I recently went to a production of that quintessential American musical, West Side Story. While I enjoyed the whole musical with its retelling of the classic Romeo and Juliet story in the context of the rivalry between the gangs of the Sharks and the Jets in the setting of 1950s New York, it is the finger snapping that gives this musical its distinctive character and has contributed to turning it into a cultural icon. After the show, I decided that I would read up a bit on finger snapping, and I found a few interesting things about this practice which is both ancient and universal.
Let’s start with music. My earliest memory of finger snapping was the theme of one of my favorite sitcoms, The Adams Family. I also remember other musical numbers that involved finger snapping like the Monkees Theme Song (The Monkees), Under Pressure (Queen), The Longest Time (Billy Joel), and King of the Road (Roger Miller). Is my age showing? But if you want more contemporary stuff, there are songs like Side to Side (Ariana Grande) or Say Something (Justin Timberlake). You also find finger snapping as an integral part of genres of music such as Flamenco in Spain, which dates back to the Middle Ages, and as part of the musical culture of ancient Greece. But finger snapping does not have to serve as a mere adjunct to a musical piece. Finger snapping can be developed into an art of its own by talented individuals. Just witness the person in the video below and his skillful use of finger snapping.
Another interesting aspect of finger snapping is that it’s not just used in music. In Rome, finger snapping was one of several ways in which an audience showed appreciation for a performer. In the U.S. in the 1960s, recitations by the Beatnik poets were celebrated by finger snapping audiences, a practice that has evolved and continued in different settings nowadays. Finger snapping is used in several social and cultural contexts to convey a variety of messages ranging from approval to insults, and its uses and meanings by different groups of people can be subtle and quite complex. In fact, you don’t even have to actually carry out the deed at all to use it in communication as the utterance “Oh, Snap!” demonstrates.
There are also different ways in which you can snap your fingers. While most people in the U.S. use their middle finger and thumb to snap, you can also use other fingers like the index finger. This variant was used in the finger snapping in the original Broadway production of West Side Story to make it more distinctive. There are also other finger snapping modalities such as the African Finger Snap where you hit your index finger against your middle finger, or the Persian Finger Snap which uses two hands.
If you are interested in records, you should know that the record for the most finger snaps per minute is 296, which was achieved by Satoyuki Fujimura from Japan in 2017, and the loudest finger snap ever was produced by Bob Hatch from California in 2002 and was recorded at 108 decibels. Prolonged exposure to this sound level can permanently impair your hearing!
But what produces the sound heard when snapping fingers? Many people think that the sound comes from the rubbing of a finger against the thumb, but this is not true. The process of snapping involves pressing a finger such as the middle finger against the thumb. This builds a tension that, when released, propels the middle finger at speeds around 3 meters per second (about 10 feet per second) toward the base of the thumb in the palm of the hand. It is the impact of the finger against this area that produces the sound we hear when fingers are snapped. You can test this by placing foam or another form of padding on the base of your palm. This will significantly dampen the sound of the snap. The process of snapping can be seen in the slow motion video below (with no audio). Observe that the collision of the finger generates ripples in the skin of the palm that travel up the wrist!
And this concludes my brief foray into finger snapping. Until next blog post “play it cool boy, real cool” (snap, snap).