Think Before You Clap: You Could Be Beat Deaf Some people just can't keep a beat. A Montreal neuroscientist describes the problem as a "musical brain disorder" rather than a mere problem of coordination.
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Think Before You Clap: You Could Be Beat Deaf

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Think Before You Clap: You Could Be Beat Deaf

Think Before You Clap: You Could Be Beat Deaf

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We've all been there - at a concert where people are clapping offbeat or dancing with someone who can't dance. For the final note in our series, Rhythm Section - looking at rhythm and music, poetry and speech, NPR's Elizabeth Blair wanted to find out whether it's possible to have no rhythm at all.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: People who can't clap on the beat drive comedian Aaron Michael King crazy, especially one particular group.

AARON MICHAEL KING: Today we're going to talk about one of my favorite subjects - white people.

BLAIR: He devoted a whole YouTube sketch to some white people he knows.

KING: So the other day I'm in the living room. I got the stereo on. I'm rocking to some to 2 Chainz.


2 CHAINZ: I'm different. Yeah, I'm different.

KING: Now I'm having a good time until my roommate comes in. And he's clapping like [CLAPPING]. This needs to stop. Some of you all don't understand that this kind of clapping is killing black folk. Do you understand what I'm saying? Killing us. Killing us. Killing us.

BLAIR: It's killing some white folks too. At a concert at Carnegie Hall recently, Neil Young stopped in the middle of a song because some people in the audience were clapping offbeat. Mike Love of The Beach Boys says sometimes it's a cultural thing.

MIKE LOVE: For instance, the preponderance of American pop music is based on the beat of two and four. You'll have a lot of cultural influences that cause people to do one and three. I remember being in the Vienna Stadthalle, which just means the town hall in Vienna, with about 12,000 people in it. And we were doing "Help Me Rhonda" and it was like Teutonic.


BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Help me Rhonda, yeah. Get her out of my heart.

BLAIR: Cultural differences aside, what about people who truly can't find the beat at all? An enthusiastic music teacher might say everybody has rhythm - even babies. But Jessica Phillips-Silver says, not so. She has a PhD in neuroscience and auditory development. She says there is such a thing as beat deafness.

JESSICA PHILLIPS-SILVER: Beat deafness is a form of a musical brain disorder.

BLAIR: She and a team at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research in Montréal went looking for folks who would not only admit that they had no rhythm, but be willing to demonstrate it. She says dozens of people thought they qualified. But after some testing, only one actually did - 26-year-old Mathieu Dion, a reporter in Montréal.

MATHIEU DION: I just can't figure out what's rhythm, in fact. Like, I just can't hear it. Or I just can't feel it.

BLAIR: Mathieu Dion loves music, studies guitar and once had a job as a mascot at an amusement park where he had to dance in shows. It was, he says, unpleasant.

DION: Because I couldn't follow the beat they put me in the back of the dancers so I could see them dancing, doing the moves.

BLAIR: That was one of the tests Mathieu passed in the lab. He can follow the beat if he's watching someone else. But a crowded dance floor is still a problem for him and his girlfriend.

DION: What she's telling me is follow me, it's easy. But no it is not easy for me.

BLAIR: In another test, Jessica Phillips-Silver and her team measured Mathieu's full body synchronization by making him dance to a merengue.


BLAIR: They gave him a Nintendo Wii remote control and told him to bounce or bend his knees to the beat. The remote control marked each bounce and bend. First, they gave the Wii to people who do have rhythm. This is what that sounds like.


BLAIR: Now here's what Mathieu's movements sound like.


BLAIR: They tested Mathieu dancing to all kinds of music - pop, rock, Egyptian belly dancing. Jessica Phillips-Silver says one style of music Mathieu did move in time to was techno.


PHILLIPS-SILVER: It's kind of what I call a glorified metronome, which is the other thing that Mathieu was able to move in time to - was just a simple metronomic beat. Now that was important because it told us that he doesn't have, like, a basic motor disorder.

BLAIR: Phillips-Silver believes genetics might account for Mathieu's lack of rhythm. She hopes to work with others in his family. She says many more studies will be needed to fully understand beats deafness. Something as simple as tapping your foot to your favorite song is a pretty complex process.

PHILLIPS-SILVER: One thing that we know about rhythm in the brain is that it's managed by kind of a widespread network, which means that we can't just point our finger to one spot on the brain and say that's the rhythm center but that's the dance center. It really recruits, sort of, a variety of areas and pulls them together and integrates them in ways that we don't quite understand yet.

BLAIR: Mathieu Dion is kind of excited that something that caused him so much frustration might actually be helping science.

DION: After all, I'm the first diagnosed in the world of having no rhythm which is something great. (Laughing).

BLAIR: Since the initial study was published, Jessica Phillips-Silver says scores of people from around the world have stepped forward hoping to be tested, hoping to find rhythm. For now, Mathieu Dion says he refrains from clapping at concerts. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


BOYS: Help me, Rhonda. Help, help me Rhonda. Help me, Rhonda. Help, help me Rhonda.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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