You could start the history of the invisible instrument at that formative moment in 1969, says Byrd McDaniel, an ethnomusicologist at Northeastern University. But McDaniel, who studies “air playing,” has found the same impulse to embody music throughout history. In the 1860s, it was described as a symptom of mental illness, but by the 1930s, it was a mere curiosity, a side effect of the phonograph; some listeners, the Minneapolis Phonographic Society reported, had “taken to ‘shadow conducting.’”
Since then, air playing has become a socially acceptable alternative for those who don’t dance, says ethnomusicologist Sydney Hutchinson of Syracuse University. The practice crosses cultures; in the Dominican Republic, people pantomime the air güira, a metal percussion instrument. But only air guitar has also become an international spectator sport.
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