Plumbing the mystery of concert coughing

Posted on: June 2, 2009

In the Sunday (5/31) Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Barry Schlachter writes about the phenomenon known as the concert cough. “It might pop up at one end of Bass Hall during the quietest, most contemplative passage—a piercing, unruffled cough. Then, inexplicably, across the hall, a throat utterance rings out, seemingly in response. … Not only do the coughs ruin the concentration and disrupt the enjoyment of audience members, they mar recordings of performances.” Schlachter discusses cough levels in various countries. “Karoly Schranz, the Hungarian-born second violinist of the Takacs Quartet, says some cities in Europe are indeed relatively coughless, but some halls are better than others. At London’s Queen Elizabeth, ‘they manage to hold it back.’ New York can be both good and bad, again, depending on the venue, he said. …But Asian cities are so remarkably silent, Schranz said, that is ‘almost scary.’” Theories behind the problem include Fort Worth surgeon Douglas Lorimer’s opinion that audience coughing in concert settings is “nervous behavior.” Lorimer and Alann Sampson, chairman of the Cliburn Competition, suspect that admonishing audiences to refrain from making noise might actually prompt coughing. “The more we talk about it, the more it happens,” Sampson says.

Posted June 2, 2009