It's like face blindness, but for music. Researchers at the University of Montreal say that a 23-year-old man they call "Mathieu" is functionally unable to move in time to music, or follow a beat that is part of a song.
This is not an Onion headline. Sometimes, I feel the need to add that sentence to stories, just to help out the people reading from RSS feeds. We're reading straight from Science News, here.
Mathieu flails in a time zone of his own when bouncing up and down to a melody, unlike people who don't dance particularly well but generally move in sync with a musical beat, according to a team led by psychologists Jessica Phillips-Silver and Isabelle Peretz, both of the University of Montreal. What's more, Mathieu usually fails to recognize when someone else dances out of sync to a tune, the researchers report in a paper that will appear in Neuropsychologia.
Mathieu does much better — although still with room for improvement — at bouncing in sync to a metronome's periodic tone, indicating that he has a timing problem specific to music, Phillips-Silver says. Mathieu sings in tune and recognizes familiar melodies, so musical pitch doesn't elude him.
Phillips-Silver's group found Mathieu as part of a project to recruit people who feel that they can't keep musical beats, such as clapping in time at a concert or dancing at a club. So far, no other beat-deaf individuals have been identified.
Now, from that, it sounds like the researchers had already hypothesized the existence of beat deafness and were looking for people who might confirm the idea. Which leaves me to wonder what a different set of researchers, people without the upfront interest in beat deafness as a concept, would make of Mathieu. How much of this is real, and how much is confirmation bias—on the part of the scientists, the patient, or both? It's going to be a while before we know one way or the other. In the meantime, there's not much for us laypeople to do but entertain ourselves with videos showing how poorly Mathieu did when he tried to dance to some merengue.