The Radiolab Blog has a fascinating podcast about American Bob Milne. Bob is predominantly known for his piano concerts of Ragtime and Bogie-Woogie music – and was given the moniker of ‘National Treasure’ by the United States Library of Congress. It was at one of these concerts that drew the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. At his concerts, Bob often carries on conversations, telling stories and jokes, while simultaneously modulating key signatures over the polyrhythmic Ragtime music. In their broadcast, Radiolab discusses with Dr. Bettermann why this is so surprising.
Language use and musical competency often use the same neural resources: the prototypical language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and the working memory circuit that keeps information available and rapidly accessible for a short-period of time. Our ability to use language and engage with music should, on most models of the brain, be competing for these neural resources and interfere with one another. Not so with Bob – he appears to be able to tackle both tasks with ease. Further, while most people can approach this kind of competency in multi-tasking, it usually involves many learning trials, a process of sedimenting the learning into what psychologists call procedural memory, which may have its roots in a different brain region, the cerebellum. But Bob can hear a tune just once, and play it back with commentary.
But that’s not all Bob can do.
In their interview, Dr. Bettermann heard Bob claim something extraordinary. He claims not only to be able to hear a symphony in his head, but that he normally does this with two symphonies simultaneously. Where most individuals would only hear a cacophonous mess – Bob claimed he could dial the relative volume of either symphony up or down, and could zoom in or out of individual instrumentations. To return to the considerations above, Bob further states on the Radiolab website that he does this while driving – another procedural memory task and presumable source of interference. But when Dr. Bettermann challenged him, Bob reluctantly claimed that he could probably do the same (not while driving, mind you) with four simultaneous symphonies.
The claim is something like this: Bob states that he can hold and listen to four symphonies with different keys, instrumentation, tempo and style in his working memory at the same time. And what is stunning is that when they put Bob into an fMRI machine, they verified his claim. Bob could be stopped at any time during his imaginative trip through the four simultaneous symphonies, and hum out the exact phrase that the original recording would be on. Remarkable.
Unfortunately, we do not have Dr. Bettermann’s results to discuss, only an anecdotal remark by Bob that he appears to use both hemispheres of his brain when executing musical tasks (and thus obviating concerns about competing neural resources), and further, that Dr. Bettermann’s impetus for studying Bob is to learn about possible ways of treating patients with localized hemispheric damage – such a stroke patients.
But what we can speak about is the mechanism responsible for Bob’s remarkable ability. Bob has relatively intense emotional reactions to things that most casual listeners take for granted – particular pitches, chords, etc. And it is this emotional capacity that allows him to make fine-grained discriminations in pieces, and presumably underwrites his ability to capture such discriminations in memory. As Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher who writes on expertise has noted, virtuosos must not only commit themselves to a standard of excellence, but be sensitive to deviations from excellence (deviations from correctness, say). Bob presumably not only does this with his own performances, but seems to think that composers of songs could be wrong, in a matter of speaking – he often changes the keys of well known pieces to suit his ear! Bob is not just holding himself up to standards of correctness, but his own standards of what sounds right to him. And if that is the standard, it is no wonder he has such fine-grained and specific emotional reactions to music.