Miming in instrumental performance

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Miming in instrumental performance or finger-synching is the act of musicians pretending to play their instruments in a live show, audiovisual recording or broadcast. Miming instrument playing is the musical instrument equivalent of lip-syncing in singing performances, the action of pretending to sing while a prerecorded track of the singing is sounding over a PA system or on a TV broadcast or in a movie. In some cases, instrumentalists will mime playing their instruments, but the singing will be live. In some cases, the instrumentalists are miming playing their instruments and the singers are lip-synching while a backing track plays. As with lip-synching, miming instrument playing has been criticized by some music industry professionals and it is a controversial practice.

Not all miming is criticized; when a band appears in a music video, there are often no microphones on the stage and the guitars are not plugged in. With music videos, it is generally accepted that the audience is not seeing the band playing live (the exception is live concert videos).

Miming instrument playing is mostly associated with popular music and rock music performances in huge venues, TV broadcasts, music videos and films. However, there are cases where classical chamber music groups (e.g. A string quartet) or orchestras have mimed playing their instruments while a prerecorded track of the music sounds over a PA system or on a TV broadcast or film.


The miming of the playing of a musical instrument also called finger-synching, is analogous lip-synching.[1]


Classical music[edit]

A notable example of miming includes John Williams' piece at US President Obama's inauguration, which was a recording made two days earlier, then played back over speakers and mimed by musicians Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Itzhak Perlman (violin). The musicians wore earpieces to hear the playback.[2]

On February 10, 2006, Luciano Pavarotti appeared during a performance of the opera aria "Nessun Dorma" at the 2006 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Turin, Italy, at his final performance. In the last act of the opening ceremony, his performance received the longest and loudest ovation of the night from the international crowd. Leone Magiera, the conductor who directed the performance, revealed in his 2008 memoirs, Pavarotti Visto da Vicino, that the performance was prerecorded weeks earlier.[3] As the recording played during the broadcast, "[t]he orchestra pretended to play for the audience, I pretended to conduct and Luciano pretended to sing. The effect was wonderful," he wrote. Pavarotti's manager, Terri Robson, said that the tenor had turned the Winter Olympic Committee's invitation down several times because it would have been impossible to sing late at night in the sub-zero conditions of Turin in February. The committee eventually persuaded him to take part by pre-recording the song and miming during the broadcast.

Classical singing group Il Divo appeared with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but "...what the audience heard over the sound system was not the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra" playing live; it was "prerecorded audio tracks by an entirely different orchestra" that sounded over the speakers. The real "...orchestra was relegated to the role of visual window dressing", as the players pretended to play in "pantomime". This was the first time that the ASO has been used as a miming “air orchestra”.[4]

Popular music[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

When the Beatles performed on the TV show Thank Your Lucky Stars in 1963, the guitar and bass were not plugged in and there were no microphones on the stage, so the band was miming their instrument playing and lip-syncing the vocals.[5]

Initially, bands performing on the UK TV show Top of the Pops mimed to the commercially released record, but in 1966 after discussions with the Musicians' Union, miming was banned.[6] After a few weeks during which some bands' attempts to play as well as on their records were somewhat lacking, a compromise was reached whereby a specially recorded backing track was permitted – as long as all the musicians on the track were present in the studio.[7][8] The TOTP Orchestra, led by Johnny Pearson, augmented the tracks when necessary. This set-up continued until 1980, when a protracted Musicians' Union strike resulted in the dropping of the live orchestra altogether and the use of pre-recorded tracks only.[9] This accounts for a number of acts who never appeared on the show due to their reluctance to perform in this way.

Highlights have included Jimi Hendrix who, on hearing someone else's track being played by mistake (in the days of live broadcast), mumbled "I don't know the words to that one, man", Shane MacGowan of The Pogues' drunken performance of "Fairytale of New York", a performance of "Roll with It" by Oasis in which Noel and Liam Gallagher exchanged roles with Noel miming to Liam's singing track and Liam pretending to play guitar, and BBC DJ John Peel's appearance as the mandolin soloist for Rod Stewart on "Maggie May".

The miming policy on the show also led to the occasional technical hitch. A famous example of this is the performance of "Martha's Harbour" in 1988 by All About Eve where the televised audience could hear the song but the band could not. As the opening verse of the song beamed out of the nation's television sets, the unknowing lead singer Julianne Regan remained silent on a stool on stage while Tim Bricheno (the only other band member present) did not play his guitar. An unseen stagehand apparently prompted them that something was wrong in time to mime along to the second verse. The band were invited back the following week, and chose to sing live.[citation needed]

United States[edit]

During Whitney Houston's performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” with full orchestra before Super Bowl XXV, a pre-recorded version was used: “At the game, everyone was playing, and Whitney was singing, but there were no live microphones,” orchestra director Kathryn Holm McManus revealed in 2001. “Everyone was lip synching or finger-synching.”[10]

British backing singer Margo Buchanan angrily left a 2011 Dolly Parton concert because of the extensive use of vocal and instrumental miming. She described it as “artistically dishonest and unfair to musicians who work hard at perfecting their craft,” but she was unable to persuade the Musicians’ Union to become involved in lobbying to curtail the use of miming.[11]

The Red Hot Chili Peppers drew the ire of many on social media after they performed at Super Bowl XLVIII with their instruments unplugged, which made it obvious that they were miming. Bassist Flea stated after the show that the "..band were offered no other option [other than miming] by Super Bowl organisers."[12]

The Eurovision Song Contest has banned lip-synching during the broadcasts. However, "musical instruments have to form part of the pre-recorded track, which means [instrumentalists] are effectively mim[ing]" the playing of their instruments during the TV broadcast.[13]

Violinist Natalie Holt threw eggs at Simon Cowell, the creator of Britain’s Got Talent, in what she called a "...protest because she was angry that backing musicians don’t play live." Holt said that she "...took a stand against people miming on TV and against Simon Cowell and his dreadful influence on the music industry." A spokesperson for the show told reporters that miming is "standard practice for backing musicians during TV performances as it isn’t possible to easily capture the quality of the sound in a live broadcast environment."[14]

In 2011, singer Katy Perry was caught miming the recorder during a performance of "Big Pimpin'" but claimed afterward that the episode was a joke.[15]

Artists intentionally showing they are miming[edit]

In some cases where producers have insisted that bands mime their performance on TV broadcasts, the performers have protested this practice by making it obvious that they are not playing live.

When Frank Zappa appeared on Detroit TV, the producer threatened the band to “Lip-sync your hit—or else.” Zappa went to the TV studio's props department, "gathered an assortment of random objects and built a set" and instructed each band member to do a repeated physical movements during the mimed song (though not in time with the music), creating a chaotic "homemade prime-time Dada" absurd event on live on-air TV.[16]

The band Blue Cheer performed on American Bandstand in 1968, deliberately miming out of sync with their song "Summertime Blues".

When progressive rock band Marillion played on Top of the Pops TV show in 1983, the show's producer, Michael Hurll, insisted that the band pretend to play and sing while the recording played on air. However, the singer "withheld from moving his lips to the line: "I'm miming"".[17]

When Iron Maiden appeared on German TV in 1986, they were not allowed to play live. The band made it clear that they were pretending to play and passed instruments around as a recording of their song "Wasted Years" played on the broadcast.[18] The band swapped instruments; drummer Nicko McBrain moved out from "behind the drums to take center stage for the chorus, and he’s handed a bass [to pretend to play], and Harris winds up behind the drums... At one point, three members are playing drums simultaneously, McBrain puts his hands on Adrian Smith’s guitar neck [strings] in the middle of the solo."[19]

For more than 40 years, major bands and artists appeared on the UK show Top of the Pops, with the producers insisting that the performers would either "lip-sync or sing along with a prerecorded backing track" for the TV broadcast. In 1984, Morrissey "sang" into a fern instead of a microphone" for "This Charming Man".[20] When Nirvana was not allowed to actually play their instruments live on Top Of The Pops, singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain did not even pretend to play his instrument as the prerecorded track of his guitar playing sounded on the broadcast.[21]

When Muse performed on the Italian TV show Quelli Che Il Calcio, the TV producers insisted that the band mime along while the recording played on air. "Infuriated" at the requirement to pretend to play, the band "swapped instruments with [lead vocalist and guitarist] Matt Bellamy sitting behind the drums" and pretending to be the group's drumkit player.[22] Muse also mimed on BBC TV, when the producers insisted that the band pretend to play their instruments and lip-synch the vocals. "...Bellamy spends the piano intro gliding his hands over the keys randomly", not near the actual notes, and then "...starts waving his hands in the air, nowhere near the keys he’s supposed to be playing". Then [Bellamy] does not touch his guitar while a "rapid guitar section plays out of the speakers" and drummer Dominic Howard pretends to strum the bass he took from the actual bass player.[23]

When UK artists Disclosure appeared at the Capital FM Summertime Ball, the producers "allowed the vocalists to sing [live], but required the backing tracks to be pre-recorded in order to sync with their visual display." Guy Lawrence, from the group, stated that the musicians took intentional steps to make it clear to the audience that they were being forced to mime their audio mixing. He states that the group left the DJ gear unplugged into the AC mains, left the phono jacks unplugged, and did not bring their headphones onstage.[24]

Reception and impact[edit]

After the Milli Vanilli miming scandal, it "...forever embedded skepticism into the minds (and ears) of the listener." In the fallout of this miming controversy, MTV’s Unplugged series was launched, "a showcase for artists wanting to prove they were more than just studio creations". As the show used live performances with singers and acoustic instruments, it required performers to "...display their unembellished voices and ability to perform live." On MTV unplugged, artists could not use lip-syncing, backup tracks, synthesizers, and racks of vocal effects. With Unplugged, authenticity in live performances again became an important value in popular music.[25] During a DJ tour for the release of the French group Justice, A Cross the Universe in November 2008, controversy arose when a photograph of Augé DJing with an unplugged Akai MPD24 surfaced. The photograph sparked accusations that Justice's live sets were faked. Augé has since said that the equipment was unplugged very briefly before being reattached and the band put a three-photo set of the incident on their MySpace page.[26][27]

Ellie Goulding and Ed Sheeran have called for honesty in live shows by joining the “Live Means Live” campaign, which was launched by songwriter/composer David Mindel. When a band displays the "Live Means Live" logo, this tells the audience “there’s no Auto-Tune, nothing that isn’t 100 per cent live" in the show, and there are no backing tracks.[28]

Further reading[edit]

  • Gittins, Ian. Top of the Pops: Mishaps, Miming and Music. 2007, BBC TV Publications.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.vh1.com/news/52470/10-biggest-lip-syncing-scandals/
  2. ^ Wakin, Daniel J. (January 22, 2009). "The Frigid Fingers Were Live, but the Music Wasn't". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-23. The somber, elegiac tones before President Obama's oath of office at the inauguration on Tuesday came from the instruments of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and two colleagues. But what the millions on the Mall and watching on television heard was in fact a recording, made two days earlier by the quartet and matched tone for tone by the musicians playing along. ... Famous practitioners since the Milli Vanilli affair include Ashlee Simpson, caught doing it on Saturday Night Live, and Luciano Pavarotti, discovered lip-synching during a concert in Modena, Italy. More recently, Chinese organizers superimposed the voice of a sweeter-singing little girl on that of a 9-year-old performer featured at the opening ceremony of last summer's Olympic Games. Movement to lips when the singer's singing
  3. ^ Kington, Tom (April 7, 2008). "Pavarotti mimed at final performance". The Guardian. London. Retrieved April 7, 2008.
  4. ^ Gresham, Mark (14 August 2012). "Silenced: ASO used as musical "prop," audience hears recorded music at Il Divo concert". artsatl.com. ArtsATL. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  5. ^ Kreps, Daniel (6 February 2014). "15 Most Outrageous Faked Musical Performances: After the Chili Peppers' instantly infamous "unplugged" performance at the Super Bowl, we revisit some notorious acts of fakery". www.rollingstone.com. Rolling Stone. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  6. ^ Thompson, Gordon (2008). Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out. Oxford University Press. p. 9. ISBN 9780195333183{{inconsistent citations}}CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  7. ^ Cripps, Charlotte (26 July 2013). "The Musicians' Union: Alive and well, playing by the book". The Independent. Retrieved 5 December 2013.
  8. ^ Frith, Simon; Brennan, Matt; Cloonan, Martin & Webster, Emma (2013). The History of Live Music in Britain, Volume I: 1950-1967: From Dance Hall to the 100 Club. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 9781472400291{{inconsistent citations}}CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  9. ^ "Obituary: Johnny Pearson". The Telegraph. 4 May 2011. Retrieved 5 December 2013.
  10. ^ http://www.vh1.com/news/52470/10-biggest-lip-syncing-scandals/
  11. ^ McCormick, Neil (23 January 2013). "Miming will be the death of live music performance". www.telegraph.co.uk. Telegraph. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  12. ^ Horner, Al (5 February 2014). "6 Bands Making A Mockery Of Miming". www.nme.com. NME. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  13. ^ Osborn, Michael (28 July 2010). "Paying lip service to music's mimed moments". www.bbc.com. BBC. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  14. ^ Duff, Anna (6 October 2013). "Natalie Holt was 'making a stand against miming on TV' by throwing eggs at Simon Cowell on BGT live final". www.celebsnow.co.uk. Celebs Now. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  15. ^ "Katy Perry Caught Out Miming The Recorder At US Gig". www.capitalfm.com. Capital FM. 16 November 2011. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  16. ^ Kretsch, Ron (23 October 2015). "ASKING IRON MAIDEN TO LIP-SYNC IS ASKING FOR TROUBLE, BASICALLY". dangerousminds.net. Dangerous Minds. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  17. ^ Paphides, Peter (4 February 2014). "Six of the most memorable moments in miming: Red Hot Chili Peppers may have been caught out at this year's Super Bowl, but there's an art to pretending to play live". www.theguardian.com /six-most-memorable-moments-mime. The Guardian. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  18. ^ Horner, Al (5 February 2014). "6 Bands Making A Mockery Of Miming". www.nme.com. NME. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  19. ^ Kretsch, Ron (23 October 2015). "ASKING IRON MAIDEN TO LIP-SYNC IS ASKING FOR TROUBLE, BASICALLY". dangerousminds.net. Dangerous Minds. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  20. ^ Kreps, Daniel. "15 Most Outrageous Faked Musical Performances: After the Chili Peppers' instantly infamous "unplugged" performance at the Super Bowl, we revisit some notorious acts of fakery". www.rollingstone.com. Rolling Stone. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  21. ^ Horner, Al (5 February 2014). "6 Bands Making A Mockery Of Miming". www.nme.com. NME. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  22. ^ Murray, Robin (22 September 2009). "Muse Italian TV Mime Stunt". clashmusic.com. Clash Music. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  23. ^ Marvilli, Joe (3 August 2010). "Video Rewind: Don't Tell Muse to Mime". consequenceofsound.net. Consequences of Sound. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  24. ^ Martins, Chris (11 June 2013). "Disclosure Don't Normally Fake-DJ, But When They Do They Explain Themselves: House bros. left that plug out so you'd know they're legit". www.spin.com. SPIN. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  25. ^ O'Toole, Kit (26 February 2013). "Read my lips!: The sing-along history of lip-syncing, from Soundies to Milli Vanilli to Beyoncé". somethingelsereviews.com. Something Else. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  26. ^ "Justice Unplugged". URB. 18 November 2008. Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 19 December 2008.
  27. ^ "Justice (don't) fake DJ set – (false) panic in technoland".
  28. ^ Hardeman, Simon (12 December 2014). "Live (ish) at a venue near you: Are miming rock stars undermining the music experience?: The rock band that plays completely live, with no pre-recorded backing tracks or extended samples, is becoming rarer and rarer". www.independent.co.uk. Independent. Retrieved 29 June 2017.