Jul 26, 2011

A 4-Track Mind

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.


THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

Speaker 1: 00:01 [inaudible 00:00:01]. Radio Lab is supported by Transfer Wise, they cheaper way to send money internationally. The Economist says, Transfer Wise takes a machete to the hefty fees banks charge. But don't take their word for it. More than four million people are already saving. Sign up at transferwise.com/podcast or download the app.

Olivia Fritz: 00:27 This is Olivia Fritz from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Radio Lab is supported by Math For America. Here's a brain teaser. Every wonder where the best math and science teachers across New York City come together to lead, learn, and share? MFA Fellowships inspire great teachers to stay in the classroom. Learn about the power of the MFA community at mathforamerica.org.

Speaker 3: 00:48 Wait, wait, you're listening.

Olivia Fritz: 00:49 Okay.

Speaker 3: 00:49 All right.

Olivia Fritz: 00:49 Okay. 

Speaker 3: 00:49 All right.

Speaker 4: 00:51 You're listening to Radio Lab. From WNYC and NPR.

Jad Abumrad: 01:11 No this is fine.

Robert Krulwich: 01:12 What are we doing about the podcast by the way?

Jad Abumrad: 01:14 Oh should we do that now?

Robert Krulwich: 01:16 Yep.

Jad Abumrad: 01:16 Hey I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radio Lab.

Robert Krulwich: 01:20 Yes it is.

Jad Abumrad: 01:21 No, we're doing the introduction.

Robert Krulwich: 01:22 Oh. (laugh)

Jad Abumrad: 01:23 Here we go. Let's do it for real. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. 

Robert Krulwich: 01:26 I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: 01:27 This is Radio Lab.

Robert Krulwich: 01:28 The podcast.

Jad Abumrad: 01:28 And today on the podcast we'll tell you about a guy who hears music in a way that is just extraordinary. 

Jessica Benko: 01:36 Yeah. 

Jad Abumrad: 01:37 And painful.

Jessica Benko: 01:37 Just thinking about this story makes my head hurt.

Jad Abumrad: 01:41 That's Jessica Benko. She's a reporter.

Jessica Benko: 01:43 Yep.

Jad Abumrad: 01:43 And she's the one who initially told me the story.

Jessica Benko: 01:45 So a little while ago I went up to visit this guy, Bob Milne.

Bob, it's nice to see you!

Bob Milne: 01:53 Nice to see you.

Jessica Benko: 01:54 Excuse my snowy feet here.

And he lives in a tiny town in Michigan with his wife, Linda.

Jad Abumrad: 02:00 And who is he?

Jessica Benko: 02:01 He's an amazing piano player. The library of Congress actually called him a natural treasure.

Jad Abumrad: 02:09 Really?

Jessica Benko: 02:10 He's had this special relationship with music ever since he was a boy.

Did you grow up with any other instruments inside the house other than the piano or was that what you started out on?

Bob Milne: 02:20 Well my mother made me take piano lessons and I hated it. I didn't like the sound of minor keys and the piano teachers had me playing a recital in which there was a Schubert minor key piece in it. So on the recital I played it in major and everyone thought that was a travesty. 

Jessica Benko: 02:54 These days though his main music isn't so much Schubert. It's actually ragtime.

Bob Milne: 02:58 Ragtime is actually one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four and the rhythms. 

Jessica Benko: 03:04 So the thing about ragtime is that often times the player is actually playing two different rhythms at the same time. [crosstalk 00:03:11] One with the left hand. One with the right hand.

Bob Milne: 03:12 And then you put the rhythms of three on the right hand. 

Jessica Benko: 03:19 The thing about Bob is he can do this like times a thousand.

Jad Abumrad: 03:23 Oh. What does that even mean?

Jessica Benko: 03:26 Well let me back up. I first heard about Bob from a neurologist named Kerstin Betterman who is now at Penn State.

KerstinBetterma: 03:33 First time I heard about Bob Milne was through friends. [crosstalk 00:03:36]

Jessica Benko: 03:36 Kerstin heard about Bob from a colleague who'd seen him play for an audience.

Bob Milne: 03:39 Well I might just take a tune like a...

Jessica Benko: 03:43 He was actually playing multiple rhythms with his two different hands and switching back and forth between different pieces of music and carrying on a conversation at the same time.

You can look up videos of Bob on YouTube and you can see him performing and throwing out jokes but at times you'll see him carry on a full conversation while playing. From the perspective of a neurologist, this is actually really hard because the part of your brain that should be engaged in playing a piece of music that complicated should also be engaged in having a conversation.

Jad Abumrad: 04:19 The talking part and the playing part are the same part?

Jessica Benko: 04:21 They're the same part in most of us.

For most people that sort of thing, playing a complex piece of music and having a conversation would interfere with one another?

KerstinBetterma: 04:29 Yes, that's what you usually would think unless you're highly skilled and you play maybe one piece of music at a time that you've done multiple times but even then it would be very difficult to this degree.

Jessica Benko: 04:39 So Kerstin got in touch with Bob and she started asking him some questions.

KerstinBetterma: 04:43 About the way he would perceive music and [crosstalk 00:04:46]

Jessica Benko: 04:46 In the course of chatting with him and talking about he perceives music and all of this, he happen to say to her...

Bob Milne: 04:54 That I could hear an entire symphony in my head and I didn't think that was too big a deal because I always listened to two of them at once.

Jessica Benko: 05:03 He told her,

KerstinBetterma: 05:03 "I only have to focus on the one melody that I want to hear at a given time and then that's the piece I play but I hear them all ongoing."

Jad Abumrad: 05:11 Did he just say he can hear two?

Jessica Benko: 05:13 Two different symphonies.

Jad Abumrad: 05:14 In his head?

Jessica Benko: 05:15 At the same time. 

KerstinBetterma: 05:16 And we thought this was very unusual.

Jad Abumrad: 05:17 Yeah. Are we talking the full symphonies or just the melodies?

Jessica Benko: 05:21 Every instrument.

Jad Abumrad: 05:22 Every instrument, huh.

Jessica Benko: 05:23 And he can focus in and-

Bob Milne: 05:25 Turn one of them off, one of them down and they both are in the same [inaudible 00:05:28]

Jad Abumrad: 05:25 Huh.

Bob Milne: 05:29 So then she pushed at the envelope and asked me if I could hear a three.

KerstinBetterma: 05:35 Three pieces of music.

Bob Milne: 05:37 And I said, "Well, I don't know. I never tried."

Jessica Benko: 05:39 But he was like, "Yeah I think I could do three."

KerstinBetterma: 05:41 When we challenged him a little bit, actually he said, "I can do four if you ask me."

Jad Abumrad: 05:44 What?!

Bob Milne: 05:45 But I wouldn't go any further than that.

Jad Abumrad: 05:46 No. That's total (bleep). Just four symphonies at the same time? That's just nothing but noise.

Jessica Benko: 05:58 Absolute [inaudible 00:05:59]

KerstinBetterma: 06:00 You know the four pieces of music, that's just was "Wow." I said nobody can do this. I was really critical.

Jad Abumrad: 06:07 Yeah because it's not true!

KerstinBetterma: 06:08 We had to think about how to test this.

Jessica Benko: 06:10 Let me tell you about how the experiment worked and then tell me if you think it's true. 

Jad Abumrad: 06:13 All right.

KerstinBetterma: 06:14 We came up with the behavioral test.

Jessica Benko: 06:17 So the first thing Kerstin had to do was find a control. Someone to compare Bob to. So she found a conductor.

KerstinBetterma: 06:23 Peter Perret who was the former conductor for the Winston Salem Symphony.

Jessica Benko: 06:27 Who is himself an accomplished musician. Before the test she sent him and Bob-

KerstinBetterma: 06:31 Four pieces of music. We had Schubert's Symphony, we had Brahms, we had Beethoven.

Jessica Benko: 06:50 And finally one from Mendelssohn. So you have to keep in mind these four symphonies are in different keys and different tempos.

KerstinBetterma: 07:02 Very different in themes and instrumentation and the challenge for them was to learn these four pieces of music.

Jessica Benko: 07:10 Completely memorize them.

Bob Milne: 07:12 Four different tunes and they only gave me a couple of days to listen to them.

KerstinBetterma: 07:16 And then play them in their mind and we would then ask them where in certain piece they would be after an arbitrary time.

Jad Abumrad: 07:22 I'm not really following...what did they do?

Jessica Benko: 07:24 So here's what they did. They put these guys in a scanner and they said to them, "I want you to play the music in your mind."

Jad Abumrad: 07:31 Play the music in your mind.

Jessica Benko: 07:34 Close your eyes and imagine the music.

Jad Abumrad: 07:35 So no music is playing out loud?

Jessica Benko: 07:37 No music playing, just inside their head.

Jad Abumrad: 07:39 And are they imagining it however they want or-

Jessica Benko: 07:39 No, no. They-

Jad Abumrad: 07:40 Or on the CD?

Jessica Benko: 07:42 Exactly what they had heard on the CD.

Jad Abumrad: 07:44 So same as music coming in and out?

Jessica Benko: 07:46 Yep.

Jad Abumrad: 07:47 Same tempo?

Jessica Benko: 07:47 Yep.

Jad Abumrad: 07:48 So if it was Vivace on the CD, Vivace in their head?

Jessica Benko: 07:51 Exactly.

Jad Abumrad: 07:51 And why were they doing this again?

Jessica Benko: 07:52 Well they wanted to see if these guys could track via memory these really complicated pieces of music.

Jad Abumrad: 07:58 I see. 

Jessica Benko: 07:58 So they put the guys in the scanner and they're laying there and on a screen in front of them the word, "Start", flashes and at that moment they start playing the first piece of music back in their head.

In the control room, they're tracking the music themselves to follow the timing.

Jad Abumrad: 08:18 The researchers?

Jessica Benko: 08:19 Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: 08:19 Oh so while Bob and this dude are imagining it, they're actually keeping track of where the real CD is?

Jessica Benko: 08:24 Exactly. They let it go for awhile...and at an arbitrary moment, they say stop and then they say, "Sing to me exactly where you are in the music."

Jad Abumrad: 08:43 Like the note?

Jessica Benko: 08:43 The exact phrase. They go back, they compare the timing.

Jad Abumrad: 08:48 To the CD?

Jessica Benko: 08:49 Right. To find out if these guys can really recreate inside their heads exactly what they heard.

Jad Abumrad: 08:54 And?

KerstinBetterma: 08:55 So our conductor, our control, was able to listen to one piece of music at a time and was really right on target with the right answer on timing was in a second.

Jad Abumrad: 09:05 Wow. So this conductor's imagine symphony was only a second off from the real one?

Jessica Benko: 09:09 Yep. Same with Bob. So Bob's within a note or two.

Jad Abumrad: 09:12 Not bad.

Jessica Benko: 09:13 Now round 2.

KerstinBetterma: 09:14 The multi song task as we called it.

Jessica Benko: 09:16 They told them both to start that first piece of music again and then a little bit later they said start the second piece of music in your head.

Jad Abumrad: 09:30 Simultaneously? 

Jessica Benko: 09:30 Yep.

Jad Abumrad: 09:30 All right, I'm already like...come on. This is crazy. We slipped into fantasy. 

Jessica Benko: 09:46 Well and that's what happened for the conductor. He couldn't do it.

KerstinBetterma: 09:49 He couldn't do two simultaneously.

Jad Abumrad: 09:51 Well of course he couldn't do it! It's impossible.

KerstinBetterma: 09:53 There was no chance. He said, "This is an overwhelming impossible task."

Jessica Benko: 09:56 His brain just shut down. 

Jad Abumrad: 09:57 Well like, he died or something?

Jessica Benko: 09:59 He stopped even being able to track the first piece of music.

Jad Abumrad: 10:02 Ah.

Jessica Benko: 10:02 He just got confused. Now we go to Bob.

Bob Milne: 10:09 They put me into the MRI and they asked me, "Start tune 1 in your head." So I did. Then roughly 10, 15 seconds later I got a message on the screen that said, "Continue listening to 1, start 2." And then 15 seconds later, "Continue listening to tunes 1 and 2, start 3." And then the same thing with tune 4. 

Then on the screen it said stop and then Kerstin came out on a little...I could hear her talking to me from somewhere and she said, "Bob..."

KerstinBetterma: 11:20 Tell us. Where are you?

Bob Milne: 11:22 Where are you in tune 1?

KerstinBetterma: 11:23 Beethoven's Symphony right now. What do you hear?

Bob Milne: 11:26 So I told her and I described what the piece was playing at that point and the same thing with tune 2. 3 and 4. She announced that I was exactly right on to the note in each one of those symphonies.

Jad Abumrad: 11:47 Jess...you're telling me something that's just not-

Jessica Benko: 11:50 Kerstin is a really [crosstalk 00:11:51]

Jad Abumrad: 11:50 It's just my common sense right now is yelling like a three year old.

Jessica Benko: 11:57 It really is mind boggling to think about. It makes my brain hurt.

KerstinBetterma: 12:00 But you know, we proved yeah he can do it. 

Jessica Benko: 12:03 When Kerstin gave you the different pieces of music to listen to, did any of them clash?

Bob Milne: 12:10 No. No they don't clash. They're all just playing different pieces. There's nothing chaotic about it. 

Jad Abumrad: 12:17 All right. So assuming this is true, how does he do this? How does he explain to himself how he does this?

Jessica Benko: 12:26 So I think there's two things going on here. The first has to do with emotion.

Jad Abumrad: 12:30 Emotion?

KerstinBetterma: 12:31 Bob was using different brain areas I think. In his case probably more emotional brain cells.

Jessica Benko: 12:37 Yeah emotion deepens the way that we experience things. Makes stronger memories and Bob has a really strong emotional relationship with music.

Jad Abumrad: 12:45 Well don't we all?

Jessica Benko: 12:46 Yeah but it's a little bit beyond the whole minor keys make me feel sad. He has really specific emotions associated with individual keys on the scale.

Bob Milne: 12:57 When I hear C major it's a very bland key. It's like...I don't know how to describe. It's like eating water soup or something like that. But D major is a bright key that makes me want to dance even though I can't dance and every key, every one of the keys on the piano had a different emotional attachment to me.

Jessica Benko: 13:21 So for Bob, if just the keys are triggering different emotions, imagine what it must be like when you get to actual music.

Jad Abumrad: 13:33 So you think that's something about how he experiences the emotions of the music makes it etch more deeply in his brain or something?

Jessica Benko: 13:39 Yeah I think when he's got these four pieces of music going, he's not thinking hard about tracking each one of them. He's already in them. He feels them inside his body and you can feel more with one feeling at a time. 

Jad Abumrad: 13:52 Huh.

Jessica Benko: 13:54 So that's one idea. The second idea has to do actually more with image and space really. So Bob often closes his eyes when he's talking. It just helps him focus so I asked him if he could try playing back two pieces of music right now and I asked him, "When you hear these two symphonies in your head, what are you seeing?"

Bob Milne: 14:21 I can picture two symphony orchestras sitting side by side.

Jad Abumrad: 14:27 He actually sees the literal orchestras in his head?

Bob Milne: 14:30 Yeah. And I see them as silhouettes. There's no conductor in front of either one. There's a brownish hue out in front of them like it's the floor. It's more the color of a the deep brown of a violin and in back of them and there is a semicircle that's blueish in color. Then when I listen to them, I'm going to listen to Brahms Second Symphony over in the left side and over on the right side I'll turn on the Emperor Concerto Third Movement of Beethoven. So I'm listening to that, now these are in two different keys. Emperor's in E flat, Brahms is in D. 

So now if I want to pay particular attention, oh let's say I'm going to listen to the Emperor here. I'm going to go into the E major. I just sped it up. I can speed the thing up to go to some other part in it. I can jump backwards. Let's see, just a minute, I can hear it in F, I can put it in any key I want to, but I'm going to roar forward in this third movement of the Emperor here and listen to the E major variation on the piano which is just rocking on this beautiful E major part. Pivoting around to E flat note and going up and down from there on the piano.

Jad Abumrad: 15:55 Wow...wow! So his crazy talents may have something to do with this movie making thing that he does in his head.

Jessica Benko: 16:01 Yeah but it's not just a movie it's like a 3D movie. He can use it to find out where a specific instrument is. 

Jad Abumrad: 16:08 How do you mean?

Jessica Benko: 16:09 In his mind's eye, he can fly out over these orchestras and actually look down on the individual instrument he wants to see.

Bob Milne: 16:16 When I'm looking down and I see the piano out in front of him.

Jessica Benko: 16:20 He can zoom in and see them playing their instruments. 

Bob Milne: 16:23 Okay, now I'm up there in the air listening to this thing and over on my left side I can still hear this Brahms going along. Now Brahms I can only see the silhouettes from the front whereas the Emperor over here I can see full color and every person's face in it plus hear the lines that they're playing. 

Jessica Benko: 16:42 And as he's flying out over these orchestras, the instruments actually get louder and softer depending on where he is. Like if he goes behind orchestra number 1.

Bob Milne: 16:51 I can hear the base much louder. Then if I go over to the left side I'm hearing the violins.

Jessica Benko: 16:58 And he says he can float right above the players and actually see what they're doing.

Bob Milne: 17:02 I can see every raincoat and the pleated shirts of their tuxedos and I can see the deep brownish orange ish color of the violas and I can hear the deep sound, beautiful sound of that low viola and I can hear every little razz and scratch across their bows. 

Jad Abumrad: 17:30 God, listening to music for this guy must be like an acid trip! The way that he is describing it?

Jessica Benko: 17:37 I think it is and when he listens to recorded music it's so much diminished from what he feels when he's imagining it.

Jad Abumrad: 17:43 Huh. So he doesn't listen to CD's.

Jessica Benko: 17:44 He cannot stand listening to CD's.

Jad Abumrad: 17:46 That, wow.

Jessica Benko: 17:47 Yeah. He's a real example of the extremes of the human mind.

Jad Abumrad: 17:53 So what does he do with these crazy talents? I mean is he like a billionaire? 

Jessica Benko: 18:00 Nope. First of all ragtime's not exactly the most popular form of music in the United States at this point, but it's what he likes to play and he plays 250 shows a year. A lot of them are at historical societies or churches.

Bob Milne: 18:16 Linda and I, we've got a small motor home. It's an airport bus. One of those little 15 passenger buses. It's got a hot shower and a bathroom and a bed of course.

Jessica Benko: 18:27 So he travels around in his little motor home with his wife when he can and without her when he can't and sleeps in Walmart parking lots. He's working on an opera which is mostly done and he writes it in his head while he's driving and then he sits down at a McDonald's and writes it out on paper and you know that's pretty much what he does with his life.

Jad Abumrad: 19:11 Thanks to reporter Jess Benko for that great story and also to producer Mark Phillips for making it sound so good.

Robert Krulwich: 19:18 But why should we share the information on what we just did? Why not do the outro in a way that Bob Milne will fully and completely appreciate?

Jad Abumrad: 19:25 You mean so we should say it all together in a big-

Robert Krulwich: 19:27 Simultaneously. He'll be able to thank the Jad side and then the Robert.

Jad Abumrad: 19:31 Okay. Ready?

Robert Krulwich: 19:32 Yep.

Bob Milne: 19:35 One, two, three, four. 

Jad Abumrad: 19:36 [crosstalk 00:19:36] Thank you to people who play the piano, thank you to listeners of the piano players who play the piano, thank you of course to tuners of those pianos. 

Robert Krulwich: 19:44 [crosstalk 00:19:44]

Bob Milne: 19:46 The left hand hitting the piano.

Robert Krulwich: 19:47 Thank you Bob.

Jad Abumrad: 19:48 Thank you Robert.

Bob Milne: 19:52 See that?

Ann Anderson: 19:54 This is Ann Anderson, a Radio Lab listener from Regland Michigan. Radio Lab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org. Have a great day! Bye.