I Got Rhythm…or not….wait, yes I do! Beat Deafness, or a Poor Understanding of Music?

This is a science and music story that I’ve wanted to do for a while, and although it’s over a year out of the news cycle, it’s still reflective of a widespread musical myth that I bet many readers are familiar with: Beat Deafness.

Beat deafness is a form of amusia characterized by an inability to distinguish beats and rhythm patterns. Judging by how many of my friends and family say that they don’t have any rhythm, I might think that 1 in 5 can’t keep a beat. As a music teacher, I tend to believe that nobody is truly “beat deaf”, and that it’s just a matter of proper exposure, education, and understanding.

In 2011, Montreal scientists claim that they had found the first true case of beat deafness, and the science news cycle ran with it. In a study titled, “Born to Dance but Beat Deaf: a new form of congenital amusia” (which is currently behind a $39.95 paywall, but you can see some relevant information, including the abstract here), authors Phillips-Silver et al. claim that one individual, “Mathieu,” cannot perceive a musical beat, and here’s how they came to that conclusion:

The study gathered several people (not musically trained) who self-identify as having little-or-no sense of rhythm. They would play a metronome, and then merengue music, getting the subjects to bounce a virtual ball to the beat. They would also get the subjects to view two videos of a dancer: one dancing to the beat (of the same merengue music), the other dancing out off the beat. The subjects were asked to identify which dancer was moving in time.

“Mathieu” was the only individual who failed every test except the metronome sync.

According to the study, Mathieu could not bounce the ball to the beat of the merengue music and could barely bounce with the metronome. Further, while watching the video of the dancer, “Mathieu could not tell the difference between a dancer moving in or out of sync with a musical beat until the dancer’s timing was 20 percent off” (Bruce Bower, Science Daily). It’s not clear what “20 percent off” means: if it’s faster, slower, or random variation.

I have a few problems with this study’s methodology and conclusion, and I don’t think it proves that Mathieu is beat deaf:

1) The study was not randomized: The study was comprised of a self-selected group of people who thought that they couldn’t keep a beat, introducing both a possible negativity bias and selection bias that were not controlled for.

2) The study played Latin merengue music: Rhythmically speaking, merengue music is one of the most complicated musical forms today, rife with “polyrhythmic” patterns. A Polyrhythm is a rhythmic line with multiple, often complimentary and contrasting beats played simultaneously. Triplets and quarter notes can be overlapped with a host of syncopated beats and rests, creating a rich dynamic where the beat contributes to the overall sound of a piece as much as (if not more than) the melody. That a non-musician would have difficulty identifying the beat in such a convoluted musical form, is hardly surprising:

Typical merengue rhythmic pattern.

Typical merengue rhythmic pattern.(Image credit Wikipedia)

Above is a rhythm pattern of a typical merengue tune (not including any overlaying beats). I know some musicians that would struggle with this. Note the chevrons below some of the notes. The chevrons indicate an ‘accent’ wherein the given note is played slightly stronger than the other notes. With such a pattern where the traditional “1-2-3-4” of most musical forms being thrown out the window, is it any wonder that a non-musician had trouble finding the beat?

As the authors concede, playing to a metronome is different from playing to music. But knowing that concession, the authors made no indication that they tried different musical styles: A rock or country beat has a much simpler rhythmic pattern then Latin forms…it strikes me as poor music understanding to paint all music styles with one brush.  If a scientist on the project were musically literate (and based on the methodology, I have my doubts), it’s a wonder why this was not controlled for.

Watching the video of the bouncing ball is telling too: The ball doesn’t regularly create a full bounce, sometimes going only half-way up. To me, this suggests a person who is unsure about committing to the beat, and can be explained by a person unsure where the beat is, which in Merengue music, is more common than Phillips-Silver et al. perhaps appreciate. It’s also possible that “Mathieu” is reproducing only one of the underlying polyrhythms, or a combination of several.

3) Perception of a beat and re-production of a beat are different concepts. Mathieu may have been able to perceive the beat, but being able to ‘play’ a beat is another issue, and may require some training. It’s possible that Mathieu never had the musical exposure in childhood that teaches children to play a basic beat (usually clapping, stomping, or playing instruments like clackers or tambourines). Additionally, that he was able to successfully reproduce the beat played by a metronome(albeit with basic proficiency) suggests that identification of a beat might not a problem, but finding a complex musical beat is.

4) Identifying (or not, as it were) whether a dancer is moving to a beat tells little about a subject, except that they themselves may be a poor dancer. I’ve been playing music for over 20 years, and even I sometimes have difficulty identifying the beat of a dancer, depending on the form, and the dance style.

To see clips of the dancing comparison, and the bouncing virtual ball, check out Science News link.

I’m not suggesting that Mathieu does not have beat deafness. What I am suggesting is that that based on the methodology of this study, the absolute most we can say is that Mathieu cannot reliably reproduce a beat to merengue music. He went into the study assuming he had no sense of rhythm, and he was tested with one of the most rhythmically complicated musical forms. A better-designed study would have a random sampling of people, and would test them with many musical styles (I would suggest rock, reggae, funk, salsa, and swing). Reproduction tests could be done by an electric drum kit, a piano, a bass drum, and clapping.

Rhythms affect us daily: the clack-clack-clacking of a train ride, the stepping of someone’s gait, the whirling of a fan. Couldn’t the scientists arrange ways to test overall rhythmic perception, rather than just a metronome? Perhaps testing rhythmic perception with simple, two-instrument musical forms (like a bass and drum combination) might help nail down where a possible breaking point between non-musical rhythm problems with musical ones. I would be fascinated if other scientists improved upon this first study, maybe even a re-testing of Mathieu would be in order.

I hear many people complain that they “can’t keep a beat” and I have never seen it to be true. With the credulous media coverage of such a musically and scientifically weak study, I wonder how many people will resign themselves to never attempting to learn an instrument? So if you ever heard that scientists confirmed that people can have no sense of rhythm, and that you might be one of them, I might suggest otherwise, and you should still learn how to play that musical instrument.

If there are any other musical myths or preconceptions you have about music (such as an earlier article I wrote about perfect pitch), leave them in the comments, or drop me a line on Twitter @SomeCndnSkeptic.

One Response to “I Got Rhythm…or not….wait, yes I do! Beat Deafness, or a Poor Understanding of Music?”

  1. Kim Hebert says:

    I would add to number 3 that, not only is he being asked to reproduce a beat, but he is being asked to coordinate a specific motor task to an auditory task. Issues with coordinating those two things could introduce error but not indicate that he is beat deaf (for example, I may have poor ball bouncing coordination, but be able to mimic a beat vocally). Also, his task (bouncing a ball) isn’t something we necessarily associate with following music, as would say tapping a finger. Cognitively speaking, his concentration may have been divided enough to affect the results.

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.