to hear more.

If you missed the original item you can listen to it here. Scroll down to the time of 0844 and you’ll find a four-minute sound clip. You can also listen to it on the BBC News page about arts and entertainment.
Or you can download the podcast.


  1. Mary Sage

    I have lived in places with extremes of climate where issues of humidity and the effects on the body are better understood than by doctors here. I was told that the single biggest influence on the healing of a cough is good, moderate, even humidity i.e. do not sleep or spend the day in the dry air common when the heat is on for long hours indoors in winter. I suspect if coughing is more frequent in concerts, it will be useful to find out if concert halls and venues are poor environments in terms of humidity. Might the ideal conditions of humidity for instruments for example prevail at present rather than ideal humidity to avoid humans coughing?

    • Susan Tomes

      Very good point, Mary, thank you. My guess is that humidity would suit the old Italian string instruments as well as the human beings! You may well be right that dryness is a factor in making people wish to cough.

  2. Rosemary Hadfield

    Having attended and sung in many concerts, both professional and amateur, for over 30 years, I too have wrestled with this question as I noticed that people seemed to cough more during, or between, quiet passages of music and it did seem to be involuntary, more often than not.

    My conclusion is that it is two-fold – firstly, that it is a primitive reflex action to cough in order to hear better because it is a way of unblocking or changing the pressure in one’s ears, and of trying to ‘remove’ the ringing in one’s ears after a loud musical passage in order to hear the quieter passage. Secondly, people who are aware that they want to cough involuntarily, but shouldn’t, stifle it for a while, which then compounds the need to cough at a ‘break’ in the music.

    When we are listening to music under our own control at home, we can simply turn up the volume. In a concert hall, all we can do is strain to hear or try to clear our ears!

    I think it might be worth Prof Andreas Wagener comparing the number of times people cough in or between the very quiet passages of music where the dynamic variation is very wide, and the number of times they cough during music which has a narrower dynamic range.

  3. violinist

    It’s impossible not to want to theorize something on one’s own after listening to the radio interview. At first, I thought about the dry air in concert halls, particularly given that most performances take place during seasons of stark contrast between outdoor and indoor conditions. Yet this past weekend, we went to a theater performance, where one might expect the same frequency of coughing to occur — but it didn’t. This led me to suspect that coughing is related to a physiological response to listening (perhaps ‘unnaturally’) to music in the presence of others. Some other reflex must come into play, akin to inhibition, that causes people to breathe differently and possibly build up the need to clear the system. It’s truly puzzling. Has it always been so, or is the rise of coughing like the rise of asthma, something that’s increasing with environmental pollutants?

    • Susan Tomes

      Yes, it is truly puzzling. For me the most perplexing thing is that listeners in a concert seem to cough extra-loudly, as though it hasn’t even crossed their mind that their coughing might disturb the people sitting near them, let alone the musicians. It sometimes seems almost aggressive. Because you wouldn’t cough like that at a dinner party, say – you’d instinctively try to muffle it.
      I do sometimes feel that the loud coughing is a kind of protest against having to sit quietly and not move about. I also wonder if it’s to do with people’s attention span having got shorter. We are so used to 3- and 4-minute songs now. Music which goes on longer than that, sometimes considerably longer, seems to irritate some listeners – at least that’s my feeling.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *