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Study: Why Americans Have Bad Rhythm

Sorry, citizens of North America, but babies have better rhythm than you.

Blame the two-step, Elvis or Barney (and if you don't know about this purple dinosaur, substitute just about any kids' song here).

A new study looked into why people in some parts of the world seem better at grasping offbeat rhythms compared to people in North America. The problem appears to be at least partly cultural. The beat, it seems, is beat out of us.

The study would seem complex to those not musically inclined. But here's the upshot:

Throughout our lives, the music we listen to shapes and tunes our perception in a manner specific to the music of our culture, said Erin Hannon of Cornell University.

"We showed that young infants, who have much less experience listening to music, lack these perceptual biases and thus respond to rhythmic structures that are both familiar and foreign," Hannon said.

The study is detailed in the January issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

Hannon and Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto began their study with knowledge that other studies had shown people in North America struggle to grasp irregular rhythms. Balkan music proves troubling, for example. So the researchers studied 50 college students, mostly from the United States and Canada, and 17 first- or second-generation Bulgarian and Macedonian immigrants. Songs with simple meters were made more complex, and complex songs were simplified.

The North Americans recognized when things got trickier, but couldn't tell when things got simpler. The immigrants figured both out.

A similar test was done on North American 64 infants, six and seven months old. The tykes' skills were judged based on whether they look at or away from monitors showing the rhythmic changes. The infants, like the immigrants, did just fine.

To keep the beat, you'd want to forego country, rock, pop and even simple jazz typically performed in piano bars, Hannon told LiveScience. And painful as it might be, you'd also need to skip elevator music, the Barney song, and even that old favorite, "Wheels on the Bus."

Robert Roy Britt

Freelance writer Robert Roy Britt is an explainer of things, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, and author of the science thriller “5 Days to Landfall.” His writing is here.