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A 4-Track Mind

Tuesday, July 26, 2011 - 07:00 PM

Old piano keys Old piano keys (u m a m i/CC-BY-NC-2.0)

In this short, a neurologist issues a dare to a ragtime piano player and a famous conductor. When the two men face off in an fMRI machine, the challenge is so unimaginably difficult that one man instantly gives up. But the other achieves a musical feat that ought to be impossible.

Reporter Jessica Benko went to Michigan to visit Bob Milne, one of the best ragtime piano players in the world, and a preternaturally talented musician. Usually, Bob sticks to playing piano for small groups of ragtime enthusiasts, but he recently caught the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Betterman, who had heard that Bob had a rare talent: He can play technically challenging pieces of music on demand while carrying on a conversation and cracking jokes. According to Kerstin, our brains just aren't wired for that. So she decided to investigate Bob's brain, and along the way she discovered that Bob has an even more amazing ability ... one that we could hardly believe and science can't explain.



Jessica Benko, Kerstin Bettermann, M.D., Ph.D. and Bob Milne


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Comments [108]

Tony Thompson

Are their any studies or research I can read online that document and further investigate Mr. Milnes' abilities ?

Nov. 07 2016 05:51 PM

I'm wondering if Bob Milne is also capable of hanging on to multiple conversations at the same time (ie. simultaneously listen and understand 2 audiobooks would be useful)? Or is there even anyone capable of doing that? It would nice to study if these abilities are related.

Jul. 21 2016 11:05 AM
Sarah walsh from Manchester United Kingdom

Great episode, I wonder though, Bob describes his visions of thought so well, to such fine detail... But who are the people playing the instruments in his imagination? Are they people he knows? Or does he construct new faces? Hmmmmm...

May. 27 2016 02:59 AM
Justin from Colorado

I would love to see the written results for this, I haven't been able to tract them down online yet.

Oct. 01 2015 03:16 PM
Gertrude G. Goethe from chair

I really love hearing about people with extraordinary talents, like Bobs. Ever since I was a child, stories of people who were unique and entirely separate from other people really interested me, though today many people alienate or even hate people who are different. As a child, I probably admired these people because I was socially awkward and felt rather left out when it came to fitting in (although who hasn't experienced some kind of outcast feeling?) so when you hear these stories of incredible people being respected for their differences, it felt really reassuring as a child. I even liked to hope that I myself was someone with "powers." Although today, I still think that people who are neurodivergent should be respected in all senses.

Apr. 13 2015 08:58 PM
Toni R Sinclair from FL

Wow! This left me completely in awe. I am a lover of music, and hold an extreme fascination with the brain, so this podcast was perfect! Bob Milne is a true prodigy. All four pieces playing simultaneously began to hurt my head as I was trying to single out each one in my mind. I thought the test that they simulated was amazing, and I find it to be good proof.

Mar. 30 2015 09:38 PM
Agatha M. Siverstein

Bob Milne undoubtedly has a special talent or skill, whichever it may be. I didn't understand the gravity of being able to hear 4 symphonies at once, until they played all 4 at the same time. The emotional response that he has with music is also very unique. The way Bob's brain functions is almost unbelievable and incredibly difficult a concept for me to grasp, so I can only attribute it to an act of God.

Mar. 24 2015 02:45 AM
Walt C. Sinclair from Oviedo, FL

As somebody that is both interested in the extremes of human beings and the composition of music, this radiolab podcast was very interesting. I enjoyed listening to Milne describe exactly what he was thinking when he listens to two symphonies at the same time. The sad part that the pod-casters failed to discuss in-depth was the sort of lifestyle that Milne lives by and how under-appreciated his talent is.

Mar. 23 2015 09:55 PM
Edgar Keats from Oviedo

I really liked this podcast. Being a musician myself, I thought that Bob's skill is absolutley amazing. The ability to distinguish between four different symphoines is extraordianry. The brain is the most amazing part of our bodies and this shows that. I wonder if Bob's abiliity is just confined to music or if he can use this ability with other things as well. Maybe he can do this with other sounds in his every day life. Overall, very intresting podcast.

Feb. 02 2015 10:38 PM
Ender M Gatsby from My Brain

This podcast was truly something else. Something crazy. His story is unlike anything I have ever heard before and it just makes the brain that much cooler. I really think the human brain is one of the wonders of the world so I think more podcasts about it would be amazing. Overall very amazing podcast and would recommend.

Feb. 02 2015 10:14 PM
Catniss S. Vonnegut from Oviedo

Bob Milne is such an interesting case and I really enjoyed hearing about his story. I think the study of the brain is so interesting and I love weird cases like Bob Milne. This is one of my favorite podcasts and I wish their were more just like it to listen to. The experiment they designed is a really interesting solution to a complex thing to test and I loved it.

Feb. 02 2015 09:14 PM
Harriet S. from FL

Bob's "3D world" is amazing. It almost seems like a complex computer simulator. Being able to rewind time, zoom in, etc is a useful tool to have inside the mind. Bob also appears to have either perfect pitch or a well-trained ear. He won the genetic lottery.

Feb. 01 2015 06:56 PM
Sherlock D. Whiler from United States

Amazing podcast. Bob Milne reminds me of a person who has a split mind. This is when the Corpus Callosum is split (the part of the brain that connects the left and the right hemispheres of the brain). What happens when this part of the brain is split is that the right and the left part of the body (hands) can essentially "think by themselves." For example, a person with a split brain can draw a circle with the right hand and a square with the left with almost perfect accuracy (which is almost impossible with an intact Corpus Callosum). This truly shows the beauty of the brain. But, more to the podcast itself, I think that this is an amazing person with an amazing skill. I thought that this was an amazing podcast built around a truly amazing person.

Feb. 01 2015 06:26 PM
Ender J. Hayden from Florida

This podcast was extraordinarily interesting to me. The thought that someone could listen to FOUR symphonies at once, and distinguish them individually is amazing. I am in awe of Bob's ability to listen to four and tell precisely where they were in the music. I was amazed that there was nothing chaotic in his mind, and that he could separate them so easily. This incorporated two very interesting things: music, and the mystery and beauty of the brain. This podcast was extremely interesting.

Jan. 31 2015 10:01 PM
David Good from Dearborn, Michigan

Bob Milne did me the honor of collaborating on a piece of (still unproduced) musical theater a decade ago. I didn’t quite know the extent of Bob’s powers until listening to this Radiolab podcast, but I certainly realized back then that he was a cat with a different kind of brain when he worked his magic with a piece of my doggerel that I’d hoped might turn out to be a song. After playing it for me – he made it a march – he said he’d found the tune inside my “lyrics” AFTER asking me to drive the hour or so from my house to his. He had nothing written down when I arrived, but what was floating around in his head was the first of a list of memorable songs that I’ll always have with me even if, as seems likely, the show never finds an audience.

Dec. 08 2013 11:52 PM

Could this be like an out of body experience...?

Nov. 10 2013 04:19 PM
Robert Milne from Michigan

I am humbled by all this attention. Tom Gibson, please email me through my website. I tour a lot and can maybe speak to your students sometime.

Jul. 16 2013 08:25 PM
Tom Gibson from Atlanta, GA

Mr. Milne,
You're an inspiration, and this interview has been the launching pad for many wonderful discussions with my students.....from grade school to retired hobbyist. Thank you.

Jul. 16 2013 04:35 PM
Julia from PA

Hi Everyone,

I wrote before, but I am one of the researchers studying Bob as described in this piece. I just wanted to let you all know we are working on the manuscript to submit to scientific journals this Spring, I'll let you all know where to find it when it has been published! The results have been fascinating and we have been having a lot of fun writing this up. We will have further manuscripts in the future based on the same study, but for now we are starting with the fMRI results. I'm really excited to get all of your feedback, I think it will answer some of the questions posted here that we weren't able to talk about at the time. Most of all, we are really excited to hear Bob's thoughts on the manuscript, we are so grateful to him for being such a wonderful and willing participant!

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Mar. 07 2013 07:51 AM

Does anyone know the title of the piece that was playing before the credits?

Oct. 31 2012 05:42 AM
Ed Clute from New York

I can call up any piece I have heard and know what is and will be next in the piece. I hear it in my head. Regarding old records i know the flip side, the performer, usually the year and the kind of record. I can play the same piece in two keys at once and any piece of thousands that I know, in any key. I know many others who are record collectors who know their music as well. Since I'm also a punster, I carry on conversations and tell jokes while performing too. Perhaps, it is a combination of mental practice that just gives some of us these multiple abilities. I don't work at it. I agree there are rhythms and melodies - and indeed the mathematics of music that may bring these skills together. I enjoy hearing of others who engage in these musical feats. Wish we could chat. E.

Oct. 21 2012 11:27 PM

Wow. I understand why he doesn't listen to recordings. If I could do this, I would hate listening to CDs, because I could just hear it all in my head.

Sep. 30 2012 05:10 PM
Robert Milne from Michigan

Many comments are directed to the fact that the symphonic pieces played in this radio broadcast aren't all classified as strictly symphonies. For instance, one is a piano concerto. Those comments are correct. However, the examples you're hearing are not the same pieces that were used in the actual test in Hershey, PA. Radiolab didn't know the names of the actual pieces so put together a program symbolic of the test. More correctly would be to say "symphonic pieces." Please be kind to them. They did a pretty good job.
I appreciate everyone's interest in this research. All I can tell any of you is that I've done this all my life and to me it is normal.

Sep. 27 2012 07:29 AM

What is the name of the Schubert piece? It'd be nice to have all of them actually.

Sep. 26 2012 12:33 AM
serban from Bay Area

Excellent podcast. However, Only the Schubert and Brahms pieces are symphonies. Beethoven's op. 73 is a piano concerto and Mendelssohn's is another piano piece...

Jul. 12 2012 04:30 PM
Heather McDougal from California

This guy has an extreme (and effective) form of synesthesia. Look it up on Wikipedia! It often allows you to see the structures of music in terms of color and shape, and many forms of synesthesia relate to mapping things in space (many synesthetes see the calendar as a complex map, often a 3-d map). I have a form of synesthesia that makes me see each letter and number like he sees notes, with a very distinct emotional personality. My spelling is phenomenal because I see groupings of letters as sort of cliques that have to be in a particular order to make a word. I can always see if a word is wrong because the personalities aren't in the right places in relation to the other letters' feelings.

Another part of my synesthesia is an ability to map music in my head by color and shape, and I can tell when a note is wrong because it doesn't look right; the structure is wrong.

Lastly, I have maps in my head at all times of the places I occupy, especially my house -- not only the rooms themselves, but what objects are in each drawer and cupboard and shelf, on the floor, on the couch, under the bed -- and this map updates itself all the time, day to day. I can look at it in three dimensions in my head, rotate around, look inside drawers, etc. It's incomplete, because other people live in the house and move things around, but if I lived here alone, I would know how to lay my hands on any object at any time. I built this house entirely in my head before we built it out of concrete materials, and I was able to do the same thing with my imaginary plans: rotate them, see where things ought to go, how the space would work, etc., right down to the light switches.

I totally feel like I understand how he does this: the imagining of the orchestra, the spacial elements, the mapping and moving through the mapping in order to find the information he needs. These are all very familiar synesthetic traits. Keeping track of four symphonies at once, in realtime, is something beyond synesthesia, it's taking the visualization skills of the synesthete and using them to go onward into brilliance. Bravo!

Jun. 03 2012 02:56 PM
Ben from Israel

In addition to the two comments about Mozart, I recall reading his biography which told about him composing entire symphonies in his head while travelling from city to city for performances. He couldn't wait to arrive so he could jot them down on paper, totally completed in his head.

Jun. 02 2012 03:16 AM
Forrest from New York City

Out of nowhere two days ago I realized I could do something similar, but nowhere near the extent that Bob Milne can... I can have two songs play in my head pretty well but after putting another one into the mix it starts to fall apart (and these aren't even full orchestral pieces). I can only wonder how it must be to experience this first hand, going to have to listen to this short again :D

May. 02 2012 11:26 AM
Quinn from Seattle, Wa

What was the name of the Schubert piece?

Apr. 23 2012 01:39 PM
Jimbo from somewhere in Michigan

It's been my pleasure to know Bob for a number of years and to have attended his performance in Washington at the Library of Congress. He played piano numerous times in our annual Kiwanis Kapers show wearing outrageous get-ups I'm sure he wouldn't want described, and as "The Phantom of the Kapers" to my wife and I singing a duet from Weber's "Phantom of the Opera". He does not take himself too seriously.

I listen to NPR at work but didn't know about or hear this until today when a mutual friend told me about a presentation of the study's results next week. He is not only incredibly talented but incredibly generous, a world-class pool player, master of the French horn, an author, a composer, a patriot, and who knows what else. He would also be embarrassed to have someone carry on about him like this. But no one deserves it more.

Apr. 04 2012 03:26 PM

I'm glad a few other folks brought up the thought of synesthesia. I don't know much about it but Bob certainly sounded like he was experiencing some form of it. I know for myself cellos are amber. I don't experience that feeling with any other instrument really but cellos are definitely amber. I'm rather jealous of Bob's experience of music. It must be incredible to have so many senses involved as you listen.

Mar. 17 2012 02:58 PM
Angelina Cicchella from Ann Arbor

I was in an argument with a friend of mine the other day. I am a pianist and a cellist, he is a violinist. I was telling him that I always felt that different notes, not just keys, had a distinct feel to them. I couldn't quite put in words what I felt and I still can't so I ended up loosing the argument. He believed that our perception of music is all relative to what we've heard before. So hearing this story made me feel much better. And I empathize with his pain in listening to recorded music. I am also able to track symphonies in my mind, not as well as him I suppose, but to a certain extent and I love going back and repeating the same melody again and again until I feel I actually want to move on in the piece. I began on the piano when I was four so I completely understand the emotional connection some people can find in music. Also C major is and always has been my least favorite key. It has no character. I loved hearing this story and I hope to do similar research between the brain and music! It's absolutely fascinating what we are capable of processing.

Feb. 26 2012 10:25 PM
Woody from NH

The visualizations Bob has remind me of Walt Disney's Fantasia.

Feb. 18 2012 10:05 AM
Aaron from Hong Kong

1) what role does perfect pitch play in Bob's abilities (clearly, a very important one, although they didn't mention it specifically)? did the control conductor have it too?

2) why is listening to recordings so difficult for him? can't he develop the music further in his imagination while it is playing out loud?

Nov. 28 2011 03:39 AM

I just heard this story on a long drive home and had to make a conscious effort to keep my mouth from gaping open in awe. This seems to me like a real-life case of superhuman abilities.

I was surprised that no mention was made of what the MRI tests revealed about how Bob's brain distributes the workload of processing multiple streams of "conversation" simultaneously. Sure, there was speculation that he overloads the emotional and visual centers of the brain, but did the MRI support these theories?

Thanks for another fantastic show.

Nov. 26 2011 09:51 PM
Julia from PA

I'm one of the scientists who is studying Bob (not the person you heard in the interview, that was the Primary Investigator), I'm glad to see so many people are interested in Bob's talents! To answer a few of the scientific questions raised in these posts:
1) Anytime you are trying to test an auditory task in the MRI it is challenging due to the cacophony that the machine emits. We recorded a clip of the sound that an MRI scanner makes during scanning and sent it to Bob before we studied him. He listened to it and was able to confirm that he had no emotional/visual response to it. So luckily the MRI noise was not a problem for him.
2) As for all of the questions/postulating about the MRI data and about synesthesia...well I can't comment on that yet. We are currently working on writing up the results from this study for publication. I will be happy to post links on here to the papers once they are published!
3) It would be highly improbable that Bob would be able to cheat on this task. These are complex pieces of music with a multitude of parts, keys, instruments, etc. He was given less than an hour to memorize the music, so for him to align the pieces mathematically in that time is unlikely, especially considering that they started at different times and he was not told how long the gap would be between the start of the addition of each piece (this varied) or what order he would be asked to imagine them in.

Suffice it to say, working with Bob is fascinating and incredibly fun.

Nov. 17 2011 07:01 PM
Alice Caplow-Sparks

I was wondering where Bob is getting his images when he looks down at the orchestras in his mind. I've learned from the comments that he attended Eastman, is he seeing all of his old school mates or a variety of players and instruments that he has come across over the years?

Oct. 29 2011 08:01 PM
meham from sacramento

Hey Jad? It's MORSE code, not Morris :-)

Awesome podcast and thanks for reposting it. I work with neurologically challenged children and, and the moment with the child of two musicians. How wonderful it would be to be able to use the results of the research to help the parents communicate with their child \o/ (yay)

Oct. 28 2011 08:41 PM
Dave C from So Cal

@Alexander Thompson from Gloucester, Ma
I too have noticed the "ange N.P.R." in the Intro. As one experienced in the type of audio editing Jad regularly engages in while creating this show, I think it is an intentional thing thrown in for fun. He probably took a word like orange and cut off the "OR" to produce the "ange" we have come to know and love.

Just for folks like you and I to notice.

Oct. 28 2011 05:36 PM
Lee S from Minnesota

Amazing story! & an amazing mind. I was with Jad saying 'no way' at several points. To continuously hold the tempo alone of an imagined song is difficult..
Thank you for sharing

Oct. 22 2011 05:15 PM
bob milne

dylan: i both see and hear it.

Oct. 20 2011 07:17 AM
Dylan from Brooklyn

This sounds like he is using a version of a memory palace, a well known way of memorizing or in this case keep track of multiple data sets in your head. By positioning the orchestras in space, he can use his visual memory to "see" the music, rather then just hear it.

Oct. 19 2011 08:45 PM
Amy Brown

This was interesting, but I have to say I would rather have listened to him play ragtime while carrying on a conversation and cracking jokes. That was what pulled me in, and what I'm more impressed with...not to mention that it would have been much more pleasant to listen to than symphonies playing simultaneously.

Oct. 11 2011 11:32 PM
Brian from Boston

@Ed Farnsworth -
"I'll stick to Ira Glass when I want to be entertained". Huh. Ever wonder what Ira Glass listens to when he wants to entertained, or even amazed? Wonder no more!

Congrats to Jad for officially being a genius!

Sep. 24 2011 07:00 PM
Ed Farnsworth

Radiolab, huh. I guess I've gotten old. I grew up on NPR when this kind of manipulative, self-aggrandizing piffle would have gotten a radio producer fired. Mores the shame that the subject matter is usually interesting, but you can't stand to listen due to the "talent" drowning out facts with their cutesy-pie puns and witticisms. I shut this junk off anytime it comes on the radio. Now it wins a Pulitzer? American is surely doomed. Until then I'll stick to Ira Glass when I want to be entertained. God knows there's no journalism to be found on public radio anywhere.

Sep. 24 2011 05:41 PM
Mike Holland from Sxphw, NC

@Antibodies from Washington
Your comment is valid, and important to point out that our comments should not detract from this great story. However, when you said "The story sucks because the host said the word "crazy" too many times? Maybe some neuroscientists can find an explanation for the urge to leave irrelevant, snarky, and anonymous comments on the Internet," you implied that my comment was a: self aggrandizing and b: saying the story "sucked". Please understand that I thought the story was amazing. The subject and his talents were wonderful things to learn about. I did not say this was a bad story. I was giving feedback to the authors, not commenting on the subject matter. Please don't confuse the two and attribute that to me. Thanks.

Sep. 05 2011 02:06 PM

I can do this with pop music

2 songs going at once.
I have 2 gold and 2 platinum records here in Canada.
When I was in the band I could write maybe 1 song every three months.
After I left the band it was like I was struck by lightening.
I could write 20 songs a day.

Also, I tried learning classical pieces to play with my kids.

I can not remember them no matter how hard I try.

My brain changes them and improves them - at least it thinks so - and expands on them.

When I go to play them I am hearing my version.

The brain is so strange.

One last strange thing.

After I have written a song - and these songs are good according to others - I can not for the life of me remember how to play them.

I am dyslexic and suffer from Profound Depersonalization Disorder. (you will have to look that one up)

I wonder if these things are all related.

If I could spell, could I remember songs?

If I could remember songs well, could I write them?

If I could spell, could I write 20 songs a day?
Mark Gibson Design & Permits

Sep. 05 2011 10:54 AM
brett knapp

Bob is a very unique talent that I have known for a long time now. He is as nice a person as you would ever want to meet. Very interesting podcast, it would be fun to have a mind that works like that.

Sep. 03 2011 08:02 PM
Patricia from Winston Salem

Maybe I move to a different beat, I am trying to focus and do one thing "well" at a time.

Sep. 03 2011 06:24 PM
Cyrille Ferrier from Amsterdam - The Netherlands

This musical memory tracking reminds me of a story in Artur Rubinsteins biography 'My many years' I read some fifteen years ago. While on his way he consciously hears the piano concerto in his head that he has to play that evening, at some stage the music is gone for some reason. Some time later, he is hearing the concerto again, but not where it ended, but at the exact point where it should be according to the time gap (at least in his opinion).

Sep. 03 2011 12:33 AM

I really don't have time to listen to this whole thing. Is there a transcript available? I could read it much faster.

Sep. 03 2011 12:27 AM
poison pool cue

Reporter Jessica Benko went to Michigan to visit Bob Milne??

Aug. 25 2011 09:26 PM
Anon from Cyberspace

Hello Radiolab! Love your show and I like the Creative Commons-licensed piture of the old piano keys and that you link to its source. However, if you did not get permission from the creator but instead use it under the CC-license, the license says that "For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. The best way to do this is with a link to this [] web page." Perhaps with a link named "CC-by-nc 2.0"?

Aug. 24 2011 03:32 AM
Antibodies from Washington DC

I would like to see RadioLab do a program one day about why some people feel compelled to leave totally tangential and self-aggrandizing comments on the Web site. Nerves grated by grammatical errors in oral conversations? He's not so special because I, a professional musician, can also play and talk at the same time? The story sucks because the host said the word "crazy" too many times? Maybe some neuroscientists can find an explanation for the urge to leave irrelevant, snarky, and anonymous comments on the Internet, especially on stories about gifted people. Does this reveal a natural common human tendency?

Aug. 22 2011 03:33 PM
Sue from Los Angeles

This vocalist had a similar 3D audio experience after doing the Tomatis method.

Aug. 15 2011 01:24 AM

Interesting 4-track mind. Are there any 5-track or 6-track minds?

Aug. 13 2011 07:16 AM
Robert from Atlanta

Why couldn't they find a decent recording of the Beethoven? Hellooooooooo... I'm a professional musician and a lot of the times the most important challenge is indeed in having your technique internalized to a point that conversation is possible. I think this ability is related to all of our abilities to filter a lot of noise and visual stimulation throughout our days. A lot of times our brain is just filling in the stuff we don't pay attention to, like the color or cloudiness of the sky when you're driving to work. I think it's a bit weird that his ability doesn't seem to be related to his obvious fluency in polyrhythms given his home genre. That is, his ability doesn't seem to be related to technique but rather a highly developed memory and intuition (subjectivity). The actual relevance of this talent is, however, a bit minimal in the field except in that it does inspire some wonderment at how far humans will be pushing our awareness in the next age.

Aug. 12 2011 07:10 PM
R Lloyd from St. Louis

So I must take my mending down and stitch a stray thought to its end. . .
And under my breath I hum one part of a two-part round,
And often in my dreams I sing both melodies out loud.

Can anyone identify the author?

Aug. 08 2011 02:05 PM
Zenqi from Morro Bay

Wouldn't this phenomenon fall under the heading of Synesthesia?

Aug. 08 2011 11:56 AM
Alexander Thompson from Gloucester, Ma

This is a general comment and an audio observation. I have a keen ear and it's always tugged by the person in the intro who says the words that we think are supposed to 'read' "...and N.P.R" I can tell that what she is actually pronouncing is "...anj N.P.R." or you might spell it "...ange N.P.R." In any case what she's done is replace the "D" sound with a "J" as in "Jelly" or "G" as in "Geronimo". Was this intentional?

Aug. 08 2011 10:19 AM
progkeys from Seattle

As a professional composer and semi-professional instrumentalist, I have to disagree with their assertion that we're not wired to play a complex piece of music and talk at the same time. Not to diminish Milne's technical achievements, but, at some point in learning a piece, playing it becomes muscle memory. Once that's achieved, it becomes no more difficult than say, walking and having a conversation at the same time. In fact, I've seen many jazz drum teachers make their students engage in a conversation while playing complex polyrhythms on their drum kit. There's also well-documented cases of untrained indigenous Africans playing virtuosic (by Western standards) rhythms unconsciously while talking and focusing their attention elsewhere.

Aug. 06 2011 08:16 PM
Ben from UWS

I'm not sure it's fair to criticize Jad and Robert or "stylistic errors." Part of the RadioLab aesthetic is laid-back, conversational language which allows them to connect with their listeners more personally and more entertainingly than if they just read out the facts. While I'm on board lamenting the falling of grammatical and stylistic standards in more formal writing and speaking, I just don't think those are the kinds of criticisms that can be leveled at show like RadioLab. Would you criticize Tom and Ray Magliozzi for their relaxed style on Car Talk?

If you're looking for more formal language, I'd direct you to one of the straight news shows like Morning Edition or Talk of the Nation.

Aug. 05 2011 01:12 PM
tom from New York City

finally someone speaks up for the language, and with examples that grate on me exactly the same way. The language is a beautiful invention, endlessly pliable and expressive, and it is being reduced and mocked by common misuse. Way to go! I'm on your team.

Aug. 04 2011 08:46 PM
John from Los Angeles

I'm with Jen from Oakland. Actually, there were numerous grammatical and stylistic errors in the piece. I was also disturbed that they referred to all four excerpts as symphonies, when two of them, Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and the Mendelssohn excerpt were, indeed, not symphonies, but pieces written in other forms (i.e., concerto, etc.).

I admire Radiolab and its output, but I look at public media as a bulwark against all the mindless blather we're subjected to in the "normal" media and hope that it will hold itself to high standards of communicative subtlety and nuance. One of my beefs about the younger crowd in public radio is that they're not immune to the erosion of the elegance of the English language.

"Hopefully," "laying" instead of "lying," "there's many," "none of them go," misuse of "literally," and so on are all tropes that have the same effect for me as fingernails on a blackboard. Not all of these were present in the piece, but when you hear errors, it's kind of deflating.

Aug. 04 2011 07:41 PM

What was the piece with the viola towards the end?

Aug. 04 2011 05:16 PM
neuromusic from UC San Diego

They note repeatedly in the program that there is no actual music playing they are just playing them "in their head"... in the program you can hear the machine clicking in the background when the researcher is asking him questions.

MRI noise is a common issue doing auditory neuroscience with "functional MRI" (fMRI). Researchers deal with it in different ways... one way is to use headphones to try to isolate the machine noise as much as possible.

The more elegant approach is to essentially turn the machine on and off. fMRI is actually measuring blood oxygen levels. When a particular region is active, it takes a few seconds for blood flow to increase in that area. And it only takes a second to ramp up the machine. So you can play a stimulus with the machine "off", then ramp up the machine in time to measure the change in the blood oxygenation, then shut it down and provide another stimulus. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Aug. 04 2011 02:14 PM

Was this done in a ... errr .. .normal MRI machine? I'm curious because I've had an MRI and those things are the most intensely noisy machines ever. Curious how you could carry out a sonic experiment..

Aug. 04 2011 01:21 PM
Jen from Oakland

Terrific story! (as usual)

I was momentarily distracted, however, when Ms Benko mentioned Mr. Milne's "laying" on the MRI instead of "lying". This grammatical misuse of lay instead of lie has recently become so pervasive that it's quite annoying.

Otherwise -- keep up the great work!

Aug. 04 2011 01:20 PM
Marcus Bianchi from Littleton, CO

I loved this story so much. Thanks!

One minor point, that probably was already written by someone before: the Beethoven tune is not a symphony but one of the most beautiful piano concertos ever written, number 5, the Emperor.

Keep the good work!

Aug. 04 2011 01:03 PM

One of the best shorts yet! You guys never dissapoint. Is Bob Milne the first person with a dual core processor???

Aug. 04 2011 10:13 AM
bob milne

Lois: thank you for not mentioning the smelly shoes we hid under your piano onstage. You handled it and played like a pro, pretending you didn't notice even though everyone in the audience could see them.

Aug. 03 2011 06:45 PM
Lois Cherry from Guelph Ontario

Back in the late 90's, I shared the stage with Bob Milne for a ragtime festival in Fergus Ontario. Not only was Bob a great musician, he was a great person with a goofy sense of humour. I was practicing a piece of music that I was to play that night. He had never heard it before, but having heard me play it once, he had it memorized, joined me on stage that night, and played it better than me. ( I had been practicing it for months). I have no doubt that Bob has this amazing ability. He has the ability to retain 1000's of tunes. Mind boggling !

Aug. 03 2011 05:44 PM
Bob Milne

I may be able to hear music but I can't negotiate this page. I tried last night to respond to questions but was defeated by a button on here somewhere.
Oceanboy: I hear every instrument clearly and at once. When I "look down" from above I see a 19 year old kid playing first horn in each orchestra - me, 50 years ago. I can hear the clear sound of my Alexander horn distinctly different from the silver horns in the rest of the section. The same is true of all other instruments, at once.
Jad: At the risk of sounding ridiculous and discrediting everything that's been done so far, I have to tell you that for me to attempt to hear 5 would be an insult to any gift I may have been given. If God gave me a "gift" He can also take it away for disrespect. That's all I know how to say about it. Also, I really appreciate all your interest in this.

Aug. 03 2011 11:50 AM
Another Bob from Boston

This is a terrific story. Bob's really talented as a composer. His inner vision and ability to think musically the way he does is priceless.

I feel like I'm wired like an 1/8th or 1/16th the same way? As I've played piano more and more over the years I've realized I can sometimes step outside myself in a dissociative manner. I clear my head or think about things or I run down checklists or watch television and follow along with the story or the baseball game, doing prompts and reponses in my mind's eye and with my mind's voice, all while my fingers are playing the piano and all while my voice is actually singing. And getting all the lyrics correct. When I play, I think about things. I am not an accomplished piano player at all, but I can play and sing a lot of songs pretty well and I can remember a ton of lyrics. I sometimes play and sing a song so that my head is clear for me to think about something important?

I guess while playing only piano I can carry on conversations. But while doing both, singing and performing? I seriously think if I wasn't singing I could talk and carry on a conversation as well. I'm not bragging, I'm just wondering what the heck all these connections are? I finish songs and I literally think "wow, have I been singing the whole time?" I guess I just step outside myself. I can do it for guitar but it doesn't work the same for guitar as piano, it's something about the left and right hand I suppose?

I don't recommend this but one night when I was sick I took an extra NyQuil pill. And that stuff is scary powerful, so I was tripping out on the junk and decided to play the piano. And I played and sang a song I was having difficulty with nearly flawlessly and I literally stepped outside my own body and said "wow, how are you doing this? Look, you're doing it. You're pulling off these complex changes. How? Why now? Those are your hands? This is amazing." I had to call and tell a friend and they thought the medicine was making me hallucinate the notion that I was actually sounding good but there is a recording of it, when healthy the next day i realized i really did pull the song off the night before on NyQuil all while having alien thoughts that led me to believe I was completely out of my body.

Strange, strange multitasking. What is it? I guess I'm just wondering why there is a musical voice and a performance voice alongside my normal thinking voice. It's very.. zen, very spiritual and has caused me so many "okay, who am i?" type trains of thought.

Aug. 02 2011 09:38 PM

Thanks for the response - that's very interesting! I wonder how your mind might have developed had you grown up in a different culture hearing exotic rather than traditional instruments. Although, I'm still curious about what degree of sound qualifies as music for you.

Aug. 02 2011 04:25 PM

Hi Bob, thank you for dropping in and fielding some questions!

Out of curiosity, what do you think would happen to you if you tried listening to 5 pieces at once?

Aug. 02 2011 02:22 PM
Bob Milne

Hi Ocean boy. yes, I can alter the music any way I want. I can hear any piece as either a full symphony or a violin and piano arrangement. (Yes, altering 2 at a time if necessary.) Or any other combination of instruments such as bagpipes and oboe. I can change the key of the piece if I don't like what it's in. Also can back up to repeat a section. If I hear things I don't like in it I can change them to anything I want: erase the mistakes or "obnoxious parts" (for lack of a better expression), or do basically anything I want to it. I flush music I don't like, but everyone's got their own taste.
Sometimes I hear music and wonder if it's something that I heard recently, but many times I realize it's original: I made it up and it showed up in my mind somehow.
I recently wrote out a fully orchestrated trumpet concerto that occurred to me in 1961 when I was a French horn player at Eastman. (Couldn't write it out then because of hand cramps, although I tried.) However, after finishing my opera last spring (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) using a computer notation system, I realized I could now write out the concerto and did so. The man I wrote it for is very excited and can't wait to play it.
There's opera information on my website,
I commonly listen to 2 pieces at once and do a safe job of driving as well. Kerstin, for her tests, wanted to know if I could hear more of them. Please don't think I commonly listen to 4 at once. I almost drove the car off the road trying to listen to 3 (testing myself), but 2 is normal. Also, I wouldn't attempt to listen to 5 even for the tests. If God has given me anything He can also take it away for screwing around with it.
Thank you - and all of you - for your interest, and I hope I don't post this twice again like I did the last one somehow.

Aug. 02 2011 11:59 AM

Mr. Milne, I'm fascinated by what I've heard but have a few questions.

Can you alter the music in your head or is it a fixed recording? As in, what if you heard a bad performance, or a sour note... would it be forever stuck in your mind that way until you heard a better one?

Have you ever tried to pair information with the music to fashion yourself a mega memory (more mega than it already is)?

Does it only work with "good" music, or could you do it with unconventional John Cage stuff and low quality rap? As in, according to your brain, what is the lowest degree of "music" that registers as being more than just noise?

Aug. 02 2011 11:38 AM
Mike Holland from Saxapahaw, NC

Mr. Milne's comment shows that he is every bit as kind a person as his talent is remarkable. "Walk softly" is a good advice, but I bristle when I see kind people taken advantage of... Rather than being open to the idea that Mr. Milne's talent was just another example of the amazing ability of the brain and our ignorance of it's function which their past episodes have well proven, his situation is labelled "crazy" by the most objective of our two hosts. My real upset came at the end, however. There is this change in gears from one of exploration of the phenomenon to that of human pathos. Mr. Milne's RV, his parking in Walmart parking lots, his not exploiting this gift for riches, instead lamenting the low market value of Ragtime. The ending bothered me the most in that it used Mr. Milne's story to gouge emotion from the listener. It pushed us out of Radio Lab and into the realm of "This American Life" and for a moment I did not know which program i was listening to, anymore. That, I think, is why I walked so heavily into my comment about failed subjectivity in the response of our hero-host (as opposed to the other one, you know, the old fat one)... because the producers followed that uncomfortable scene with one of more disquiet, in order to make an emotional pitch. I'm sorry to have taken away any credit for Mr. Milne's primary story in so doing.

Aug. 01 2011 09:40 PM
Cynthia Nelms-Byrne from Dubuque, IA

My husband, who is a pool and billiard expert, and who knew Irving Crane and many other old-timers, corresponded with Bob Milne a few years ago and Bob sent him a CD or two of him playing ragtime. I was fascinated by the story and didn't realize my husband knew of him. When I came home from listening to the podcast and mentioned the amazing Milne, my husband surprised me by saying he knew about him and coincidentally had just gotten an e-mail from a friend about your podcast just then!

Aug. 01 2011 09:18 PM
Brad from Lawrence, Kansas

I too found the piece interesting, but wish you gave more information about what the fMRI showed, and spent less on the "that's crazy" comments.

Aug. 01 2011 05:31 PM
Bob Milne

I want everyone to know that the comments made by the interviewers were all in good taste and good fun. Their comments and good humor are especially appreciated by me: let's have some fun while we're on this planet.
I've always said that I'm lucky to be able to play a piano at all, and even luckier that people enjoy what I do. The events described on the interview are simply things I was born with. "Thank you, God."
What didn't come out in the interview is why Dr. Bettermann is studying me. She says I use "both sides of my brain at once." (whatever that means.) She is trying to see if anything can be learned from me to help stroke patients. For instance, how to speak again by retraining the other side of their brain to take over that task.
Someone on this page wondered if others can be trained to "listen to 4 at once." Well, if someone wanted to train me in how to do simple automobile repairs that person would fail. If they wanted me to "fix 4 at once" they'd get a serious response: I'd probably melt down: I'm not wired that way. I think we all have special abilities, and are all different from the guy/gal sitting across the table from you. Short answer: I don't know.
Thanks to all of you for your comments. Here's mine:
"Walk soft, be well."
Bob Milne

Aug. 01 2011 03:54 PM
Mike Hollad from Saxapahaw, NC

I'm always happy to hear our doubting-Thomas co-host gas on about why he believes some higher-power explains the various amazing findings on this show. Happily, our other co-host coos rational "you are crazy"'s at him and the show continues to unreel the unreal, episode after wonderful episode. HOWEVER, on this short, our co-host used the word "crazy" twice, while responding some fairly iron clad sounding evidence from the scientist being interviewed. This not only insulted the investigators integrity, it insulted our rag-time friend and it insulted the listener. Stop it! Please stop allowing half your team to throw gravel in the amazing machine that is reality, based on your own tiny perspective. You bring us these phenomenol looks into the complexity of life and then you never fail to have half your team tell us you don't think it could happen by chance. Objective science presented with Subjective fear. It's tiresome, and when both of you do it at the same time it's disheartening and insulting to your audience and guests. I love your discoveries, tolerate your over-orchestrated re-tellings (especially when you simply repeat in slower words exactly what your interviewee just said, to "dumb it down" for us) and abhor your push-me-pull-me approach. Just agree to "show" us an open mind and stick with it. Thanks.

Aug. 01 2011 01:47 PM
Peter Skjodt

Holy shiit, this guy is fuucking amazing!

Jul. 31 2011 07:20 PM
Liam from Massachusetts

Speaking as a musician who can identify with many of these skills (I used to play piano at a restaurant, and I'd have to carry on a conversation all the time), I'm simply blown away. We are all the Salieri to his Mozart.

I do wish they talked more about the results of the MRI, I'd like to know more about what enables the human brain to do this kind of thing.

Jul. 31 2011 12:49 AM
Michael Zak from Washington, DC

There exists a sheet of Mozart's music on which he scribbled that he wrote it down while he was both listening to a concert of someone else's music and composing another piece of music in his head, which he would write down the first chance he got.

Jul. 30 2011 08:22 PM
Meera from albany ny

I read somewhere that MOzart also had the ability to hear several pieces of music simultaneously in his mind.

Jul. 30 2011 02:30 PM


Bob's abilities don't seem to be linked to any easily identifiable form of synesthesia.

When Bob hears music, he doesn't have the triggering of colors or smells that's typical of classic syntesthetes. But he does say he has intense emotional responses to different notes and cords. So certainly there may be some kind of unusual crosstalk between his emotional mind and his musical mind (to whatever degree they're separate).

To those folks who question just how extraordinary Bob's abilities are to begin with, perhaps we didn't do our job well enough.

Think of this way: Each of the four symphonies is in a different key and at a different tempo. And within each, the musicians are constantly modulating keys and the conductor is speeding up and slowing down the tempo for dramatic effect. So you've got four very complicated pieces of music with independently fluctuating melodies, keys and tempos...and all four start at different times. So there is nothing between them that's in sync.

Yes, Brubek's drummer Joe Morello can play separate rhythms with each limb, but he's still moving all his arms and legs to ONE beat, ONE tempo. Now, if Joe could somehow decouple his four limbs and simultaneously play chopsticks on the marimba at 122 bpm with his left arm while juggling three oranges at precisely 89 rpm with his right arm while tapping out the Gettysburg address in morris code at the speed of one word per second with his left leg while spinning a basketball on the big toe of his right foot...then you'd have something approximating what Bob Milne seems to be doing in his head. In my opinion.

Thanks everyone for listening and commenting!


Jul. 30 2011 01:47 PM
El Flakko from the islands

Funny comment about the acid trip - I had an acid trip very similar to part of what he describes. My only acid trip actually. I could stop and start the different musicians, zoom in and out of the various parts of the orchestra but I was an 'observer' and the music just continued on regardless. Tons of fun.

Jul. 30 2011 01:44 PM

A fascinating episode! I'm wondering if Bob's talent is a form of synesthesia. You guys have talked about that phenomenon before, and though it didn't come up in this piece, it seems like his ability to associate visuals and emotions with certain notes is synesthetic.

Jul. 30 2011 12:32 PM

I loved this podcast. Can't believe people are whining about it.

It would be one thing if they were asked to start all four symphonies at the same time in their heads. But they were staggered. And he landed on the correct note in each symphony.

I guess I'm easily impressed.

Jul. 29 2011 08:01 PM
Zachary Dinerstein from Brooklyn

As an example of how truly Sci-Fi this man's talent is, here's a video of Data listening to four symphonies simultaneously on Star Trek :-)

Jul. 29 2011 03:18 PM

I really wonder if his ability only applies to music. Do any everyday sounds appeal to him, emotionally? If so, could he, maybe, map out his radius of audibility with the sounds, like he maps out the orchestra? Could he, maybe, go to a location in Chicago, a location in New York, and a location in Indianapolis, in that order, and then have someone take him to the same three locations in a random order, with his eyes blindfolded, and then determine to which area they took him, based on the sounds created? Is the image of the orchestra created the same way sonar maps areas? ... I love this short =]

Jul. 29 2011 05:06 AM
Waldo from Antartica

The great thing about this man is that, unlike the many kids with autism who have quirky musical talents, he's seemingly normal.

Jul. 29 2011 05:03 AM
markus from bay village

i'm with william - why are people so negative about everything this show puts out? it's literally the best radio show out there (well, tied with TAL, imho, sorry jad & rob). also the troll is missing the point: the show isn't about how sick he is at ragtime, it's about how he can listen to multiple entire symphonies in his head. i bet most musicians can't even keep ONE symphony in their head from beginning to ending unless they've played it themselves.

and also to the physicist: you're trying to say this guy developed a talent for emulating an even cooler talent then decided not to tell anyone but his brain doctor in the hopes that she might be contacted by a radiolab producer and one day may have a radiolab short dedicated to him? come on.

Jul. 28 2011 02:52 PM
Brent from Midwest

As a fellow ragtime, I have known Bob for a number of years. I was unaware of his unique skill covered in this podcast. However, ragtime has always attracted people who possess strange abilities. So much so there's a documentary on the subject:

Jul. 28 2011 01:54 PM
Trolleklum from Land of the successfull trolls

Oh Williem I do apologize for ruining your day somehow, though you must understand, my first comment was me just being a d*ck for the lulz. I simply meant to argue more the point that basing this or any artists success or acquired talents and abilities in any way on extraordinary brain chemicals or any un-explainable neurological deformity does little more than detract from the meaningfulness of his years of hard work and dedication to said art. For the ability to decipher multiple orchestral pieces I did not comment on that at all, because I had no comment for it, it just did not strike me as being nearly as outstanding as you believe, as I have seen more than a few people, namely conductors, with the ability to receive and interpret multiple pieces of random music. I however do not abide by any suggestion that this man is a genetic freak over being a master pianist and conductor. But being called out in public by someone who does not know me in the slightest, I suppose I will defend atleast my right to say whatever I please, whenever I want. And dont worry about me somehow ruining the blog posts with my comments that you have not been forced to read, this is the last I will visit this site, I would hate to remain one of the people you seem to have such outspoken whiny contempt for. On a side note I would humbly suggest that if you do make it a habit of letting yourself get trolled so hard by everyone for the rest of your life that you atleast take the time to spell someones name correctly during the upcoming retaliation speeches that you seem to litter this site with. Farewell, happy complaining.

Jul. 28 2011 09:51 AM

Troyelkum, you're right, talking and playing at the same time is not impressive. Following four symphonies at the same time in your head for many minutes...that is very impressive. I'm consistently amazed at the fussy, whining comments that appear on the Radiolab site after every episode. Who are you people??

Jul. 28 2011 08:19 AM
Troyeklum from A place were people arent astounded by mundane observations.

So you've finally caught up with the rest of the world and realized that muscle memory after enough repetition becomes almost completely unrelated to higher brain functions, and that musical patterns and playing styles become nearly involuntary? You must have crapped yourself when you found out that people could sing and play music at the same time as well. If you've ever played an instrument you will find it doesnt take long for your fingers to do the thinking for you. Having played piano for a few years I do find his style to be beautiful, and am much more impressed by the technical skill and theoretical understanding that he has developed, not the ability for his fingers to move in and out of patterns without asking his brain permission to hit every note.

Jul. 28 2011 07:00 AM
Nate from Portland

As a physicist and a musician I am entirely unsatisfied by the experiment that takes place in this podcast. Most Mathematicians are able to calculate complex equations/algorithms in their head because they have developed tricks and approximations that yield an accurate enough result. Richard Feynman admits as much in "Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman!" There are measure and tempo relationships between each movement/piece of music in this podcast that may lead any practiced individual to the same result as Mr. Bob Milne. Is there no degradation in accuracy as movements are added? Why stop at four? I am not doubting the brilliance of Mr. Bob Milne, I'm just not sure what we can conclude from the experiment exhibited.

Jul. 27 2011 08:10 PM
Scott O from Madison, WI

I won't pretend to claim the same ability, but as a young player I remember zoning out while playing a Joplin tune, only to come back to reality hearing my right hand playing merrily one measure ahead of my left. Once I realized it, I couldn't keep it up... I definitely felt like the hands were on autopilot.

Jul. 27 2011 02:42 PM
Julia from PA

Mendelssohn Op. 19, No. 1

Jul. 27 2011 01:56 PM
Shuyün Lai from Somerville, MA

What is the name of the Mendelssohn piece?

Jul. 27 2011 01:17 PM
Tim from Canada

Joe Morello, drummer for Dave Brubeck Quartet, and who recently died, was able to play four different beats at the same time with his four limbs. And his drum solo in "Take 5" is sublime - listen now if you haven't before (live, not the recorded version).

He is guilty of making brilliant drumming look effortless, not just easy.

Jul. 27 2011 12:13 PM

This is another awesome broadcast on a fascinating subject!

Jul. 27 2011 11:12 AM
Dan from Philly

I love ragtime music, and this was a wonderful podcast to listen to in the morning.

Jul. 27 2011 08:29 AM
Tim Butler from Australia

Hi Guys,

Great podcast, I know some one that can do this same trick but with rhythms. His name is Grant Collins and is one of the greatest drummers in Australia. I studied with him for a few years. He creates these large complex multilimb rhythmical compositions, with a different pattern in each limb and some times a 5th pattern with a whistle. He describes that he thinks of each pattern as if it is a TV in his head, bringing a particular one into focus as required, but not loosing track of the other patterns. He can also hold a complex patter and a conversation at the same time.

See Ya
Tim :-)

Jul. 27 2011 02:55 AM

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