Who, what, why: How do you stop people coughing during a classical concert?

Girl coughing Image copyright Science Photo Library

A world-renowned violinist has berated the parents of a child who coughed during a concert. How do you keep a tickly throat at bay, and does it matter, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.

South Korean violinist Kyung-Wha Chung has hit the headlines at her London comeback concert for suggesting that the parents of a coughing child could "maybe bring her back when she's older".

An academic paper published last year found that people cough in concerts twice as much as they do elsewhere. Jonathan Bloxham, a conductor and artistic director of the Northern Chords chamber music festival, has a theory. "We as animals do tend to mimic those around us," he says. "When one person coughs around us there can be a chain reaction."

His hunch may be correct. "Even if you speak about coughing, you feel like a cough," explains Professor Ron Eccles of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University. "There is a big psychological component to the voluntary cough."

Large congregations of people - 2,500 were in attendance at Chung's performance at the Royal Festival Hall - can experience a domino effect. And it can be noisy.

The decibel level of a violin ranges from 84 to 103, which is not much louder than the average cough, measured at 70 to 90 decibels by Eccles's team in a 1998 study. Stifling your outburst may reduce noise levels, but it won't stop your neighbour from copying you.

Chung's response was an overreaction, believes Bloxham. "I don't think we're fulfilling our duty to the music if we allow such a banal thing as coughing to affect our performance," he says. "The whole point of music is to transport people away from the everyday."

Yet coughing is not the only way to interrupt a performance. Mobile phones left on can provide electronic accompaniments to classical instruments. In south-east Asia, a major growth area for classical music, some artists report that audiences chat among themselves or move around the concert hall.

Bloxham is sanguine about such interruptions: "Classical music has had and still does have this rap for being a bit precious and constricting for audiences. I think that attitude is not healthy."

Eccles has a simple solution to a mid-concert cough: "The best treatment is to suck a lozenge when in the theatre. Menthol and peppermint work particularly well at inhibiting coughs." But he has a secret: anything sweet works. Clinical trials show that 85% of a cough drop's efficacy is down to the placebo effect.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra heads off the problem by offering audience members cough drops before a performance. That might be a tip the Royal Festival Hall could pick up.

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