Shadow Conducting and the Phonograph: Why Men Play Imaginary Instruments in the Dark

The development of the ability to record sound in the late 19th century and emergence of the phonograph as a consumer technology in the early 20th century spurred a century of new private listening practices, in which people could listen to recorded music in the privacy of their own homes. That is to say: One can hardly imagine a history of the show Lip Sync Battle that doesn’t begin with the phonograph.

In Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound (2010), he describes the early emergence of the phonograph as a consumer technology, which seemed to many as a technology that could unleash musical progress on a society in need of moral and cultural refinement. From this perspective, the phonograph could provide Americans with access to classical music and the sophisticated art music traditions of Europe, thus eliminating some of the economic and geographical barriers that attending a live concert could entail. Society would be all the better for its exposure to these respectable musical traditions.

Much of the marketing  for the phonograph targeted women and suggested that the phonograph could prove to be the perfect accompaniment to a modern hostess. And women did indeed seem to purchase phonographs at much higher rates than men (2010: 66).

Katz makes an interesting point about men in this regard:

“But the phonograph had a significant impact on the male of the species as well. It offered something new to the average American man: a way to enjoy music without risk of being unmanly or, in the parlance of the day, ‘sissy’ or ‘soft.’ The phonograph also mitigated the supposed ‘feminizing’ influence of music (particularly classical music), because as a machine it opened opportunities for tinkering and shop talk, traditional men’s activities.”

He continues:

“The phonograph also gave nonmusical men the possibility of self-expression through music, permitting them to do in private what they could not or would not otherwise do. Conducting was perhaps the most common manifestation of this possibility. The Minneapolis Phonograph Society reported that some of its members ‘have taken to “shadow conducting,” that most exhilarating phonographic indoor sport.’ (Note how music is incorporated into the masculine sphere by invoking athletics.)”

We might think of shadow conducting as a type of dance, or an embodied way of participating in musical listening that involves syncing one’s body with the pre-recorded sounds. In the passages above, Katz gives us a glimpse into another origin of air guitar–one that emerged in the kinds of masculinized (yet embarrassing and thus hidden from public view) listening practices that involve gesturing in the style of sound production.

Shadow conducting reminds us that male consumers have long danced with technology in private.


Katz, Mark. 2010. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (revised ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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