Saturday, March 05, 2011

A case of congenital beat deafness?

Of most people that claim things like ‘Oh, but I’m not musical at all’, ‘I’m hopeless at keeping a tune’ or ‘I have no sense of rhythm’, only a small percentage turn out to be unmusical. The condition is known as amusia, and those who suffer from it are literally music-deficient. It is a rather exceptional, mostly inherited condition that comprises a range of handicaps in recognising or reproducing melodies and rhythms. It has been estimated that about 4 per cent of the people in Western Europe and North America have problems in this direction, to a greater or lesser degree. The most common handicap is tone-deafness or dysmelodia: the inability or difficulty in hearing the difference between two separate melodies.

To diagnose amusia, the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA) has been developed. This test is available online – but wait a while before trying it out :-) People who say: ‘I can’t hold a note,’ ‘I sing out of tune,’ or ‘I have no sense of rhythm,’ are not necessarily suffering from amusia. Such people often confuse poor singing or dancing skills with the absence of a sense of hearing differences in melodies and rhythms. For instance, clapping a complex rhythm or dancing to the music requires quite some practice. Nevertheless, almost all of us can hear the differences between rhythms. It has been established that, even in people who are diagnosed as being tone-deaf, about half of them have a normal sense for rhythm (Peretz & Hyde, 2003).

Jessica Phillips-Silver (Université de Montréal, Canada) and a dream-team of music cognition experts found a person that claims to have truly no sense for rhythm, or, more precisely, is apparently deaf to hearing regularity in music. They describe their results in an upcoming issue of Neuropsychologia.

All tests presented in this intriguing study indeed hint at a person that has a true deficit in picking up the regularity in music (the ‘beat’ or regular pulse).

However, as with other studies on beat induction, it has proven to be very difficult to support the presence or absence of this skill on judging overt behavior such as dancing (see earlier entries on, e.g., Snowball). The study presents one (non-standard) perceptual test on beat perception, and I’m surprised the researchers did not use a relatively simple and far more direct test to see if beat induction is present or absent in this participant, such as the MMN paradigm used in work with newborns (e.g., Honing et al., 2009) or other recent studies making use of brain imaging methods. Would make a great follow-up paper.*

ResearchBlogging.orgPhillips-Silver, J., Toiviainen, P., Gosselin, N., Piché, O., Nozaradan, S., Palmer, C., & Peretz, I. (2011). Born to dance but beat deaf: A new form of congenital amusia Neuropsychologia DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.02.002

ResearchBlogging.orgPeretz, I. & Hyde, K. (2003). What is specific to music processing? Insights from congenital amusia Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7 (8), 362-367 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00150-5

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., Ladinig, O., Háden, G., & Winkler, I. (2009). Is Beat Induction Innate or Learned? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169 (1), 93-96 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04761.x

* In fact, we started working on it this summer (Lidji, Palmer, Honing & Peretz, in preparation)

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