Study finds that people "cough on purpose during classical concerts"

I have been a regular symphony subscriber for decades, and always marveled at the fusillade of coughing between numbers.

However, once the concerts started up again after Covid the coughing >vanished<. Almost to zero. This might be because people stopped going out in crowds while sick. Years later now, with very little mask wearing, there is still very little coughing. I think this supports the intentional hypothesis.

Coughing in public is now widely frowned upon and creates social pressure against this action.


It may well be a psycosomatic response, but I find in situations where I must be quiet and still, I frequently end up needing to cough. My “concert prep” has long included having a water bottle to the specification allowed by the venue I’m going to.

It was interesting to me to discover – after concerts restarted – that keeping masked with a kn95 really helps me in not becoming phlegmmy and needing to cough. So I surmise that the “twice as often” result is really that the dense seating in a concert hall means that the air-quality is so different from “normal” with odors, fragrances, and dust so that people’s mucos/phlegm production is on overdrive – and that this is not in any way voluntary (other than the choice to go to a public event in the first place.)

OTOH, some venues are known for rude audiences where you’ll get lots of coughing when there’s an ‘unusual’ interpretation in the artist’s performance, or less than stallar quality (even famous people have bad days), or when ‘modern’ classical music is played.

The “study” (working paper) that this article seems to be referring to has two references as the source of their " 0.025 times per minute" statistic for frequency of coughing in concerts:

Schulz, Alexander, 2005, Husten und Auswurf. Presentation at the „Patientenkongress der Deutschen Lungenstiftung“. Hannover, October 1, 2005

Loudon, Robert G., 1967, Cough in Health and Disease. Current Research in Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. In: Proceedings of the 10th Aspen Emphysema Conference.

I’d find it interesting to know what hall and what repertoire were measured, as a clue to whether we’d expect coughing as a show of disappreciation in that value.


coughing, i’ve always thought, is a bit like yawning in that you can catch someone’s yawn, and it’s really hard to fight it. the study ( “study”? ) notes coughing “avalanches” - so there is a social aspect to it…

is yawning intentional in that sense? it’s unclear

attendance, i’ve heard is down still from pre-covid times. and of course - to be blunt - lots of older americans ( concert going age ) died. so there are other factors that might be influencing things

i do think it’s possible that making it more socially unacceptable to cough - like you’re saying - could be a factor too


Excellent point. The paper is from 2012, and since decades last 100 years now, it would be nice to have more recent data or the comparison your observations suggest.

In my (limited) experience people go to great lengths to AVOID coughing during concerts. I remember being surprised/amused by all the coughing that occurred as soon as the first movement ended at the first concert I ever went to (at the Chicago Symphony, where they had dispensers with free cough drops in the lobby), as everyone tried to get their coughs out of their system before the next movement started. Is that not the case any more?


There are still plenty of sold-out / near capacity concerts. Still very little coughing nowadays post covid. While some older people might have stopped attending, the symphony audience still skews pretty old. Lots of people 70 yo or more.


I had to really dig, but I found the original working paper:
… annnnd I’m not allowed to include links in my comment.
UGH! Okay, go to Google Scholar, search for the paper title “Why do people (not) cough in concerts” click until you get to a broken URL for a PDF. Then go to Archive dot org and paste that URL into the Wayback machine, and go for the 2016 capture and you’ll get the PDF.


Could it be that they are coughing during the loud bits but you can’t hear them cough over the loud music?



I keep clearing my throat now just reading this. I could believe there is a strong power of suggestion. If I start thinking about how my throat feels and I become aware of it I start imaging I have phlegm or an itch/tickle. But it might not even be imaginary. I mean we animals salivate when we think about food and our mouths get dry in stressful situations etc. I feel like it might be really hard to factor in everything but I feel like this is only the beginning of a study and not a conclusion of one…

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Tired: Coughing is a nuisance.

Wired: Coughing is audience participation.



Welcome to the BBS! With google-fu and concise advice like that, you’ll fit right in! :wink:


Um, you clear your throat during the pauses so you (hopefully) don’t have to cough during the performance.


I don’t buy the conclusion that people cough on purpose during classical concerts, and wait especially for the quiet parts so they’re more audible. What would be the point? Do these people enjoy dirty looks and “ssshhh” sounds from the audience around them? (I certainly know that if it happens to me it is very embarassing and something that I would much rather avoid if I could. If there is nothing to be done, I’d attempt to cough during a loud part and hope that fewer people will notice.)

Anyway, the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein supposedly said,

All over the world, when people have a cold they go to the doctor. In Israel, they go to my concerts.


I had never thought of rosin allergies


The avalanches between movements are merely that many people have been holding back a strong compulsion to cough and have been successful at keeping it quiet until there’s a moment where it will not detract (as much) from the music.


i think that’s an additional reason for sure. i was, however, thinking of how in a movie theater if one person coughs it often seems at least a few other people will too.

without some good studies all we have are our own personal impressions, which i think are more like hypotheses rather than facts


Kind of like how a friend of mine won’t use loud lawn equipment unless a nearby neighbor is, too. He tries to consolidate the aural disturbance.
Pretty polite, if you ask me.


I had this idea for our neighborhood when I started wfh. I don’t have very many phone calls or meetings, but sometimes the noise and the smell of cut grass can seriously bother me.

I thought, “Wouldn’t it would be wonderful if all the landscaping could be assigned one day of the week?” :thinking: We would have one day of noise instead of 4-5 days! One day of grass allergies instead of four.

Unfortunately, getting the lawncare professionals to agree seems unrealistic and a general PITA for them.


“If coughing were purely accidental, it should occur evenly distributed over the concert, which is not the case,”

Someone doesn’t understand randomness. “Purely accidental” is as close to “random chance” as you can get, and true random is never “evenly distributed” over anything.

that said, if it was truly random then you would (should?) expect the “coughing avalanches” to happen at any time in the performance, as opposed to just during the quite bits. Since that isn’t the case, it must be people suppressing until a time they feel it is more socially acceptable to cough. When one person starts, this signals others that have been suppressing their coughs to also cough as there is consensus that now is a good time to cough.