Some people simply have no rhythm. A small percentage may be “beat deaf,” the rhythmic equivalent of tone deafness, and have a biological deficit in their body’s timing mechanism. Experts discuss the problem and other body timekeeping clocks that may be affected.
- Mathieu Dion, Montreal TV reporter who suffers from beat deafness
- Dr. Caroline Palmer, Professor of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal
- NOTE CONTACT POINT CITED: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Nancy Benson: It’s a cliché but it’s true; some people simply have not rhythm. Just about any reception provides painful proof that some people just can’t dance. Give them a beat and they’ll quickly lose it. But why does that happen? What goes on in those people’s heads when you play a song with an infectious beat?
Mathieu Dion: Nothing goes on actually to be honest when there’s a song. If you ask me, “can you hear the beat?” All I can hear is sound that is more there than the other one, but I can’t tell you what’s the beat exactly. It’s just a thing that I, I just can’t feel it. It’s very difficult to explain because I don’t know what it is.
Benson: That’s Mathieu Dion a TV reporter in Montreal who’s been scientifically certified as “Beat-Deaf.” That’s the rhythmic equivalent of being tone-deaf and it means that he simply can’t tap his toes to the music no matter how hard he tries.
Dion: For example, if I go into a concert and everyone’s clapping at the same time, I’m going to start clapping and at a certain moment I will lose it because I don’t know what it is. I can hear the beat and my body can’t feel it, can’t transmit it to my members?
Benson: So is Dion a bad dancer? Not as long as he’s dancing alone, he can move any way he wants to. But put him with a partner, and he says it just doesn’t work.
Dion: I was matched with this real lovely girl and we were dancing the salsa and it’s a tempo of 8 beats and we were dancing and at certain moments told me, “Mathieu you have to follow the beat because it’s very confusing what you’re doing!” I was like, “Ok well I’m doing my best, I’m just not a good dancer.”
Benson: But it’s not just moving to the beat that gives Dion problems, he can’t sing either. A few years ago he had a role in a play and the director unexpectedly added a song. Rehearsal didn’t go so well.
Dion: We were practicing with a band and while I was singing with the band, at a certain moment the band just stopped everything and the lead guitarist told me, “sorry buddy but you have to follow us. You’re just singing for yourself right now.” And I was like, “well no, I’m following you guys, ha ha.” And he told me, “No! You’re not following the beat, try to listen to us.” And I was like, “Ok. Never mind.” So I start singing and trying to follow them right? But I wasn’t able to do it.
Benson: Now you might think somebody who finds musical rhythm incomprehensible wouldn’t like music but at least in Dion’s case that’s not true.
Dion: I like music I have a guitar at my place, I’m not really good at it but I like to play some stuff some times. But I won’t get on the tempo, but I like to play some stuff, I like to listen to music. I really had many girlfriends that were music maniacs, some of them were working in music so I really have an appreciation of music because music is really more than just rhythm right – it’s poetry, it’s sound, it’s many things at the same time. In movies it brings you some emotions, so I really think that I’m really sensible to music and I like music, just don’t ask me where the rhythm is ‘cause I’m one of the worst on the planet!
Benson: But what is it about Dion and people like him who simply can’t get the beat? Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have been recruiting bad dancers and others who say they just don’t get it.
Caroline Palmer: Some of them come forward saying, “Yeah, I don’t seem to be able to stay with the rest of the group” – for instance in singing in a choir or dancing on the dance floor. Others come forward and say, “Well, my good friend has told me that I have a problem with this. Than I’m not responding the same way as the others.”
Benson: Dr. Caroline Palmer is Professor of Psychology at McGill, leading a study on different kinds of biological rhythms.
Dr. Palmer: We’re very interested in how people coordinate their movements with sound. So, when you cross the street and you see the flashing light or you hear a buzz that tells you “it’s time to get across the street before the light changes” – how do you speed up in response to that? We noticed when we brought in, even skilled musicians who have to adapt when they play with another person, that some people are better than others at adapting to changes in sound.
Benson: Palmer says it’s rare to be truly beat-deaf in fact she says it was hard to find subjects like Dion for her study. People who came into her labs thinking they had no rhythm at all found out they’re not quite so bad.
Dr. Palmer: Many people believe that they can’t follow a beat but when we bring them in the lab to test them in a variety of conditions we find that they’re not that far from a control group. The general population shows a variety of ability. So, right now we see that it’s pretty rare that an individual truly cannot follow a beat, so perhaps 2% of the population.
Benson: Palmer says people who are beat-deaf can’t adapt to changes in rhythm but it could be for several reasons; it could be problem with hearing the beat, it might be a problem with body movement, or it might be the connection between the two.
Dr. Palmer: So, in addition to having them tap along with a regular beat we asked them to tap along with music, with metronomes, we asked the to listen to auditory rhythms and identify whether two rhythms were the same or different. In the perceptual tasks, where they simply had to answer same or different between two rhythms, they did not perform differently from the control group. So in other words, it does not seem to be a problem of ‘hearing’ rhythms and when we asked them to tap regularly on a table top in the absence of any stimulus – so there’s nothing to listen to, they just have to generate a regular movement; they also look like the control group. So it’s not simply a motor deficit – it’s only in the case where they have to change their movement in response to a change in the sound that they look different from the control group.
Benson: Palmer says the inability to synchronize to sound indicates a brain deficit in biological rhythms and that could have even broader implications – the body operates a whole variety of time keeping rhythms to regulate life including circadian night cycles, heart rates, and common activities like walking and speaking. Scientists will be investigating to see if beat-deaf people are impaired in those areas too. But Dion says, as long as is sound isn’t involved he has all the rhythm he needs.
Dion: It doesn’t have any impact on the way I see stuff, it doesn’t have any impact on personal stuff, but I mean there’s not consequences besides dancing and singing.
Benson: Dion says the studies results tell him that it’s not simply a matter of practice – some people will never be good dancers no matter how hard they try. And if that sounds like you, Palmers laboratory would like to hear from you; they’re looking for more people who have no rhythm to continue their work. You can get in touch via email at: email@example.com. You can also find that address on our website, RadioHealthJournal.net. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.