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Hearing management

Updated 13 December 2017

Why some people can't clap to the beat

A small study suggests that people who can't clap, click or tap their foot in time to a beat may actually synchronise information differently, making them 'beat-deaf'.

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Bobbing your head, tapping your heel, or clapping along with the music is a natural response for most people, but what about those who can't keep a beat?

Researchers at McGill University and the University of Montreal, have discovered that beat-deafness, though very rare, is a problem not simply of how people feel a pulse or move their bodies, but instead, how people synchronize with sounds they hear.

"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," says McGill psychology professor Caroline Palmer.

Deficits in synchronizing help to uncover fundamental properties of human neural function, such as how auditory and motor systems are integrated in neural networks.

Because beat deafness is so rare, the researchers compared 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 these 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."

Read: 10% of kids with Cytomegalovirus may end up deaf


No sense of rhythm

"Most people had no problem, but the beat-deaf individuals were quite variable in their tapping - sometimes missing the beat by a large amount," says Palmer, who is also Director of the NSERC-CREATE training network in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience. "The most difficult test was to tap along with a metronome that suddenly became faster or slower. The non-beat-deaf were able to adapt to the changes within a few beats, but interestingly, the beat-deaf individuals were not able to synchronize with the new beat. The types of mistakes that beat-deaf individuals made indicated 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 the new metronome tempo."

Biological rhythms are behaviours that are periodic or cyclic, and can be slow like circadian day/night cycles or fast like heart rates. Common activities like walking, clapping, making music, 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 a fast walker who slows down to match their partner's pace.

"While most people can adapt their rhythms in response to an external cue, some people are less able to do that", says Palmer. "We tested what makes beat-deaf individuals different, by seeing how people whose biological rhythms may not respond normally to external cues adapt to an external beat".

Read more:
Managing tinnitus using mindfulness
5 most mysterious sounds ever recorded
Should sign language be an official language in SA?

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Hearing Expert

Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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