Responding to Music vs. Producing Music

There are two prevalent ideas about air guitar practice:

  • that it reflects the body’s natural response to music
  • that it reflects the active production of music

On the one hand, there are those who view air guitar as a response to the power of music. LA Times reporter Chris Willman called Eddie Van Halen’s fingers: “the fingers that launched a hundred-thousand air-guitar solos.” There is a sense in which air guitar remains part of the body’s natural response to the thought of others playing guitar.

Here’s another example of this kind of thinking from Adam Liptak (New York Times 9/1/85):



Liptak clearly favors the “mindless” response that air guitar may occasion, which most likely stems from his conception of air guitar practice as a private act.

On the other hand, many view air guitar as the active production of meaning and music, and, complicating matters further, some air guitarists compose music for their own routines. For example, as reported by the St. Petersburg Times (Florida), Dave Arazmo won an air guitar contest in 1991, which was sponsored by Orion Pictures to help promote Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Arazmo performed to a solo that he pre-recorded on the guitar. He told a journalist that, quite simply, “…it was easy to play because I wrote it.”

He is not the only performer to use his own music. In 2013, Eric Melin’s told Professor John Rink on BBC that he performed to his own recorded music. (

We might also think of digital sampling and editing as part of the creative process. In fact, during the Boston qualifier round, one contestant was berated for failing to edit properly–his music faded out at the end of the performance rather than ending on a single note.

Air guitarist Michael Lovely, in an interview with me, offered a nice quote that adds another layer of complexity: “If you ever study acting… If you physically act it, does that bring out the emotion? Or, if you think about the emotion, does that make you look like you are physically acting it?” In other words, it becomes difficult to determine whether emotion causes the body’s movements or vice versa, and the responding to music versus producing music debate becomes complicated when emotion becomes a factor. To what degree do we author our own emotions? Do we produce our emotions, or do they naturally emerge from stimuli in the outside world?

And all of this raises a few more questions: Where do we draw lines between music’s creators and consumers? What is at stake with these debates about originality and creative authorship? And, in light of the fact that air guitarists create, edit, and curate sounds for performance, how can we expand the notion of musical creation and composition? For example, John Cage’s famous 4’33”–which consists of complete silence on stage and draws attention to the sounds of audience members shuffling and coughing in their seats–encourages us to rethink how audience response can be part of the sonic environment of performance. This again troubles the clear distinction between performer and listener.



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