Musical gestures are an important part of the way we hear sounds. My 99-year-old grandmother taps her toes, when she hears Perry Como. My father—a guitar player—twitches his fingers, when he hears Jimi Hendrix. I bob my head when I hear Chance the Rapper. We all do this somewhat subconsciously, organically. Yet we all do this somewhat persistently.
These gestures are all acts of listening, helping us make sense of all the musical stimuli that we hear. They help us translate certain elements of the sounds into gestures, which, in turn, help us focus on certain elements of the music. The gestures we choose to use to enhance our listening stem from our individual background. I don’t play saxophone, so I tend to bob my head during the sax solo on “Born to Run.” I know how to play “Casimir Pulaski Day” on the guitar, so I tend to move my fingers, when I hear the opening verse from Sufjan. Our gestures are like a vocabulary, with which and through which we make sense of information. This vocabulary is somewhat personal to us and also shared with people like us.
In an article titled “Gestural Affordances of Musical Sound,” Rolf Godøy seeks to develop a vocabulary for analyzing musical gestures. He’s not interested in gestures related to playing an instrument; rather he’s interested in the gestures both “musical” and “non-musical” people (however defined) make while listening to music. He asks:
“How it is that listeners seem to be able to spontaneously render often complex musical sounds into body movements regardless of their level of musical training? How is it that listeners are able to parse continuous streams of musical sound into gesture chunks? Studying gestural affordances of musical sound is thus about how listeners extract movement-inducing cues from streams of musical sound. But it is also the other way around, i.e. about how listeners use images of sound-related movement in making sense of what they hear.”
In other words, regardless of our training, why is it that people tend interpret sound with gestures—either images of gestures in their heads or physical gestures that they produce with their bodies? In the article, he develops a method for thinking about these kinds of gestures, and he gives us a vocabulary for analyzing the gestures people make when listening to musical sounds.
The World Air Guitar Championship is actually a particularly useful example to evidence some of the vocabulary he’s using. All of his ideas are on full display.
Quick Qualifier: Obviously, the musical gestures on stage in air guitar competitions are staged. Put simply, they are choreographies that represent these kinds of organic gestures. Put complicatedly, they are recreations of listening to guitar playing, and listening to guitar playing involves creative and imaginative interpretations of the original gestures needed to produce those guitar sounds. Listening already asks us to use our imaginations to envision the conditions of the original performance. Air guitar routines basically stage these moments of imaginative engagement with music. So, air guitar competitions are not necessarily unrehearsed, improvisational acts of musical gesturing. But they’re a kind of meta-commentary on musical gesture. Even so, they represent a prime example for analyzing the range of gestures involved in these kinds of gestural listening practices.
Now, back to the subject at hand. A great example of the range of musical gestures involved in air guitar competitions comes from the renowned Matt “Airistotle” Burns. Let’s look at his 2016 first-round routine, which eventually sealed his fate as the world’s best air guitarist in 2016.
In the beginning of the performance to “What I Like About You,” you can see his first strums of the air guitar. In a windmill motion, he strums the first chord of the rhythm guitar. When he turns back around, he begins playing the lead guitar for a second, and, once the drums come in, he reverts back to playing the rhythm guitar, albeit with some incorporation of the bass part in the gestures. Despite the promiscuity between instruments, he still remains somewhat restricted to sound-producing gestures (110). Godøy defines this as “body movements necessary for producing sound.” These gestures may be somewhat approximate (Airistotle’s rhythm guitar would be pretty large, if it were a “there guitar”), but they correspond to the gestures needed to produce sound on a guitar.
Then, he begins to do things in addition to the gestures needed to play guitar. These gestures are called ancillary gestures, and we see them when Airistotle brings the guitar neck up to each of his shoulders to enhance showmanship (1:04 to 1:06 in the video). These gestures are not needed to produce sound, yet they, in the language of Godøy, shape “expressive or articulatory features in the music.” They punctuate the rhythm guitar part, by accentuating the phrasing.
In the middle of the performance, he pops his hips back and forth, which has nothing to do with the guitar but enhances the momentum of the performance (1:24 to 1:26). This is what Godøy calls a sound-accompanying gesture, or “body movements that may be made to music but which are strictly speaking not necessary to produce the sound, such as dancing, marching gesticulating, nodding the head, and so on. These are different from ancillary gestures, because they don’t involve the (air) guitar at all. They are meant to enhance the performance, but they clearly have nothing to do with guitar playing. The ancillary gestures of moving the guitar around don’t change the sounds a guitar would make, but they are more closely related to sound-producing gestures, which is why Godoøy puts them in a different category.
Godøy goes on to provide three sub-categories of sound-producing and sound-accompanying gestures: iterative, impulsive, and sustained. These kinds of sub-categories deal with how long gestures last. An iterative gesture occurs with the repetition of small movements. We see this at 1:33 to 1:36, when the guitar solo comes in. Instead of fingering each note, Airistotle wiggles his fingers, as he moves robotically from side to side. Rather than play every single hammer-on and pull-off, he separates the fast series of notes into small phrases. Each robotic movement of his body—up and down and left and right—accompanies a passage in this solo, so as to chop the fast solo into composite parts.
A sustained gesture occurs when someone exerts continuous effort to produce an elongated gesture that highlights a long passage. At 1:31, when we hear the power chords sliding up and down the guitar, he spins the guitar around his head in a protracted way to sustain a kind of synchrony with the guitar phrasing.
Impulsive gesture refer to instances in which a person strikes a note in a discontinuous way—as to accent that note. We see this in the final note of his performance (1:53), when he finishes with a strong final strum and lifts his hand into the air (mirroring his opening stance).
All of this is not to suggest that Airistotle uses these keywords when choreographing a routine. One of the most common misconceptions of air guitar competitions is that air guitarists are failed guitarists, who aspire to play real guitar and somehow have failed to ever acquire one and learn to play. Rather, air guitar is a theatrical representation of guitar playing, AND it’s also a theatrical representation of listening to guitar playing. This vocabulary helps elucidate some of the ways that people translate sounds into gestures. Godøy has a lot more to say about these gestural representations of sounds, particularly the ways we might use gesture to represent things like timbre or changes in volume. But this vocabulary helps demonstrate why air guitar proves to be such a powerful vehicle for expressing the way it feels to listen to music. It stages listening as a performance.