"Your Brain on Music" talk and musical demonstration

Bob Milne

Renowned ragtime pianist Bob Milne and Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann will discuss Milne’s “four-track mind” at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, in Convocation Hall.

Since childhood, Milne has had the prodigy-like ability to hear any musical score and replicate it on the keys. Once Milne hears a song, he remembers every note, whether it's a ragtime song or a Beethoven symphony. “I’ve never practiced piano a day in my life,” he says. “I always thought everyone could just play like this.”

A neurologist saw Milne perform several years ago, playing in three different time signatures at once—3/4, 4/4, and 5/4 times, playing one on his left hand, another with the thumb of his right hand, and the last with the rest of his right hand. The neurologist declared the feat “impossible,” and so a medical study of Milne’s exceptional abilities began.

Kerstin Bettermann, physician and associate professor of neurology at Penn State University’s medical school, has studied Milne and will join him in Sewanee. She has conducted MRIs showing that Milne can hear four distinct orchestral symphonies in his mind at once. Bettermann believes Milne experiences a type of emotional synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to involuntary experiences in another pathway. Her primary research centers on stroke victims, and the ways people can learn to tap into other areas of their brains. Studying Milne’s gift may help teach stroke victims how to relearn functions they've lost.

In addition to his unique ability to simultaneously use both sides of his brain, Bob Milne is considered to be the best ragtime/boogie-woogie pianist in the world. He was filmed and documented for future generations in 2004 during three days of interviews at the Library of Congress, and was declared a “national treasure” at the conclusion.

Milne will be at Sewanee for a few days. In addition to the Friday afternoon talk, he will also give a performance at 7 p.m. Saturday in Guerry Auditorium, join members of the campus community for an “Evening at Chen” on Monday, visit classes, and meet with students and faculty in the Neuroscience, Psychology, and Music Departments.

Milne's visit is sponsored jointly by the University Lectures Committee, the Music, Psychology, and Neuroscience Departments, and the Office of the Vice-Chancellor.

Check Milne out on Radiolab:


Convocation Hall