2 Left Feet? You Might Be ‘Beat-Deaf’

A new study looks at people who have trouble keeping time.

“I don’t dance.” It’s the refrain of the grumpy male love interest in countless movies and TV shows. Dragged unwillingly to a gala, prom, or masquerade by his plucky, perky date, he is then shocked and horrified when she actually expects him to dance with her, as though she just brought him there so he could drink punch and brood in the corner.

This character archetype’s bad ‘tude aside, he may just be innately unable to track and respond to a beat, a condition called "beat-deafness," according to a new study published in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Dancing is the most obvious example of a “beat-based entertainment ability,” as the study so awkwardly puts it, but there’s also marching, playing music, and rowing, as well as just clapping along at a concert. These behaviors are “absent from the natural repertoire of non-human species,” the study says, and it turns out that they may be absent from the repertoire of some humans as well.

Researchers from McGill University in Montreal compared two “beat-deaf” people, who had self-reported having trouble keeping time while dancing or clapping along to music, to 32 adults in a control group. The participants were given several different tasks in which they tapped their fingers to a beat—in one they were just asked to tap at a regular pace for 30 seconds, in another they were to tap along with a metronome, and in the last they tapped along with a series of beats at changing tempos.

The beat-deaf people did fine just tapping out their own beat without any audio cues, and they did slightly less well tapping along with the metronome. While everyone took a little time to adjust during the task with tempo changes, the beat-deaf participants seemed to have a “broader deficit.” To find out how exactly this asynchronicity between internal and external beats occurs would require more research, but the study authors posit that it might be caused by problems in correcting errors—it’s possible that once beat-deaf people mess up, they aren’t able to fix it and return to the right beat.

So far it seems like beat-deafness is a relatively rare condition, not necessarily a get-out-of-jail free card for when you’d rather hang by the snack table than shake it on the dance floor. But the good news is: Whatever the cause of his disinclination for dancing, when the grumpy love interest gives in and dances (poorly) with his date, she always likes him anyway.