Beat deafness

You’ve probably heard of tone deafness, the inability to distinguish small differences in musical tones. Some people have beat deafness: they don’t have rhythm.

Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil [CC BY 3.0 BR]
When I first heard about beat deafness I immediately thought of this Muppets sketch:

Or the beginning of the Steve Martin comedy The Jerk:

Well, it turns out that some people actually cannot identify or move to musical rhythm. This was first identified less than ten years ago, in a Canadian study that tested people’s ability to move to the rhythm. Participants were asked to bop up and down to music, and one of their number just couldn’t sync up – or even tell if other people were moving in time to the music or not.

Here’s the thing that’s really interesting about it: this beat deaf individual could move with the rhythm if that rhythm was just a metronome ticking. His problem was in identifying the underlying beat in music and responding to it normally.

What about animals? Well, cockatoos can move with the beat, but cats and dogs apparently cannot. Is it somehow related to cockatoos’ vocal abilities? It’s an interesting hypothesis, but as the Wikipedia article on beat deafness observes, sea lions got rhythm too:

Yes, that is correct, that is in fact a sea lion dancing to Boogie Wonderland. I love science.

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