According to Canadian researchers at McGill University and the University of Montreal, beat-deafness—the inability of some people to keep a beat as they clap or tap along with music—may reveal a problem with how people synchronize the sounds they hear.

Caroline Palmer, PhD, Department of Psychology, McGill University, and

Caroline Palmer, PhD, Department of Psychology, McGill University, and researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound (BRAMS)

“We examined beat tracking, the ability to find a regular pulse and move with it, in individuals who complained of difficulty following a beat in everyday activities like listening to music and dancing,” said Caroline Palmer, PhD, psychology professor at McGill University.

Palmer and her co-authors outlined the findings of their study on beat-deafness in an article published in the November 10, 2014 edition of the journal Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences. They found that such deficits in sound synchronizing can help scientists ascertain fundamental properties of human neural function, such as how auditory and motor systems are integrated in neural networks.

This so-called “beat-deafness” is relatively rare, according to Palmer. So rare that, for the study, the researchers compared just two beat-deaf individuals with 32 control participants of comparable age and educational level. Listeners were asked to tap evenly in the absence of any sound. The researchers found that all participants performed this task well, ruling out a general motor deficit.

“We found that the beat-deaf individuals were able to perceive different rhythms and tap a regular beat in the absence of sound, similarly to control group members,” says Palmer. “Only when they had to move with the beat did we see a deficit, compared with the control group.”

When people have no sense of rhythm. The “beat-deaf” individuals in the study could not seem to find the beat or rhythm of the music, or keep time with a metronome, according to Palmer. This was revealed by their variable tapping, which sometimes missed the beat significantly. Palmer, who is also Director of the NSERC-CREATE training network in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience, reported that the types of mistakes that beat-deaf individuals made indicated they had deficits in biological rhythms, including the natural frequencies or rates at which the internal oscillations pulsed, and how long it took them to respond to changes in sound.

Biological rhythms are behaviors that are periodic or cyclic, and can be slow like circadian day/night cycles or fast like heart rates. Common activities like walking, clapping, and even speaking are all examples of rhythms. Some rhythmic behaviors are driven by external cues, like a musical tempo that makes a jogger run faster, or change in pace that makes a fast walker slow down to match a slower partner’s stride.

“While most people can adapt their rhythms in response to an external cue, some people are less able to do that,” says Palmer. “Our findings support the idea that beat-deafness is a problem of how our internal biological rhythms adapt to or couple with changing sounds in the environment that, in most individuals, make it possible to dance, ice skate with a partner, and bob one’s head to the beat of a favorite tune.”


The research study was supported by NSERC, Canada Research Chairs program, and Belgian FRS-FRNS.

BRAMS (International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, in Montréal) is looking for people who have difficulties dancing or moving in time with a beat. Individuals who cannot synchronize simple body movements to music or to a beat and would like to participate in the studies, may contact researchers at: [email protected].

Source: McGill University