A man lost in musical time

Researchers document the first case of ‘beat deafness’

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The Go-Go’s had a 1982 hit record with “We Got the Beat,” but a 23-year-old man named Mathieu never got their message. Researchers have identified Mathieu as the first documented case of beat deafness, a condition in which a person can’t feel music’s beat or move in time to it.

Mathieu flails in a time zone of his own when bouncing up and down to a melody, unlike people who don’t dance particularly well but generally move in sync with a musical beat, according to a team led by psychologists Jessica Phillips-Silver and Isabelle Peretz, both of the University of Montreal. What’s more, Mathieu usually fails to recognize when someone else dances out of sync to a tune, the researchers report in a paper that will appear in Neuropsychologia.

“We suspect that beat deafness is specific to music and is quite rare,” Phillips-Silver says. She and her colleagues plan to investigate whether Mathieu takes an offbeat approach to nonmusical activities, such as conversational turn-taking and adjusting one’s gait to that of someone else.

Language lacks the periodic rhythms found in music, so it’s unlikely that Mathieu’s problem affects speech perception, remarks cognitive scientist Josh McDermott of New York University. If periodic sounds of all kinds confuse Mathieu, this problem may loom large when he confronts complex musical beats, McDermott suggests.

Mathieu does much better — although still with room for improvement — at bouncing in sync to a metronome’s periodic tone, indicating that he has a timing problem specific to music, Phillips-Silver says. Mathieu sings in tune and recognizes familiar melodies, so musical pitch doesn’t elude him.

Hearing and motor areas of Mathieu’s brain appear to be healthy, the researchers add.

They hypothesize that the young man’s beat deafness arises from disconnects in a widespread brain network involved in musical beat, rhythm and meter. Babies recognize simple musical beats within days of birth, possibly reflecting the operation of an inborn neural timekeeper (SN: 8/14/10, p. 18).

With further research, beat deafness may join tone deafness as a music-specific disorder.  Researchers regard tone deafness an inherited disruption of a brain network that decodes musical pitch.

Phillips-Silver’s group found Mathieu as part of a project to recruit people who feel that they can’t keep musical beats, such as clapping in time at a concert or dancing at a club. So far, no other beat-deaf individuals have been identified.

Mathieu and 33 adults who had no musical timing problems were told to bounce with their knees to a popular merengue song — Suavemente by Elvis Crespo. Mathieu and 10 other participants then bounced to eight additional musical excerpts from a variety of genres.

Dancers wore devices around their waists that measured the acceleration of bouncing, from which the researchers calculated the extent to which bounces followed a song’s beat.

Mathieu consistently bounced out of sync to various musical tempos. He could imitate an experimenter who stood next to him and bounced in time to a merengue tune, but when left to his own devices he lost the beat.

Even tapping a finger to a merengue beat proved difficult for the young man.

In further trials, Mathieu also floundered at detecting when an experimenter shown in video clips moved in or slightly out of time to a musical beat. He did much better at this task when the experimenter moved to a metronome’s beat.

Offbeat Guy

Mathieu bouncing

Control bouncing

Moving black dots in these videos represent a man with beat deafness, Mathieu, and another volunteer attempting to bounce in time to a merengue tune. Only Mathieu consistently misses the beat.
Credit: J. Phillips-Silver et al.

Out of Time

In sync

Out of sync

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 (shown).
Credit: J. Phillips-Silver et al.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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