Why playing air guitar is underrated. A delayed response to Jenny Judge

Think of your favourite piece of music, please. No, don’t put it on; imagine it! Imagine how it begins and moves towards your favourite parts. – Now I have a question for you: What is it precisely that you imagine? Do you have the sound in mind? The melody, perhaps also the harmonic shapes, and the rhythm? Do you hear it on the specific instruments or through the particular voice you love so much? Or do you hear an undifferentiated whole? Depending on your memory and experience, imagining music comes in different varieties I guess. But you probably have some bits or instrumental or vocal lines that you focus on. Have you ever consciously thought about performing that piece, be it by yourself, as a member of a band or orchestra? What I would like to do in the following is to suggest that we all can take the perspective of a performer, if only an imagined one, and that we should embace that perspective.

In one of her books, Tracey Thorn (yes, she’s the singer from Everything but the Girl) claims that the reason we like certain voices more than others might reside in the fact that we could fairly easily sing in the range of that singer. So the reason that you like, say, Joni Mitchell in particular might not only be down to her being a fantastic musician. Rather, what might be crucial in your appreciation is that you have the same range. Pick another singer if you like; but I guess the point still holds: You might like those singers whose range is close to yours (whether you know it or not). The gripping thought behind Thorn’s idea is that sameness of range means similarity of bodily dispositions: You have certain bodily features similar to that of your favourite singer. That similarity might matter more than we think. As I see it, such similarities go a long way: We feel in sync with certain singers. If singing is not your thing, you might want to think of dance moves. The core idea is that your body can relate to the music in a way that goes beyond the appreciation via your ears.

I’ll never forget the first days when my brother brought along drum sticks (I was at around the age of nine perhaps). He put on the record player and drummed along on a pillow. I watched in awe. At some point, my body began to relate more clearly to the piece. Later still I picked up the drum sticks and began to “accompany” pieces. What happened in the mind and imagination of this fairly uneducated child? I don’t know exactly, but I began to develop a kind of “drummer’s perspective”: I listened to songs no longer as undifferentiated wholes but as someone who thinks of themself as performing the part of the drums. Of course it was to some degree merely the perspective of an imaginary drummer, but it mattered greatly for how I related to the music. The point is not that I became a drummer (I didn’t ever, really), but that I had that perspective. That perspective means to this day that when I listen to a piece I can feel the music from a drummer’s point of view. Even if I could never accurately perform a certain piece, I feel the beat in my hands and feet: Listening to whatever piece, I feel the snare drum the drummer hits not just in my ears or legs (like someone wanting to dance), but like someone actually hitting that snare drum. I feel the stick in my hand, how it resonates on the drum etc. The same goes for singing, which is something almost all of us do, even if only in the proverbial shower. Again, the point is to take the perspective of the performer, to feel the pleasure, the sound and how it fills my belly and mouth, how it comes out and travels through space and returns.

The point I want to make is simple. We all have a bodily relationship to music. We can feel what the performer would feel. Depending on the instruments we play, these relationships broaden, but most of us have at least the voice. What I want to suggest is simply this: in addition to being a hearer, you are also a performer, whether you know it or not. Your body relates to the music played. If you make that relation conscious, you might sing along or begin to tap your foot, drum on the table or even play air guitar. Why is this worth noting? Well, arguably this relation to the music opens a door to a dimension that is different from what you do when merely listening.

Perhaps this form of ‘playing music’ should be compared to pretend play in children who often indulge in pretending to act in certain roles. Watching my daughter, I notice (and remember) that certain phases in learning languages also involve pretending to speak a certain language by imitating the phonetic qualities of a language. The same kind of prentend play or learning might be said to figure in our understanding of music or active listening. If you think about it more carefully, you’ll realise that there is no such thing as “merely listening”. Your body is always involved. But what you can do is enjoy, flesh out and indulge in that perspective. (Watch Rick Beato’s clip on “how to listen to music”.)

You can take this practice further, for instance by inventing variations: Once you can mentally play along, yoz can begin altering what the actual performer (you’re identifying with) does, and think of yourself doing something else. This way, the thing played is one option among several. Begin to play differently; try to play half or twice as fast. Throw in some off beats or triplets, play a with a swing feel over straight eighths, play three against four. Imagine a second voice. Whatever. Once you can move back and forth between the music played and the variations you imagine on top, you can lock in with the actual music more easily.

In any case, your playing along in the imagination will enhance your experience and grasp enormously, compared to the kind of listening that is suggested by someone sitting still in a seat in a concert hall. Feel the sound coming through your body, the strings under your fingers, or the sticks resonating after hitting that drum. Jenny Judge has developed this idea as crucial for the philosophy of music in a small piece that came out a while ago:

Performers rely on touch and proprioception (a sense of where the instrument is in relation to their body) in order to control their instrument; they also depend on visual and haptic cues to synchronise their actions with other performers, as well as with the audience. But the evidence suggests that even the experience of the passive musical listener is thoroughly multisensory. Studies show that visual experience can influence our judgements not only of the high-level properties of a musical performance, such as virtuosity, but also of basic aspects of auditory experience like tone duration. Not only that, but our experience of rhythmic beat involves basic interactions between hearing and proprioception, which in turn implies that talk of “feeling the beat” may not just be a figure of speech. It’s becoming clear that a discussion of music in terms of “sound alone” leaves far too much out.

The central move is to get beyond the perspective of a typical audience member or listener, and become a participant in the performance. Now you might want to object that this approach is limiting because it depends on knowing how to play a certain instrument. What if you don’t play the piano but love piano pieces? Can you fully enjoy them that way? – Well, you already do. But my guess is that there is a reason why you enjoy them. My advice would be this: Think again, even if you’ve never learned to play the piano, your body does already relate to the instrument. That’s why you like this instrument in particular. Explore that relation! Feel it in your fingers. Hit something in front of you if need be. Try to figure out what you like about the sound. I bet it’s not merely how it sounds; it will be the physicality of feeling how the keys are touched.

Once you focus on a particular instrument, the piece will change for you. You will listen to more details, the details that you play or rather simulate playing. We all recognise this effect when watching how music is performed. Listen to an orchestra. Once the camera (or your attention) moves to the horns, for instance, you’ll actually hear them more clearly. The same happens if you deliberately focus on a particular instrument.

The point of this approach is not (merely) to approach music by focussing on a particular instrument. Once you take the perspective of a performer, the music becomes part of your body. Arguably, this opens a dimension of aesthetic appreciation that goes beyond the act of reception. You become active, you become part of the music. And the music literally is more than it used to be. So the next time you see someone playing air guitar or making other strange moves, note that these people are appreciating an extra dimension of the music. Time to join in. The step from playing imaginary instruments to playing real instruments is only a gradual one. If you perform with your imagination you are already playing music. And actually playing music requires projecting it. If you think about it and feel it in your fingers or your mouth, your performance is already becoming a reality.

2 thoughts on “Why playing air guitar is underrated. A delayed response to Jenny Judge

  1. Very interesting piece, Martin!

    I recognize much (or really all of it actually) of what is said here, although I had never thought of it so explicitly.

    I do wonder to what extent all this active participation in the musical experience needs to be put into actual physical motion. Although often drumming along, or moving along to some melody indeed makes you feel more immersed in the music, I myself also experience this when I focus on a specific part of the music (or on the significance of the composition as a whole) without physically moving anything.

    I am not entirely sure what this signifies, although I don’t see it as going against these points at all. It seems to me as if we can ‘internalize’ these immersive motions without losing (much of) their immersive powers. I am not sure the experience (or lack thereof) suggested by the one sitting still in a concert hall is necessarily the experience she has. What are your thoughts on and experiences of this?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks, Berend! I’m glad it resonates (no pun etc). I really am, because what I try to do is find a way of talking about music (or auditive experience) without using (too much) jargon. We have so many ways of talking about visual experience, but are quite impoversihed when it comes to sound or music.

      Anyway, to your question: I realise that my contrasting this active or physical listening with the listener sitting still was misleading. That’s why I said the contrast is “suggested”. Like you, I think we can internalise this active way of listening. I think we might then still feel the physical ‘onset’ of playing without actually going through with it. So yes, I agree that the quiet listener may well be fully immersed in active listening.

      That said, there is one obvious difference: Observable immersed listening has also *social* significance. And this has wide repercussions for the ways we listen, how we teach listening and music, and how we practise listening and music in public. – It might just be me, but I sense that the archetypical active listener comes across as “nerdy”, and thus it takes some confidence (?) – even in a concert setting. Which in turn affects how others listen and play.
      I would imagine that a culture which practises more overt active listening (beyond dancing or foot tapping) would communicate and interact somewhat differently, because I imagine that it would affect our language and ways of communication more generally. (Our languages do have more musical potential. We can certainly speak in staccato and such things. But imagine we would speak to one another in triplets or swing mode.)

      Liked by 1 person

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