Why Do We Air Guitar?

Why do our fingers twitch when we hear “Purple Rain”? Why, when we sing along with the radio, do we raise an imaginary microphone to our face?

In an academic paper on “air instruments,” Godoy, Haga, and Jensenius offer one explanation. Listening to music, they argue, involves producing “musical imagery” in our brains. This is an imaginative exercise in which we create mental images or impressions of the gestures that produced the sounds we’re hearing:

We believe that images of sound-producing gestures are an integral part of the perception of musical sound, i.e. of identifying, discriminating, grouping, or doing “auditory scene analysis” of musical sound, as well as of remembering, recalling and imagining musical sound, i.e. of musical imagery. In taking air playing seriously, we assume that what can be observed of overt behavior, also reflects some essential features of covert mental images associated with musical experience.

We might think of playing air guitar as a form of “overt behavior” that reflects our “covert mental images” of someone playing guitar. Listening to music creates these covert images that become overt when we try to enact them with our bodies.

When we act in a certain way to make our covert mental images overt, we engage in “motormimetic sketching.” According to the authors, “motormimetic” refers to the imitation of “real” gestures that produce sound, and “sketching” indicates the “approximate nature of the imitation.” When we do this, we not only mimic the gestures used to produce the actual sounds, but we also express things like emotional shifts in the music, which may or may not be actually part of the gestures used to make those sounds.

All of this goes to say: air playing, as a personal response to music, might have certain neurological dimensions that involve creating a mental image of the music’s production. Godoy, Haga, and Jensenius test this hypothesis with the “air piano,” in order to determine gestural differences between “experts” and “novices.”

For me, the approach of these authors provokes questions regarding what qualities of “there guitar” playing actually constitute the “musical imagery” of air guitarists. For example, the emotional aspects of “there guitar” solos often seem to trump the actual sound-producing gestures.

In addition, occasional air guitar performances involve brief moments in which air guitarists switch instruments—a quick episode of air drumming or air DJing. This reveals how these “overt” performances communicate complex “covert” ideas about the relationship between instruments and sounds. And it also reminds us that air guitaring involves extracting guitar-specific sounds from a broader group of sounds: the musical imagery for one instrument might be affected by imagery of others.

We might also question how other types of pantomiming on stage (doing “air drugs,” for example) reveals certain covert mental images about who historically listened to the music and in what context the music was performed. We could have musical imagery of listeners, too.

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