Every movement is perfectly timed; every sound is precise. It’s amazing to watch people with a natural affinity for rhythm in their element — often, they’re incredible singers or dancers who seem almost superhuman in their ability to stay on beat. But where does it come from? Is it simply sheer grit paired with in-depth musical training? Or is it a biological process at work?
Turns out it’s a bit of both — and it all starts with auditory memory. So lean in, listen up and let’s break down the beat.
Dance Dance Evolution
As noted by a study from the University of Amsterdam, “A sense of rhythm is a uniquely human characteristic.” Study author Fleur Bouwer found that both training and concentration were unnecessary for people to bop with the beat — instead, it appears that we’re biologically hardwired to have the music move us. Research into music and rhythm suggests human sociability as its evolutionary antecedent; connection over music helped humans foster stronger social connections.
Along with recognizing and responding to rhythm, humans can also organize sounds into songs. By briefly storing notes we’ve just heard, our brains connect them to the next, and the next, and the next to form a rhythmic chain that can have us unconsciously tapping our feet, nodding our heads or clapping our hands.
But how does it all work? For that, we have to tackle auditory memory — also called echoic memory. A subcategory of sensory memory along with haptic (touch) and iconic (sight), echoic memory captures and holds audio information.
When we hear sounds, our auditory nerves capture raw sonic information, convert it to electrical signals and transmit it to our brains. There, sounds make a brief stopover in the primary auditory cortex (PAC) before moving on to short-term memory, where meaning is assigned to the sounds we’ve just heard. These could be conversations, music or auditory information from the environment that’s potentially relevant, such as the sound of a car approaching or someone calling your name.
According to the “Handbook of Neurologic Music Therapy,” auditory memory lasts between 2 and 4 seconds to give your brain time to process the information. This is longer than iconic memory, which typically lasts for 1000 milliseconds because “most salient visual information continues to be present for repeated scanning, whereas auditory information —due to its temporal waveform nature can never be re-scanned unless it is actually repeated.”
In other words, since your brain probably won’t a get second chance to hear the exact same sound, more time is afforded to process and understand auditory input before it moves out of your short-term memory.
Listen and Learn
If we’re predisposed to rock with the rhythm, why do some people struggle to stay sonically aligned? Most of us have met someone (or are that someone) who seems to dance to the beat of their own drum when it comes to keeping pace.
A study from McGill University examined the phenomenon — known as “beat deafness” — to better understand potential causes. The study looked at 32 people and their ability to keep the beat with a metronome by tapping their fingers. For most people, even a 5% change in metronome speed was noticeable, causing them to speed up or slow down their tapping to match. While the process wasn’t instantaneous — participants would overshoot or undershoot before settling in close to the beat — it was generally reliable.
Except for those with beat deafness. While these participants were able to detect a shift in tempo, they were unable to match it. If they sped up or slowed down, they stayed there and weren’t able to settle in on the correct rhythm. The cause? Analysis suggested a biological root cause driven by internal oscillators. For most people, these oscillators make it possible to automatically match up with beats in a song with physical processes, such as tapping their fingers, clapping or walking. For individuals with beat deafness, meanwhile, these oscillators aren’t working as intended.
The McGill study found that in one case, the individual’s auditor oscillator ran at a unique frequency compared to others in the control group, making it challenging to find the beat. In another, the oscillator lacked what researchers called a “dampen” function, making it impossible to settle in and find the beat of the music. Worth noting? The McGill work found that true beat deafness is extremely rare. In the study, just two people were identified as having true beat deafness. While some of the control group weren’t music masters, they were able to stay largely on tempo, even if it took some time.
Feel the Beat
Bottom line? While musical training and hard work can help humans better match auditory rhythms, the underlying process of staying on beat is largely biological. This starts with auditory memory: Raw information is converted into meaningful sound by our short-term memory over a span of 2 to 4 seconds. If repeated sound exposures suggest a beat, internal oscillators help us “settle in” and find a tempo that matches. If these oscillators are out of alignment, however, the result can be a recognition of rhythm without the ability to keep pace.
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