Day 767: The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You (Or Is It?)

originally published February 5, 2014

It didn’t take me long to learn that I am not by any stretch of human kindness a good dancer. I can keep a solid beat and even coordinate all four of my limbs into various rhythmic dissections whilst sitting. But once my wife takes hold of my hand and steers me to verticality, my pasty white limbs flail about aimlessly like an understuffed plush octopus in a novelty Sea World t-shirt. In the age of post-disco dance, there hasn’t been a lot of guidance for the arms and hands – they really don’t know where they’re supposed to be. 

I’m speaking here of bar-band dancing; I know, those who tweak their boogie to modern hip hop and such probably have a very astute awareness of the correct arm maneuvers of today’s music, but I don’t care – I don’t dance to that stuff. 

In fact, I simply don’t dance. Unless it’s a slow number and I can do the Fonzie-esque hug ‘n sway, I’d just as soon not make a complete ass of myself. It’s a silly self-slap of adolescent consciousness, I know that. And I could be in a much more helpless conundrum: at least I’m not afflicted by the congenital amusia known as Beat Deafness. 

We learn how to discern rhythm at a very young age. We aren’t unique in this (as numerous Youtube videos will no doubt attest): parrots can bop their heads to a groove, as can sulphur-chested cockatoos. This skill appears to be limited to the species who can learn vocal skills; the same motor and auditory circuits for voice control are required for beat recognition. So yes, dolphins can jam, though you’ll probably never see them do so. And as much as you may be convinced that your cat has found the pocket in that C&C Music Factory tune you love so much, it just ain’t so. 

Before you unroll the tired “this is a white person thing, right?” joke, let me assure you that isn’t. Or at least it probably isn’t – the research I’ve found looks into the beat deafness condition itself, but doesn’t break the results down by race. I think it’s safe to assume that this can happen to anyone though; the white/black stereotype talks about quality of one’s dance moves. Someone with beat deafness simply cannot find the rhythm. They can’t coordinate their feet to move in time and no amount of throbbing Bootsy Collins basslines are going to help them. 

Our collective medical knowledge about beat deafness is limited. We know it’s a form of amusia, which is a disorder that can cover the spectrum from a faulty musical memory to the inability to discern pitch, which we typically refer to as tone deafness. Those who have heard me sing have accused me of that condition also. 

The phenomenon did not appear in a medical publication until 2011 when Canadian researchers from Montreal began digging into the question of why some people can’t dance – again, not ‘dance well’, but ‘dance’. They identified a grad student whom they named ‘Mathieu’ (because ‘Leroy’ would have been unrealistic – okay, you get one race joke). When the subjects were given the simple task of bouncing a ball to a piece of music, Mathieu couldn’t do it. None of the participants were musically trained, but they could at least keep a basic beat. 

And it goes even deeper; Mathieu could not correctly identify when he was watching someone who was moving to the music. His rhythmic perception was completely blockaded. 

We know that when sound reaches the ears, the auditory nerves send the messages to the brain, which is where all the fun stuff happens. The right auditory cortex picks apart harmonics, which enables us to understand complex tones in music, speech, etc. Over on the left side, the cortex focuses on beat and rhythm. The Canadian researchers determined that there might be some functional abnormalities in this part of Mathieu’s brain, and that might be why he can’t drop a beat. 

The quirky thing about beat deafness is that it appears to have no other cognitive impact on the brain. That little goopy niblet of a person’s skull-meat can hamper this one ability while the rest of the brain cruises along at full-skip. Hearing is good, language is good, but the brain just seems to be immune to funk. 

We have acquired considerably more knowledge about tone deafness. Whereas beat-deaf folks could have been written off as simply helpless with a groove, tone deaf people can’t differentiate between musical pitches. They generally have no problem with normalized speech – it’s not like they hear everyone as monotone robots (though that would be interesting). But picking apart a melody, even identifying a song in some cases, that part of the brain simply doesn’t do its job. 

Research into tone deafness has identified the posterior superior temporal gyrus as the most likely malfunctioning culprit for perpetrating the condition. I have no idea what to do with that information; that’s a lot of adjectives for one little gyrus. But again, we’re wading thigh-deep in the right hemisphere of the brain here; beat deafness all happens on the left. 

The Montreal research estimate is that beat deafness affects roughly 4% of the North American population. And while it’s easy to write this off as a minor cognitive hiccup, it’s important to remember that music – and this includes rhythm and beat – play an important part in reducing stress and anxiety for a lot of us. The beat-deaf don’t have that relief. 

There are unanswered questions though. A lot of them. I can’t find any substantiating research to back up that one Montreal team – not that it isn’t possibly there, but most of the articles I’ve found seem to focus on that one study. And the study participants were selected because they felt they had a lousy sense of rhythm going in – this suggests a potential negative bias from the get-go. Also, the music that was being played during the study was apparently Latin merengue, which is not exactly as straightforward a rhythm as a 2/4 country song. 

So I’m not convinced that our generous health care system will be funding therapy for those afflicted with beat deafness. Certainly there is a definitive lapse among some when it comes to identifying and playing (which, it should be noted, are two different acts) a beat. But we need more research on this before I’ll believe it’s a full-blown thing. 

You can start with me. When I’m standing up, anyway. 

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