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Can't feel the rhythm? You may be 'beat-deaf'

Mathieu takes dorky dancing to a whole new level. Not only does the Canadian graduate student not get into the groove, he can't even clap in time to the music. That's because he's beat-deaf.

Beat-deafness is when your arms, legs and body can't move in sync to music -- and you can't tell if another dancer isn't in the groove, either. (And it's different from the brain chemical we wrote about earlier this month that messes with your moves.) Plus, you have a hard time recognizing the "strong beat" in music. While many people feel like they have "two left feet" or "no rhythm," in Mathieu's case, some of his concerns are valid. He's not only a mess on the dance floor, he also has trouble clapping in time -- or tapping his fingers or foot -- to the beat of a song.

Scientists recently wrote up Mathieu's musical misfortunes in a paper considered the first documented case of beat-deafness. (Researchers identified him only by "Mathieu.") It also may be the first documentation to show that the majority of the population really is capable of synchronizing their body in time to music.

The researchers believe that beat-deafness is a newly-discovered form of congenital amusia -- the most well-known form of this condition is tone-deafness. Beat-deafness is rarer than tone-deafness, and is likely a quirk in brain connectivity between the auditory cortex and inferior frontal cortex. Both beat- and tone-deafness likely have a genetic origin, explains Jessica Phillips-Silver, a postdoctoral researcher with the International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research at the University of Montreal and the study's lead author. "Even babies can feel the beat of music," she says, so considering how uncommon a disorder it is, she was surprised to find a real case of beat deafness and confirm it in the lab. 

This research, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Neuropsychologia, recruited volunteers who felt they can't keep a musical beat. Most participants had some musical training, including Mathieu, who had music, voice and even dance lessons. He also has no intellectual or hearing problems.

In one experiment, the researchers looked at how well 34 adults, including Mathieu, could bounce up and down to a Merengue beat, and they compared these results to keeping tempo with a metronome, a ticking device that marks musical time. Although Mathieu and his fellow participants did well bouncing to the metronome, he was totally out of sync -- and bounced too slowly -- to Merengue.

In another test, Mathieu was asked to follow the beat when dancing with a partner, which he could do. But when told to dance alone -- without a partner's moves to mimic -- he had no rhythm.

So, maybe he wasn't digging the tunes? Researchers then had Mathieu and 10 others dance to the beat of eight different kinds of music, everything from rock and swing to techno and world. Mathieu's timing was off with five of eight musical genres. (Ironically, he moved reasonably well to the song "I Like to Move It.")

Mathieu doesn't completely lack musical talent. He can sing in tune and has a lovely voice, says Phillips-Silver. 

It's worth noting, there are some subtle differences between being beat-deaf and being a rhythm klutz, Phillips-Silver explains. On the one hand, consistently failing to clap in time at a concert might actually be a diagnostic criterion for beat-deafness. "This is something that Mathieu describes -- he actually had to watch other people clap, to imitate them," Phillips-Silver says. "Being on the beat requires the kind of anticipation that comes from perceiving it in the music and knowing when to expect the next one. So he never was able to keep up."

But those women in your Zumba class who insist on stepping right when everyone else is lunging left probably don't have a genetic excuse."Those gals could be just struggling with the coordination required to perform the routine and do it in time with the music," Phillips-Silver says.  

While there's no remedy yet for Mathieu's beat-deafness, researchers now have a better idea of what it looks like. Phillips-Silver hopes future study will help scientists to understand how music is processed in the brain, and how people synchronize to music and to each other, when dancing.

Know someone who's totally beat-challenged? (Or is that someone you?) Tell us about it.

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