Death at a Funeral March

We’ve all heard the stories, but how likely is an audience death during a concert?

Well, listen closely.

According to the UK Office for National Statistics the fashionable mortality rates (for 2010) are roughly as follows:

Although the number of deaths are well recorded, we do have to be selective and take into account the fact that only ‘sudden non-accidental deaths’ are likely to occur within the gentile confines of the concert hall; thus ruling out things like homicide and bear-maulings. Also nothing that would have prevented a person going from the concert hall in the first place.

With my decidedly non-medical opinion I made use of this handy mortality statistics graph to work out that there are around 133963 potentially ‘sudden non-accidental’ (hereafter referred to as ‘sudden’) deaths each year (well…2009 and in the UK). Thus accounting for about 27.264% of all deaths.

Next we have to make an assumption that these are spread evenly across all age groups because I am unashamedly lazy. Having achieved this, we can work out the probable numbers of sudden death for each age group. We get this:

Actual figures are a bit fuzzy for accurate age-demographics so let’s approximate and say it was equal (6264100 people each) except for the 80+ group which is significantly less – let’s guess half as populous (3132050 people each). Now we can say the average likelihood of someone dying in a given year:

…and in a given hour in that year:

(For example, if you have 47662 men over age 80 in a room for an hour, one of them will die of sudden causes.)

Now in terms of the average concert age there is obviously much variation, but generally there seems to be a vague consensus that the median age of classical concert audiences is over 50, with a 10-year study of classical radio showing listeners have a median age over 65. For this study I will assume that 60 is the average age and that half any given audience will be in these higher risk categories.

So in an audience of 1000 watching a concert of an hour, here are your mortality statistics (last table I promise!)

Ergo(!) there is 0.5349% chance (roughly one in 200) that for every thousand people per hour at a classical concert, there will be someone in the audience who does not applaud at the end.

I can see you there, you know


Thank you for bearing with me! Now for some fun facts 😀

  • If you assume that everyone at your concert is over 60 and half are over 80, there is a 2.6468% chance of fatality! (1 in 38 concerts).
  • If a 1000-people strong concert contained something appropriate like the Chopin Piano Sonata No.2 there is a 0.0007429% chance that someone will die in the 5 seconds of silence before the famous funeral march. (1 in 134607 concerts)
  • Similarly, the odds of that person being the pianist (if they are under 60) are 1 in 112.700 trillion.
  • Assuming the performers are under 60, the odds of any performer dying during a concert is roughly 1 in every 156.5 billion. Musicians dying on stage thusly has happened before; it’s not as unlikely as you might think given that there are now a lot of musicians in the world and each of them putting in a lot of performance hours.
  • In Pablo Casal’s questionable* autobiography he mentions an orchestra in the Caucasus Mountains in the Soviet Union made up ENTIRELY of male members over 100 years of age. In the UK over 90s are currently 11% of the over 80 population according to the Office for National Statistics. According to a very approximate regression from this data, it seems that over 100’s die at a rate of 10% a year (1 every 876.6 hours). Therefore, in this 70-piece, 100+ Aged orchestra, 1 in every 125 concerts would experience a musician fatality.
  • Alternately, in their rehearsals (if they were weekly and two hours long) it would happen about once a year.

So there you have it. Highly inaccurate statistics but at least you get a rough idea.

I salute your perseverance!

* I say questionable about Casals’ autobiography because, like Grizzly Man, you read/watch the story and end up liking him less and less, realising that here is a person who doesn’t realise that they are fundamentally unreasonable, and in this case, a massive diva. If you don’t believe me the whole thing is here. Or one particular excerpt where he refuses to play because the conductor doesn’t like the music and then drags Debussy into the argument and finds himself isolated in his opinion:

The conductor, Gabriel Pierne, and I had agreed some weeks previously that I would play the Dvorak concerto. Shortly before the rehearsal was to start, Pierne came to my dressing room to go over the score and discuss my approach to the work. Something in his manner struck me as odd-he seemed almost uninterested in what we were discussing, but I thought he was probably preoccupied with other matters. Then, all at once, he tossed the score down and exclaimed with a grimace, “What a ghastly piece of music!” I thought at first he was being facetious-I couldn’t imagine his really meaning such a thing. He was, after all, a composer himself who had studied under Massenet and Cesar Franck. But he added, “It’s hardly worth playing. It’s not really music at all.” He said it in such a way that there was no doubting he was serious.

I stared at him incredulously. “Are you out of your mind?” I said. “How can you talk that way about such a magnificent work?” Didn’t he know, I asked, that Brahms considered it a classic and said he himself would have composed a concerto for the cello if he’d known such effects were possible?

Pierne shrugged. “What of it? Was Brahms infallible? You’re enough of a musician to know how bad the music is.”

I was almost speechless with anger. “If that’s the way you feel about the work,” I said, “then you’re clearly not capable of conducting it. Since I happen to love the music, I couldn’t take part in its desecration. And I won’t. I refuse to play.”

Members of the orchestra began pressing around us. Someone said the hall was full, and it was time to go onstage. Pierne told me, “Well, we have no choice. You’ll have to play.”

“On the contrary,” I said, “I’m going home.”

Pierne rushed onstage. He stood there with his hands raised, his hair and beard disheveled. He declared dramatically, “Pablo Casals refuses to play for us today!”

A great commotion broke out in the hall. I wanted to explain what had happened, but I couldn’t make myself heard above the din. People started crowding onto the stage, arguing and protesting that they had paid for their tickets. I caught sight of the composer Claude Debussy standing nearby. I told him about the situation. “Ask Debussy,” I said to Pierne, “if he thinks any artist could perform under the circumstances.”

To my astonishment, Debussy shrugged and said, “If you really wanted to play, you could.”

I replied, “That may be your opinion, Monsieur Debussy, but I can tell you I haven’t the slightest intention of doing so.”

I got my things together and left the hall.

Profound.** Also, his highly unimaginative composition as a 20th century musician is of a level of classical inanity even Haydn would have turned his nose up at.

**I do not mean profound at all.

Shark/Toast Relativity

Toasters vs. Sharks… Their complex relationship has been hinted at both in documentaries and articles, with the outcome generally being that toasters are considered the more dangerous of the two. Statistically this is correct… Let’s assume the above sources are accurate; a global maximum of 15 fatal shark attacks per year compared to 300 fatal toaster ‘incidents’ per year (down from 3000 when first introduced!). It is therefore evident that you are at least twenty times more likely to die when pfaffing about in the kitchen, or wherever you keep your toaster: I won’t really judge you on this.

But I am uneasy with this statistic for a number of reasons:

Kitty of the Apocalypse

  1. I have personally never been killed by a toaster and I know how to use one.
  2. Were I in the ocean or aquarium with a large-and-dangerous-enough shark I would feel very self-conscious
  3. A lot of electrocution happens from misuse, rather than an insatiable drive to fulfil an insatiable appetite.
  4. There are a lot more toasters than sharks.
  5. Toasters have only been around for a century or so… Sharks considerably longer.
  6. Proper documentation on shark attacks is a relatively recent thing, giving them a rough 500 millenium headstart on transforming humans into shark noms.
  7. People generally use their toasters more than swim in the ocean.
  8. Toasters don’t really seem that sinister

Point Four interests me particularly. While there are no accurate figures of populations for any shark species (many are endangered or threatened and numbers have generally been declining over the last hundred years) and with great white estimates alone ranging from hundreds to thousands,  I did manage to find some toaster statistics: 15.3 million made in 2006 (an increase of 3.38% from 2005). Apparently toasters also last six to eight years and that means those made in 2006 are probably still around, so this cumulates (with the respective increases) to about 99.9 million toasters in the world. I would say that is a very conservative estimate, as this figure would only provide one toaster for every three people in North America alone.

Admire the interesting avant-garde design.

Anyway, that is all fine and dandy. What about dangerous shark populations? Considering the species depletion and that most sharks need to be adult and over 2 metres to be a general ‘threat’ I can only guess wildly that maybe the number would be somewhere around a million. Probably more, possibly less.

For the purposes of this totally inaccurate and non-scientific study, that means toasters outnumber sharks a hundred to one. Therefore if you matched the toaster and shark populations, both at say 100 million and assumed fatality frequency was proportionate, sharks would then be responsible for 1500 deaths a year; five times that of the toaster.

Of course, this is highly unlikely because if shark attacks were that high I’m sure there’d be a much greater human aversion to being in their environment; causing a corresponding decrease. But you know, that’s logic for you.

“Five times that of your toaster”

Similarly, time spent around/using toasters are subject to debate (Point Seven). Is it unreasonable to say that everyone who has a toaster uses it? However, not everyone has access to shark-infested water (which admittedly, is most water), the ability to swim in it, the time to go to it regularly, and the fundamental desire to go in it. If we assume a toaster is used once a day for 3 minutes (18 hours and 15 minutes a year) you would also have to clock up the same amount of annual risky swimming time for the comparison to be fair, and no, this does NOT mean you can be behind shark nets either, or take other protective measures. You wouldn’t wear insulated gloves and a rubber suit when handling toast now would you? Being in the natural environment is essential! (Though if you do use a fork to get things out of an operating toaster, it might also stand to reason that you should do your swimming in a seal costume and around the RING OF DEATH off Seal Island) Also, you can use your toaster anytime, but in some parts of the world people can only feasibly swim in the summer months, translating around an hour a week in the summery third of the year to offset your toaster-time.

I doubt this is realistic in general; obviously the actual number varies dramatically from person to person as it is often a lifestyle factor. Let’s say the average person spends two hours a year in the ocean (on a suitable equatorial holiday or something): nine times less than required. If there’s a correlation that would mean shark attacks would leap to 136 a year, reaching almost half the toaster-death amount.

Don’t let his playful appearance deceive you!


15 current fatal shark attacks a year x 100 (to equal toaster numbers) x 9 (to equal time around toasters)= 13 500 Deaths per year.

Therefore SHARKS are proportionately FORTY-FIVE (45) times more lethal than toasters

Also bear in mind that these are just the fatal attacks. According to the above sources, fatal attacks are only around 17.6% of documented ‘attacks’ and this would cause 76 500 people to find themselves in some sort of uncomfortable sharky experience. (255 times more likely than their toaster-death scenario)

The moral here is: If you want to compare toasters and sharks and how big a threat they pose to humanity, make sure they exist in similar numbers and we use/annoy them to similar degree.

Moral Fibre.

If comparisons of such statistics are ignored then it is possible to come up with all sorts of obscure or misleading truths that provide both a false sense of security in situations of actual danger, while simultaneously managing to inspire a paranoid approach to everyday activities and objects that becomes the daily sensationalist ambrosia of the trash-media.

That said all the above calculations are scientifically useless. So, you know, ignore them.