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.