Beat Deaf

So a while back I came across this article about a neurological condition called “beat deafness.”

The basic idea as I understand it is that there exist a small number of folks whose ability to recognize and respond to rhythm is impaired for neurological and/or perceptual reasons. I am not a scientist, but I have been teaching dance and music for over a decade and my life has been intimately concerned with rhythm, and while the idea of a neurological foundation for rhythmic impairment is a super interesting and important field of study I can just hear legions of people who don’t see themselves as being capable of dance or music even if they want to be saying “Yes! That’s me!” and feeling like they have been let off the hook somehow.

I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have heard people say things like “Oh, I love what you do, but I could never do that. I have no sense of rhythm.” Or “I wish I wasn’t completely tone-deaf.” Or my personal favorite; “It must be wonderful to have so much talent.” (This last is an actual quote. It’s a pretty difficult statement to think of a comeback for.)

Here’s what I think often happens. People see the end result of a lot of practice and some pretty hard work and think it’s some magical ability. I don’t know, maybe there is some magic in it, but what is not always visible when watching someone do something they do well is the unbelievable amount of tenacity that goes into that process. Part of skill is making the execution of that skill seem effortless. But that is because the effort has already happened.

I don’t mean to discount natural ability. As a teacher one does encounter students who seem to take to music or dance more easily than others. We could debate the nature/nurture question until the cows come home, (I personally believe in a mixture of both innate and environmental factors) but let’s skip that for the moment and accept that there do exist dance or music students who struggle a lot less than others for the development of the internal metronome. However, for every one of them, I guarantee you there is someone out there who plays/dances like a natural and had to fight for every inch of their skills, paying for their ability with practice, frustration and long stretches of “why the hell am I doing this? This is really hard…”

I believe that what separates most people from skilled musicians, dancers etc is sheer persistence. It’s the old 90% perspiration idea. The inspiration is important but even more so is the willingness to go ahead and learn. And big part of that process is learning to accept being bad at things for a time while your brain and body synthesize new skills

Which is, let’s face it, pretty hard. Some of you may remember my struggles at Jacob’s Pillow last summer. The ability to accept being a beginner and not take yourself too seriously is really tough. It’s one thing if you are an autodidact, working by yourself. It’s quite another in a group situation where a fair amount of personal humiliation crops up for most of us when we are learning alongside others.

But somewhere along the way, if you spend enough time doing something, especially if you are not just going through the motions but actively trying to get better and really focusing as you work, you experience this weird feedback loop. Things fall into place and it starts to feel good, just for a moment. You get it. And the memory of that moment’s elation drives you to keep working on it. And then at some point it actually is easy.

So easy that you don’t have to think about it. And someone watching you thinks “Well, clearly she came out of the womb that way.”  I can forgive them for thinking that, but as you may have guessed, I am on a little bit of a mission to convince people that they can do it too. They just have to make the mental leap, believe it’s possible, and then spend time doing it. And getting frustrated. And coming back to the table (or in our case as dancers the floor) with a willingness to remold themselves.

Why do I care if folks think they can dance? Not just because I am a teacher and stand to benefit from more people wanting to learn…

I believe that as a culture we have gone badly astray somewhere, becoming deeply disconnected from our physical selves and from our fellow human beings. It maybe sounds trite, but how many ills, social and otherwise could be solved by people gathering regularly to dance, sing, play music? Not hard to answer for anyone who dabbles in an instrument or has ever been social dancing. Once you have felt the raw power of that kind of shared experience, I don’t think you can ever go back.

How does the saying go? Something like “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you are right.” Well guess what? It’s true. I didn’t mean for this to end up as a pep talk, I think I started out ranting about the misguided belief so many people seem to have that they are missing some critical piece of hardware, preventing them from dancing or playing an instrument, but now I bloody well am cheerleading. Whether you realize it or not. You need dance in your life.

So the only question is, where are you going to dance?


~ by matthew olwell on June 6, 2011.

15 Responses to “Beat Deaf”

  1. Early morning here and I’m up alone. What a great way to start the day. Persistence!!! And then elation!!! Thanks, Matt. And Good Morning to you.

  2. YES!!! I’ve spent over 25 years teaching now and in all that time I did have one, ONE, student who I finally told that perhaps banjo wasn’t their instrument. Persistence is everything, and I am very grateful for the reminder this morning! Thanks : )

  3. I love this! I have been on a similar mission all my life as I’ve taught music to all ages. I worked with many private guitar and ukulele students who thought they had no rhythm and could not keep a beat. In particular, an adult student, Dale grew up in a religion where no dancing was allowed. He couldn’t strum in time and sing along. We spent our first minutes of each lesson first patting our knees and counting aloud to 4 or 3. over and over. Then we walked to that counting. He couldn’t do it at first and then slowly as his brain was reprogrammed, he got it! and it came easier all the time…then to try to sing as he strummed! – little by little. He was persistent and became an accomplished player and singer. Such transformation – i love it!
    I work with preschool teachers and show them how to sing in tune. That’s another area where people are convinced they just can’t do it – usually linked to childhood and someone who told them they were a “bad singer”. We work slowly and I show each person how to match a pitch and “feel” it – and then tell them if they can sing one not in tune, they can sing anything and they are not “tone deaf”. In 30 years of doing this I have never met someone who can match one pitch and then go from there.
    I’m happy you’re doing this work! I’m a friend of Cis’s from Atlanta!

  4. Thanks everyone! Always nice to connect with others fighting the same battles… As teachers we must never feel unimportant. The work we do is vital.

    And nice to web-meet you Julie, I have known Cis since I was just a tot, in fact she is probably a big part of the reason I dance, as she was a caller at many of my early dance experiences that got me hooked… Looking forward to seeing her at Augusta Dance Week later this summer…

  5. Interesting theory. They’re trying to explain everything genetically nowadays; obesity, rhythm-deafness, even dislike of cilantro. While there may be a few people out there who are neurologically/genetically beat- or tone-deaf, I think it has more to do with environment, and just like language acquisition, early experience does help. In the west we have so many people who grow up outside of any immediate musical culture; where music is something that is consumed, not made, and trying to teach someone who has never really paid attention to music or rhythm can be a challenge. Compare that with cultures where song and dance is part of their own family/community life. Where nearly everybody knows how to do this for example: . And yet even in this community, more and more young people can’t dance or sing today, and seem “tone deaf.” They certainly didn’t get it from their parents.

  6. The beat-deafness is a real thing. It might not yet be proven to be genetic, but please don’t trash this condition because some people don’t give you credit for the work you have have put into your art. I have beat-deafness — I can’t clap along to anything, I have to look at people around me and mimic them. I can’t tap my feet or fingers to music. It really sucks, and it’s humiliating. I love music, but it’s an effort and causes me stress to try and move to it. I have gone through life trying to hide this deficiency. Please be respectful of this.

    • Hi Michelle,

      First off, I sincerely apologize. I did NOT mean to disparage or make light of anyone with a genuine neurological condition, and I do hope you will allow me to explain and accept my apologies if I have offended you.

      If I sounded a little flippant in my initial post, it was not directed at you or anyone with a real disability. Here however, is how it shakes down from my perspective as a dancer, musician, and firstly, a teacher of same. There are many many people out there who do not have this condition, who subscribe to a general cultural removal from the idea that ordinary every day people who are not Michael Jackson can learn to dance or play an instrument. I have heard variations on the following literally hundreds of times: “You are so talented. I could never do what you do.” This from people who I am convinced, do not lack the capacity, but merely the willingness to learn, and be “bad” at something for a while, until they get the training, practice and facility that will allow them to get “good.” I have myself taught people who were convinced they could never learn how to dance, only to watch them “get it” with enough practice. And I have watched more than one set of parents TELL THEir CHILDREN, IN FRONT OF ME “you couldn’t do that, you don’t have any musical talent.” Which, needless to say, makes me feel a little sad.

      So my beef is not with you, or indeed any one person but with the larger culture that removes itself from dancing and music making for personal enjoyment. And my fear, upon reading the article that sparked my original post, was that people of the kind described above would read the article and self-diagnose themselves with beat deafness, and feel perfectly justified in believing they had no musical or movement ability.

      But all of this is academic, and mostly, I am heartily sorry for any offense I have given. Please accept my apologies!


  7. In my life now somewhat long now I have spent most music lessons at school outside the classroom for being disruptive for not being in tune. In my 20s I thought that I ought to learn to dance but apart from reducing dance coaches to tears regularly I can confirm that after 37 lessons I am none the wiser as to what music and dance is all about. I am totally lost musicwise – as far as I am concerned music in all forms is an unpleasant intrusion into my life. Am I your ultimate challenge or are there others like me.

    • I don’t think it has to be either/or Iain. I have seen people who I might never have pegged as “dancers” gain a lot of skill through serious study and practice. We don’t have to be Fred Astaire to enjoy dance and connect with the music. I do believe strongly that “natural talent” is not as big of a factor as an individual’s willingness to dive in and WORK at it.

  8. I found your article very interesting. I also read Michelle’s and Iain’s comments and I can certainly empathize. Even though “beat deafness” and “congenital amusia” are new terms and only identified in a clinic a couple of years ago, I have known for years that I suffered from this handicap. I do enjoy listening to music, but I have absolutely no feel for it, and my body cannot respond to it. Like Michelle and Iain, I can’t clap to a beat or dance. I gave up trying to dance when I was in high school. I thought at that time that I was simply too uncoordinated to dance. When I went to Army Basic Training, I realized that my handicap was more than just a lack of coordination. I have absolutely no rhythm. I was never able to pick up a beat to march in step, even with a bass drum and/or cadence call. I also believe that beat-deafness is genetic, because my father had the same problem when he was in the Marine Corps. What I can’t understand is why it took so long for beat-deafness to be identified clinically.

  9. I’m not convinced “beat deafness” is a neurological defect as much as it is a perception deficit. My husband of over 20 years is not only beat deaf, he’s tone deaf–he described pitch changes as people singing louder our quieter–cannot visualize anything described to him, cannot figure out what direction north is, can’t read a map, frequently misses turns on routes he’s driven for years, doesn’t understand how interchanges work on the interstates, can’t walk or ride a bike in a straight line or keep an even cadence while walking, can’t glance at a word and know what it is by the shape of the whole word and has much difficulty reading out loud. He is extremely uncoordinated.

    After all these years, I’ve come to realize that all these deficiencies are connected through perceptual paths. Much like color blindness, I know there are varying levels of disability. I’m surprised it’s taken so long to quantify someone with this handicap unless no one has ever thought to do so. People who are “uncoordinated” probably suffer from some level of beat deafness, and a glib remark that trivializes or dismisses this human condition does not help those who exhibit its very real manifestations. An artist wouldn’t insist you aren’t trying hard enough because you can’t draw or paint for crap. A basketball star wouldn’t chide you because you can’t dunk or shoot free throws like a pro.

    I empathize with those who lack rhythm, and I sympathize with their friends and loved ones.

    • And this is where it gets complicated, right? What are we actually talking about if we start trying to discern differences between neurological function and subjective perception? I am certainly not qualified to speculate.

      I believe it is useful, however, to think of learned skills (I prefer this word to “talent,” which is loaded with so many connotations) as something that are a very complex combination of nature AND nurture. A genetic predisposition for any particular ability doesn’t seem to me like it is finite, concrete, or easily quantifiable. And that’s where I think we sometimes sell ourselves short, chalking what we could be or wish we were up to “talent,” as if it has to be either/or…

  10. I see that back in August 2013 I started a bit of a discussion which I have not followed until now because of time constraints. However it is worth considering that although at my age I am somewhat deaf I can imitate the sounds of different race and rally cars and recognise the different vehicles purely from their sounds on the tracks. My impressions obviously do not have the benefit of the high decibels of the originals but the noises that I generate can be enhanced volumewise electronically. Motor Sport has been my prime interest for the past 60+ years. The cars have varying tones depending on revs and throttles open or closed which I can hear and imitate. Should or does music work in the same way and therefore I am subconciously selecting and analysing what I want to listen to?

    I am not sure if my ramblings are helping or confusing but I have never liked listening to music even as a small child. Now everybody seems to have music on non-stop with the development of musak, the i-pad etc and I find it all very irritating. Is this my inability to hear music coming through or just a sub-conscious reaction?

    Iain Thomson

    • Hi Iain,

      I am not a neurologist and so I can’t speak to the particulars of how your brain is processing those stimuli, however as someone with a lot of experience teaching both dance & music, I would say that when you imitate different pitches and/or tones, you are doing something very similar to what a musician does. Listening carefully and exactly recreating what you hear is the name of the game! As to your second point, well, not everyone likes music. I would guess that your experience of listening to music would depend on a lot of interconnected factors (including whether you were trying to do anything else at the time). Also, I think it is a safe assertion that the way the brain processes music is very complicated and relies on both biological predispositions and cultural/learned experience. Knotty questions, but endlessly fascinating!

  11. Interesting. I have never been able to pick up a beat, or learn to dance. I am married to a very good line dancing teacher, and she has been unable to convince me that there is a 1-2-3 rhythm to a waltz; or 1-2-3-4 for a foxtrot. Line dancing is totally out of the question. She will stop me clapping at concerts as I drift further & further out of sync with the rest of the audience. Yet I love music, Queen, the Who, Cat Stevens, Enya, to name but a few. Beat deafness defines what I can’t hear, or react to. To those who say persistence is the answer, well, you can teach a blind man to get around with a white cane, or a seeing-eye dog, to dress himself, and generally live a fulfilling life. Yet none of this gives him vision. Coping is not the same as 20/20.

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