1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Concert coughers

Peter Zimmermann / gnb
March 22, 2013

Many view classical concerts as governed by a strict etiquette code that discourages coughing and other noise-making. So why's there so much coughing at concerts? A German economist has raised eyebrows with his response.

A woman coughs into a handkerchief David Jones/PA Wire URN
Image: picture alliance/empics

My wife and I were recently in the opera - admittedly, a rare occurrence. She hates the government-subsidized but generally uncomfortable seats, the lack of leg room and the smell of sweat mingling with bad perfume. Furthermore, she often finds the musical presentation slightly over the top and void of fun. But despite all this, she does have a favorite opera - "Nabucco."

In the production of the work by Giuseppe Verdi that we saw, the prisoners' chorus is made up of bumble bees, who bounce into the audience shaking their stingers. My wife shrieked with delight at the sight.

Then her neighbor began to cough, and violently at that. "Come on - it's funny!" my wife scolded him - as if speaking in a concert auditorium were the most normal thing in the world. Others in the hall began to cough. But I think those sudden attacks were directed less towards my wife and more towards the bumble bees. Or the staging. Or perhaps the director himself. Confined by good manners

In our age, a night out for a symphony or an opera can amount to an experience that's more confining than pleasurable. That was perhaps less the case in Mozart's era, when such events were associated with promenading, lively chatter and having a drink or two.

The 19th century brought changes, with rules of etiquette playing a stronger role in the concert experience. And those who dared to spurn classical music altogether ran the risk of being ostracized by the economic, intellectual and moral elite.

"With music it does not only matter what is consumed; the way this consumption is socially understood may be even more important," writes Andreas Wagener of the School of Economics and Management at the University of Hannover, in his recent paper titled, "Why Do People (Not) Cough in Concerts? The Economics of Concert Etiquette."

Wagener was out to examine the meaning and purpose of current concert etiquette, reminding readers in his paper that etiquette and the concert form itself are social constructs.

No accident

Concert associations, musicians and music journalists endeavor to the present day to educate their audience with rules, gestures and admonishments. Musicians are obliged to give their all and to translate the score with truth and meaning. The audience therefore should concentrate on the music, be serious and silent. All this ultimately takes its toll: Wagener cites studies showing that people cough twice as much in concerts as they do in everyday life.

Pianist Alfred Brendel is particularly touchy when it comes to unwanted noises in his concerts. During one performance in Hamburg, he stopped playing and barked at the audience: "Either you stop coughing or I stop playing!" Silence reigned for the remainder of the concert. And that fact speaks volumes for Andreas Wagener.

"Coughing and its suppression are to a substantial degree willful actions. Experimental evidence shows that humans are not only able to activate but also to suppress cough on demand, independently of sensory stimulation," writes Andreas Wagener, who contrasts coughing with other actions like sneezing or hiccupping that cannot be "willfully produced with their complete pattern."

Participatory gesture?

Wagener, however, does go on to admit that coughing is as much part and parcel of the concert experience as the music itself. "Given that it may always be viewed as a physical reflex, coughing is one of few acceptable ways of active participation within strict concert etiquette," he writes.

The German comedian Loriot composed what he dubbed a "Coughing Symphony" as a present for the Berlin Philharmonic's 100th birthday. The intent was "to integrate typical concert noises to enrich the work," the humorist said.

"The volume of coughing increases with the complexity and unfamiliarity of the music performed," says Wagener, getting right to the heart of the modern concert reality. Perhaps that's one reason pianist Alfred Brendel was moved to write an enraged poem, whose title in German translates as "The Coughers of Cologne." In it, he suggests listeners have acquired intricate knowledge of the pieces on the program "so that at the quiet junctures - particularly during the grand pauses - they can cough the loudest."

Can coughing during classical concerts be seen as some kind of statement? Is a connoisseur showing some sort of displeasure with the production or with the work itself? Can coughing be regarded in that case as a way of reassuring other concert-goers of one's critical attitude?

The more unsure an audience feels, says Wagener, the greater the likelihood of a coughing fit emerging. 'No sense of humor'

In an interview with DW, Wagener said he is pleased with "the wide and international reaction to my paper which, in itself, deals with something relatively mundane. It doesn't happen to an economist all that often that his intellectual ideas are taken seriously within the cultural scene."

It's evident that coughing in concerts is a pain, just as it's evident that concerts depend for their survival on audiences making their way to the performances. And often, Wagener argues in his paper, their attendance is less about listening and more about solidifying social roles: "Music and its perception define individual and group identities, convey prestige and status, allow for demarcation as well as inclusion, produce conformity, and affirm individual and social values."

That description, among others in the economist's paper, have struck a sour chord with some German music critics.

"He connects classical music only with the upper class and combines that with allegedly very mannered behavior which does nothing but display a kind of social exclusion," bit back columnist Helmut Mauro in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Wagner calls such responses typical of the German media, who, in contrast to foreign press outlets that covered his paper, tend to regard his paper as a dry study and view it "with no humor or sense of fun at all."

Pianist Alfred Brendel performing on stage (AP Photo/Keystone, Urs Flueeler)
Pianist Alfred Brendel prefers concert-goers who are quiet and obedientImage: picture alliance/AP Photo
Prof. Andreas Wagener (c) picture-alliance/APA/picturedesk.com
Andreas Wagener: Coughing has a voluntary element to itImage: picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com
Hans Neuenfels' production of "Nabucco" at the Deutsche Oper Berlin Copyright: Bernd Uhlig
Hans Neuenfels' production of "Nabucco" at the Deutsche Oper BerlinImage: Bernd Uhlig