Remember the time you went to see one of your favorite bands of all time perform in concert? At the climax of the show, the lead singer runs up to the edge of the stage and motions for everybody to start clapping along to the chorus of their hit song. You’re clapping, the people around you are clapping, most of the audience is clapping in time with the band, but from somewhere, some corner of the crowd, a wave of offbeat claps that aren’t completely syncopated generates and messes the whole thing up. Who did that? You look around angrily. Who in here without rhythm dares to clap?
Yeah, we’ve all been there. It’s a common joke, to accuse somebody, or a specific group of people (read: white folk) of not having rhythm. Mike Love from the Beach Boys even told NPR that it could be a cultural thing. “For instance, the preponderance of American pop music is based on the beat of two and four,” he says. “You’ll have a lot of cultural influences that cause people to do one and three. I remember being in the Vienna Stadthalle — the town hall in Vienna, with about 12,000 people in it — and it was, like, Teutonic.” Ok, so maybe white people don’t know how to clap together in the cultural melting pot that is America, but is it actually possible to have no rhythm at all? Is anybody truly rhythm-less?
Apparently beat-deafness is a genuine musical disorder. You’ve probably heard of tone-deafness. Both are a type of congenital amusia, and beat-deafness has only recently been discovered. Unlike tone-deafness, beat-deafness is much, much rarer, and Jessica Phillips-Silver, a postdoctoral researcher with the International Laboratory from Brain, Music, and Sound Research at the University of Montreal, says she was surprised to even find a real case of beat-deafness and confirm it in the lab. “Even babies can feel the beat of music,” she says. Not so for her case study participant, Mathieu Dion. “I just can’t figure out what’s rhythm, in fact,” Dion says. “I just can’t hear it, or I just can’t feel it.” Though he loves music, studies guitar, and even had a job as a dancing mascot at an amusement park once, he says it was unpleasant. “Because I couldn’t follow the beat, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “They put me in the back of the dancers so I could see the dancers doing the moves.” That’s the good news – he can follow the beat if he’s watching someone else. So as soon as the frontman of that band stops leading clapping to start singing again, the wave of offbeats just might start rippling through the audience.
There’s hope that as more people are tested for beat-deafness, a way to treat the disorder will be discovered. Phillips-Silver believes it’s most likely caused by genetics. Tapping your foot is actually a complex process. There is no “rhythm center” in your brain and a lot of research remains to be done on this musical disorder. In the meantime, be patient with those of us who are rhythmically challenged. We’re trying our best.