The case of the man who couldn’t find the beat

17 May 2011 by David Johnson, posted in Uncategorized

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

The ability to dance to music comes naturally to most members of the human species, and even exists in some species of bird, most famously a cockatoo and YouTube celebrity named Snowball.

But it doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

Researchers from McGill University and the University of Montreal (Phillips-Silver, 2011) have recently published a case study of a student named Matthieu, who not only can’t dance to the beat, but also can’t tell when someone else is dancing asyncronously, although he can dance in time if he is able to watch someone else doing it.

“Mathieu was discovered through a recruitment of subjects
who felt they could not keep the beat in music, such as in clapping
in time at a concert or dancing in a club. Mathieu was the
only clear-cut case among volunteers who reported these problems.
Despite a lifelong love of music and dancing, and musical
training including lessons over several years in various instruments,
voice, dance and choreography, Mathieu complained that
he was unable to find the beat in music. Participation in music
and dance activities, while pleasurable, had been difficult for

Experimenters put Matthieu and a group of control subjects through a series of tests in which they danced to various types of music. Measurements were gathered by way of a Wii controller (which contains a accelerometer) that was strapped to the trunk of each subject’s body and was able to track and quantify their movements. They also had participants tap their hands to the beat, while not dancing. Finally, they watched videos of someone else dancing (increasingly out of sync) to some Merengue music, and were to asked to identify if the person dancing in the videos was in sync with the music or not.

See the videos here.

Matthieu couldn’t tap a beat in time and the style of music didn’t seem to matter; across numerous styles of music, he couldn’t dance in sync with the groove.*

*He was able to sync himself somewhat to a techno beat, which is basically a glorified metronome but nonetheless slightly more complex.
However, he had no problem locking his movements to the beat of a metronome and could bounce with a consistent tempo without music, while showing normal levels of pitch and tonal perception. He demonstrated normal intelligence, presented no history of neurological or psychiatric disorders and showed so signs of obvious cognitive deficits. It seems Matthieu’s deficit is specific to perceiving the underlying pulse in a piece of music and moving his body to it. In other words, he’s got beat (rhythm) deafness.

Scientists have been aware of the condition for quite a while.

In an Australian Medical Journal from 1890, a surgeon from the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne described a case of rhythm deafness in a 27-yr. old farmer named W.M.:

(Unlike Matthieu, the farmer’s deficit was much less selective; he also suffered from tone deafness and had severely reduced pain sensitivity)

More recently, Oliver Sacks touched upon rhythm blindness in his book Musiciophilia:

Google and PubMed searches find numerous casual references to “rhythm deafness”, but this does seem to be the first well documented case in the scientific literature. So, if its been talked about for so long but documented so infrequently, how rare is it?

Lead author Jessica Phillips-Silver suggested that it might be as rare as tone deafness, which affects about 4 to 5% of the population. If that’s the case, it could be a real challenge locating enough participants to conduct an fMRI study, which would help reveal the neural regions implicated in the condition. But the research team is confident, in part due to ample press coverage of the paper, that they’ll find more subjects.

So, what might an fMRI study reveal about the condition?

A 2005 study (Brown) examining the neural substrates of dance points to one possibility. In this study, subjects lay in a PET scanner and danced a tango with their legs only, both accompanied by music and free form (without music).

Participants in the dancing-to-music condition showed BOLD activation suggesting that audio-motor entrainment might be mediated through a connection between subcortical auditory areas and the cerebellum. This would make sense give that one of the primary functions of the cerebellum is to coordinate motor actions, particularly precision and accurate timing, by receiving input from the sensory system and integrating those incoming signals to execute fine tuned motor activity.

The authors suggest that the deficit might be primarily perceptual and point to the fact that he failed on a task which did not require body movement, nor does not have any basic motor impairments They also suggest that basal ganglia connections between auditory and motor cortices could play a role, particularly the dorsal auditory pathway leading to the dorsal premotor cortex. Silver and colleagues already have some neuroimaging work underway with Matthieu.

As for future directions, Silver-Phillips said that her group will be looking at exactly what level of musical complexity is required for Matthieu’s beat deafness to emerge. They’re also interested in exploring whether there is any sign of entrainment occurring on a neuronal level, even in the face of the behavioral deficit. In other words, maybe his neurons are dancing to the beat even if he’s not.

Phillips-Silver J, Toiviainen P, Gosselin N, Piché O, Nozaradan S, Palmer C, & Peretz I (2011). Born to dance but beat deaf: A new form of congenital amusia. Neuropsychologia, 49 (5), 961-9 PMID: 21316375

Brown, S. (2005). The Neural Basis of Human Dance Cerebral Cortex, 16 (8), 1157-1167 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhj057

7 Responses to “The case of the man who couldn’t find the beat”

  1. Laura Wheeler Reply | Permalink

    Hi what an interesting topic. 

    For those worried about being rhythm deaf, you can actually take a test here to see if you have any problems. 

    You have to listen to short burst of music clips which may, or may not have the same rhythm. All you have to do is say whether they are the same or not… after completing the test, I am thankfully not rhythm deaf …although by inspecting some of my friends dancing skills….I would like to place a few bets…

    Has anyone else carried out this test?? 

  2. Tej Nishtala Reply | Permalink

     Quite an interesting piece. Never thought that the inability to dance has such deep roots.

    @Laura  I am neither-rhythm deaf nor tone deaf. Thanks to those hours of music i hear all day!!!

  3. Laura Wheeler Reply | Permalink

    Tej…I would only believe your statement if I saw you dance…. Did you try the test?  I got 70 % …not bad really!! 

  4. Tej Nishtala Reply | Permalink!! for you to see me dance will be a long shot..but for now..let me state that my results are perfectly scientific, based on the tests.I’m not boasting but I scored 88.7% on rhythm test and 80% on tone test!!!

  5. Lou Woodley Reply | Permalink

    Great post – v interesting subject. So does rhythm deafness correlate with other people’s perceptions of what makes a bad dancer? e.g. if you take someone who isn’t "rhythm deaf" and ask them to rate videos of people dancing, is there something in common between the people who "can’t dance"?

  6. David Johnson Reply | Permalink

    @Laura, Tej: thanks for the link to those online tests. When I was writing this one up, I thought it might be nice to show a video of someone dancing out of sync with the beat "in the wild" and went on YouTube to look around at crowd shots from concerts, clubs for an example. It was very difficult to find! Seemed to support the idea that this deficit is  rather uncommon. I even looked at clips of Phish and Grateful Dead fans, some of whom are known to dance in a way that is  somewhat loosely connected to the pulse (the "hippie" dance) but even they were locked in to the grooves, albeit somewhat abstractly. 


    @Lou: They did do a detection task, where subjects watched videos and rated whether someone else was dancing in time. Matthieu did perform less well than controls on the task, especially when dancers were just slightly out of sync with the music (5% off); when a dancer was around 20% off the beat, Matthieu was able to detect this pretty close to the level of controls…

  7. Tej Nishtala Reply | Permalink

    @ David: Thank you.. for such an interesting article. After learning about rhythm and tone deafness, I’m sure everybody will be looking for out- of -sync people in parties or so!!

    On a lighter note, in the video..I couldn’t stop but notice another bird in the bottom left corner of the screen also dancing on and off. But it doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to what snowball was doing nor was it in the groove. Anything known in birds?


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