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Can’t Clap to the Beat? You Might be Beat-Deaf

For some people, tapping their foot to the beat is a challenge at a fundamental level

(Daniel Koebe/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Good news for those who struggle to bop to the beat, clap at the wrong time and bump into everyone on the dance floor: You may have an excuse. Researchers are working on defining a new kind of sensory problem—just as some people are color-blind or tone-deaf, some could be beat-deaf. 

The first person officially diagnosed with beat-deafness is Mathieu Dion, a 26-year-old reporter in Montreal. "I just can’t figure out what’s rhythm, in fact," he told NPR. "I just can’t hear it or I just can’t feel it."

Still, Dion enjoys music and once held a job as a mascot at an amusement park that required him to dance. They put him in the back so he could follow the moves of his fellow dancers visually. 

You can hear exactly how off the beat Dion is on NPR. A metronome sound that represents his up and down bobs to music hesitates and misses the mark during a test he took at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research in Montreal. Researchers there discovered that he could match his bobs to a metronome beat or some kinds of techno, so the problem isn’t hearing or moving, it’s finding the rhythm in most music. 

Recently, the same research team compared two beat-deaf individuals to 32 people who can tap along to music. "Most people had no problem, but the beat-deaf individuals were quite variable in their tapping - sometimes missing the beat by a large amount," says Caroline Palmer of McGill University, in a press release.

Palmer explains that beat-deaf people also have a hard time adapting to unexpected changes in rhythm, in a video released by McGill. The team suspects that the problem has its roots in trouble integrating internal biological rhythms (which are periodic and cyclic changes, heart rate is one example) with changes in their environment.

The difference between beat-deaf people and other people might be genetic, but the researchers don’t know yet. Studying the sense of rhythm is complicated: The brain doesn’t have one control center for dance or rhythm. Instead, the neural networks that help you put the boogie in your woogie are spread out across the brain, researcher Jessica Philips-Silver told NPR. 

If you are curious whether you have a biological excuse for your asynchronous clapping and dancing, the laboratory is looking for people to participate in future studies. But don't get too excited: you may just need practice clapping. True beat-deafness is rare. Out of dozens of initial study subjects who the researchers thought might be beat-deaf, Dion was the only one who truly had the condition, NPR reported.

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