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A Head Full of Symphonies

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Bob Milne is one of the best ragtime piano players in the world, and a preternaturally talented musician -- he can play technically challenging pieces of music on demand while carrying on a conversation and cracking jokes. But according to Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Betterman, our brains just aren't wired to do that. So she decided to investigate Bob's brain, and when she did, she discovered that Bob has an even more amazing ability... one that we can hardly believe, and science can't explain. Reporter Jessica Benko helps us get inside Bob's remarkably musical mind.

 UPDATE: Bob's opera is now done! You can check it out here. 

And check out the four symphonic pieces we use to illustrate Bob's musical abilities:

Schubert: Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished"

Brahms: Symphony No 2, First Movement

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5

Mendelssohn: Song Without Words, Op. 19 No. 1

Comments [13]

Joe from MN

How annoying for the male commentator to constantly makes comments about how this was impossible.

Nov. 05 2016 08:07 PM
Bill from Rochester

I thought the experiment using fMRI might have been designed to see if there was identifiable neural activation associated with each of the 4 music threads Bob was asked to generate. People with poor callosal connections seem able to carry on two streams at a time, since the two hemispheres are relatively independent. Also, there is some evidence that brain activation involved with producing two different languages are dependent on slightly different brain areas. Was there any evidence of spatially parallel processing in the fMRI signal?

Nov. 03 2016 09:21 PM
Randomshire from somewhere


And I thought I was cool because I could listen to college professors give lectures while taking notes and reading the text book at the same time, and acing all the tests.

This guy is amazing!

Jan. 22 2015 01:54 PM
lisbeth jardine from Port Angeles, WA

Meant to suggest to those looking for further reading material books by frequent RadioLab consultant, Oliver Sacks--particularly:

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007) – Revised & Expanded (2008)
Paperback, Vintage Books, ISBN 1400033535
Hardcover, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 1400040817

In his newest book — now revised and expanded for the paperback edition — Dr. Sacks investigates the power of music to move us, to heal and to haunt us.

by Oliver Sacks

(November 6, 2012)
also available in audio and ebook editions


From Library Journal: “Everyone’s favorite neurologist is back to explain types of hallucinations, what they tell us about the brain’s workings, and how they have influenced art and culture. Who knew medicine could be so much fun?”

Also, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"--he was a musician, wasn't he?

Oct. 26 2014 07:29 PM
lisbeth jardine from Port Angeles, WA

I can only go by my own experience--but I am guessing that the ability to hear many symphonies in one's head at same time while experiencing colors and imagery is not all that unusual--under-reported, more likely.

My own experience goes back to when I was around ten years old or so--I'd have a dickens of a time falling asleep because there were two symphonies--full romantic orchestral type--blasting away inside my head accompanied by a Cinerama surround 3D movie.

Unfortunately, adults, teachers (and my mother was one--adult and teacher) did all they could to convince me I had not talent and was too stupid. Lately, I've heard recordings, effusively praised, on radio that sound ever so much like stuff I used to improvise at home (alone) and on church organ (again, when no one else was around. I was able to teach my self first three of Bach suites for unaccompanied 'cello and eventually have some lessons from Margaret Rowell [mother of Galen, Natl. Geo. photographer], SF Symphony, but we lived rather far away from San Francisco at the time--long before BART.

One obvious candidate for having taken this ability or phenomenon to a higher level is Charles Ives.

Oct. 26 2014 07:23 PM
kodaly specialist from maryland

I am glad I'm not the only one that noticed the inaccuracies the musical form of the pieces mentioned in this very interesting piece. Audiation plus is what I was thinking as I listened. It is amazing. I have not heard of synesthesia before, but will be doing some research about it.

Oct. 26 2014 01:59 PM
Nancy from Maryland

Is it please possible to get a written copy of this section of the show? My elderly, retired music professor father would absolutely LOVE to read about this! Thank you.

Oct. 25 2014 05:11 PM
lmo clayfield from los angeles

A good playlist but absolute horrible torture. I just got it and i'm 57.

Jul. 11 2014 07:33 PM
Bob Milne

The term "symphony" is used for expediency in the broadcast. Also, the tunes played in the broadcast were not the same as in the actual test. The Radiolab guys all did a good job. It was a real treat to work with them.

Jul. 02 2013 06:21 AM
Karen G

I hope you do a show investigating the phenomenon of synesthesia. Bob Milne appears to have this ability. Interesting show!

Jul. 02 2013 02:47 AM
Veronica from Colorado

Fabulous program this week. Fascinating.

Jun. 29 2013 05:00 PM
Fidelio from Houston

Great piece on Bob Milne. However, I was bothered by everyone's wayward use of the term "symphony." The Beethoven you played was not a symphony, but a piano concerto (the "Emperor" concerto). The Mendelssohn wasn't even orchestral! I understand that the genre of the musical work doesn't ultimately matter in order to demonstrate Milne's extraordinary cognitive multitasking, but hearing this kind of simple blunder on public radio is depressing. What's next, someone who can memorize Shakespeare's "novel" Romeo and Juliet?

Jun. 29 2013 04:40 PM
lab rat

This sounds very much like synesthesia to me.

Jun. 27 2013 08:56 PM

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