When would it be possible to completely lose a sense of rhythm?
September 20, 2017 12:15 PM   Subscribe

In wondering whether my dog enjoys having his paws moved to the beat of a song, I wondered whether one can have a sense of rhythm without a sense of math? Or, can one lack a sense of rhythm completely? I guess another way of saying this is: is there an equivalent of colorblindness for rhythm? Not just a tone-deafness, but a complete inability to perceive it? If so, what causes it? It seems to me like it should be related to the ability to understand math, but maybe it is something else?

For example, if you could perform an operation that completely removed a person's understanding of all mathematical concepts (including number sense, basic arithmetic, etc.), or if someone had a stroke completely affecting the "rhythm core," would that person then lose the ability to follow a rhythm, and/or appreciate it?

I imagine that my dog, with presumably no mathematical sense (except say an innate good sense of calculating his own velocity for jumps, gravity, etc.) doesn't care if I wave his paws to the beat. However, I, myself, as a music lover (but very poor dancer) still love to move my head to the beat, tap my toe, etc. If I couldn't follow a beat, at all (e.g., if it were just static) would I enjoy it?
posted by stillmoving to Science & Nature (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I know that people with autism/autistic people can have issues with the melody and rhythm of speech (prosody); it looks like this may be related to general issues with melody and rhythm; a quick Google search brings this up, for example.

So the answer to the first part of your question is yes, to a certain extent. I'm not sure about the second (relationship to math ability), although Noam Chomsky and others have said that language and math may be related, evolutionarily speaking.
posted by damayanti at 12:24 PM on September 20

What a neat question! Wikipedia calls what you're talking about Beat Deafness.
posted by henuani at 12:25 PM on September 20 [4 favorites]

...can one lack a sense of rhythm completely?
Anecdotally, yes - I remember great hilarity at a high school assembly, where some teachers were doing some kind of skit where they needed to clap along to the beat of some music, and one of them was utterly unable to do it. Just randomly clapping, with no relation at all to the pulse.

Not just a tone-deafness, but a complete inability to perceive it?
That's what tone-deafness (amusia) is: inability to percieve differences in pitch; although, for some reason, it's often used to mean people who can't sing, as if singing is nothing but perceiving pitch.
posted by thelonius at 12:25 PM on September 20

Rhythms are broader than just song, we have a bunch of biological rythyms like our heart rate, and sleep wake cycle. So to a degree every functioning living thing has done rhythm depending on how broadly you define it.

This article talks about some humans unable to replicate sound rhythm but they generally can produce a rhythm in the absence of sound. WaPo article about the study it is also very rare in humans.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:26 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

I imagine that my dog, with presumably no mathematical sense (except say an innate good sense of calculating his own velocity for jumps, gravity, etc.) doesn't care if I wave his paws to the beat.
I suspect that - even before you get to that point - the dog is completely unable to make any link whatsoever with the noise and the movement. He would most likely be purely reacting to you interacting with him and ignoring the noise because it is not coming from you in any way he can comprehend.
posted by Brockles at 12:27 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

This is such a compelling and satisfying question, thank you for posing it.
I realize this sounds naive, but I fully believe our hand raised budgie (a mini-parrot, not a parakeet, and totally engaged with humans) was able to detect and respond to rhythm. She would literally dance with bopping her head to a beat. It was one way she was in sync with us, and along with being hilarious, reminded me of all the shared DNA of the living world.
posted by flourpot at 12:50 PM on September 20 [4 favorites]

Your dog may not care about your dog-puppet-dancing, but I bet a chimp or a cockatoo would. Probably lots of birds, maybe even lizards.

Here's a recent Nature paper describing a chimp tapping along with an audible rhythm, and here is some pop-sci coverage of a recent report on a species of Cockatoo that makes drum sticks and drums with them.

For birds that clearly feel the beat in music and decide it's a good idea to move to it, just hit up youtube: generally the hookbills have the best combo of "can dance" and "is around humans a lot".

Anoles are a lizard that uses a rhythmic "push up" display for various purposes. Here is research paper about that, and it uses a dancing robotic lizard.

This may or may not have much to do with beat deafness in humans, but since you seem to be interested in rhythmic behavior in animals, I thought you might like to read about this stuff too.

(On preview: yes flourpot, you are almost certainly on to something with your budgie!)
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:56 PM on September 20 [3 favorites]

Mr. Meat is quite good at math. He has no musical rhythm.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 1:08 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

Cockatoos are considered to have a sense of rhythm according to what I have read about the research on the matter. Though they're not so sure about smaller birds. Having owned several cockatoos over the years they seem to get a lot of enjoyment out of moving in time to music. While it appears dogs can count to a limited extent, I can't find a lot of information on dogs & math. Cockatoos & pigeons & chickens on the other hand can do basic math.

The general connection to a sense of rhythm is thought to be language not mathematics though. As dogs aren't vocal communicators but more body language & scent based communication I would imagine this would mean they would lack a strong sense of rhythm
posted by wwax at 1:11 PM on September 20

Having the perception of rhythm is separate from understanding what it is or how it works, the latter of which would require math.

Rhythm is learned; most children develop a sense of rhythm by age 3. But if you aren't exposed to it, it is unlikely you'll acquire it, like most things. Many people have no sense of rhythm, either from lack of early exposure or some other underlying predisposition that made acquiring rhythmic perception difficult despite exposure.

Rhythm perception is different in some fundamental ways than pitch or timbre perception, because the cognitive mechanism and particularly the encoding differs in some fundamental ways; namely that rhythm perception is probably all timing cues, whereas pitch and timbre are timing and space.

Unless there is some traumatic neural event like TBI or stroke, losing one's sense of rhythm after it is learned would be quite unlikely.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:37 PM on September 20 [4 favorites]

My 18 month old can clap to the beat of a song and probably has about the same math abilities as your dog. I think it's pretty typical for kids to be able to keep a beat before they can count, and most babies - even young infants - enjoy music.
posted by insectosaurus at 2:24 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

My mother has severe tinnitus and doesn't have a sense of rhythm insofar as she couldn't replicate a simple beat or clap along to a song.
posted by threetwentytwo at 2:37 PM on September 20

I've always been toldby conductors and choreographers that I have a great sense of rhythm; I always ace that part of sight singing exercises even if I miss a pitch or two. I'm one of those people who gets rhythm patterns stuck in my head and performs household tasks to them. And yet, math was my second-worst subject in school. I mean, I did okay, but it was definitely not my strongest suit. It never occurred to me to tie Proficiency in math with a strong sense of rhythm.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:39 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

I have no idea how this might relate to a sense of rhythm, but dogs can count.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 2:59 PM on September 20 [2 favorites]

Yes, dogs can count, and although there's no telling (by me anyway) whether this has to do with rhythm or something else, but dogs running together will very often precisely synchronize their striding. I love to go frame by frame in videos to see this with my own dog and his friends. I'm not sure how you can exclude awareness of rhythm from the mental process necessary to do this, but who knows.
posted by HotToddy at 3:58 PM on September 20

There are non-human mammals who can keep a beat and IT'S AWESOME. I would guess - unscientifically - that some dogs may be able to recognize a beat, while others can't - just like humans.
posted by mulcahy at 4:32 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

Birds absolutely understand rhythm, as any number of YouTube videos will attest. As for dogs, well, they can count, and perhaps it could be argued that they understand rhythm too, in a way: their barks have a certain cadence depending on what they are barking about, and dogs respond to other dogs depending on how the other dogs are barking. Dogs overwhelmingly bark in threes and fours (woof-woof-woof or whow-whow-whow-whow) and they don't start a second bark halfway through the first bark.

Plus humans (apparently) learn rhythm in the womb, from their mother's heartbeat. Good chance doggos do too.

This led me to explore the average resting heartrate for dogs and cats. For dogs it is between 60-140 bpm (depending on doggo size). For cats it is much faster: 140-220 bpm. My feeling is: dogs at the larger end of the scale bark much slower, dogs at the smaller end of the scale bark much faster, and cats...purr! Or go: raaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Anyway, I really like this question! Also, I am not a scientist!
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:46 PM on September 20 [3 favorites]

I think rhythm has more to do with sensing the passage of time than counting. It's not how many beats there are that make a pattern, but how they are timed. You use math in written music to give duration values to notes, but without a framework of evenly spaced-apart-in-time beats to use as a reference it's meaningless.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:16 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

> Mr. Meat is quite good at math. He has no musical rhythm.

Conversely, I've got some degree of dyscalculia, but better-than-average rhythm.
posted by desuetude at 10:53 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

From a Q&A with Oliver Sacks:
Pitch and rhythm are processed in different parts of the brain, and their development does not necessarily go together, so one can have an acute tonal sense and a relatively poor rhythmic sense—or vice versa. But usually this is a relative matter. True tone-deafness is rather uncommon (perhaps five percent of the population), though I describe one lady in Musicophilia who cannot distinguish pitches at all—she says that music, to her, sounds like pots and pans clattering on the kitchen floor. Absolute "rhythm deafness" is rarer still—the neural systems which underlie rhythm seem to be more robust and perhaps more widespread in the brain.

I think Sacks covers this in more depth in Musicophilia.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:28 AM on September 21

I love all of these answers. Thank you for responding to the many parts of my question and providing such satisfying responses. I'll check out the Sacks book, papers, articles, and videos recommended here. Thank you again!
posted by stillmoving at 12:05 PM on September 21

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