How a ragtime pianist intrigued leading neuroscientists

A look inside the multi-tasking and neurologically rare brain of ragtime piano scholar Bob Milne.

The U.S. Library of Congress considers Bob Milne a national treasure because of his contributions to the preservation of ragtime. It had been 66 years since the Library had collected stories on the genre in 1938 with the great Ferdinand Lemothe—better known as Jelly Roll Morton—when Milne was invited to Coolidge Auditorium in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building: In the same place where revered folklorist Alan Lomax interviewed Jelly Roll, Milne recently demonstrated this distinctly American-made musical genre and spoke about its history. Behind Bob’s mastery of ragtime is another story: that of a brain so fluent at musical multitasking that it captured the attention of leading neuroscientists.

Early Evolution

Invented in the late 1800s in the Deep South, ragtime music was defined by melodies that landed in between the beats. According to Milne, the classic rags were played in 2/4 time with a four-bar introduction and then continued on with a pair of 16-bar themes. The melody was in steady syncopation, often following the conventions of a march. Classical musicians at the time thought this was poor playing and mocked Southern musicians, saying they were playing in “ragged time,” which got shortened to ragtime. Originally played on string instruments such as banjo and guitar, ragtime later became popular as published piano music.

“In 1871, a powerful boogie-woogie was being played in barrelhouses and dives in Texas, though it wasn’t called boogie-woogie until the late 1920s,” Milne says. Barrelhouses were often out in the woods: simple shacks a slab of wood across two barrels for a bar and, of course, a piano. “There were two pianists on shift: one from midnight to noon, and one from noon to midnight. Barrelhouses attracted criminals who couldn’t show their faces in town,” says Milne. These were dangerous men and violence could erupt in an instant, so the owners set strict rules. “One of the rules,” Milne says, “was not to shoot the piano player.”

In part because ragtime was often played in unseemly places, ministers referred to it as the “music of the devil.” In some African and East Indian religions, the devil was known as the bogeyman, so the name “ragtime” became interchangeable with “boogie” or “boogie-woogie.”

“Scott Joplin came out of Texas, so he heard that music when he was younger. He also took classical lessons as a boy, though most of the players grew up without that. Everyone heard folk music, but very few heard classical music. There are some beautiful things in ragged time, very melodic,” says Milne. Some of the early genre-defining tunes include “Mississippi Rag” from 1896 by William Krell and “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” from 1897 by Kerry Mills. The genre predated recorded music, but it spread and gained popularity thanks to sheet music and piano rolls.

Once Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was published in 1899, ragtime became an international sensation. It was far more rhythmically complex than the popular music of the time, and the octave-leaping rag required particular left-hand coordination. Joplin drew inspiration for the tune while working at the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri. He received a royalty of one cent on each sale of sheet music for the 25-cent rag. Though this didn’t make him rich, it earned him the title of the King of Ragtime.


Gigging Ragtime

The pacing of ragtime changed dramatically once the saloon speed demons got hold of it. The early folk-inspired ragtime style was gentler and often had great melodies, but rowdy audiences demanded fast and furious entertainment. “They’d have speed-playing contests,” Milne explains. “It wasn’t about who played the most beautifully; it was about who played the fastest. Everything in the world revolved around impressing the audience,” says Milne, who first heard the famous Joplin rag while he was a house saloon player at the Rathskeller in Detroit in the 1960s. “Ragtime is music that people enjoy and can relate to,” Bob says. “There are no hidden messages or philosophical angles; it’s simply got melodies you can take home and rhythms that will move your feet.”

“I thought whoever wrote ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ must have had an out-of-tune piano,” says Milne. He developed his own syncopation style to cope with the out-of-tune piano at the Rathskeller, and it sounded similar to the ragtime style. “The piano at the Rathskeller would go out of tune because they only got it tuned every two months and we were playing it hard for six hours every night to a crowded room full of people who were singing along. There was no amplification, so we’d take off the top and bottom front boards from the piano to let the sound come out. As the piano would go out of tune, it started sounding muddy. I realized if I didn’t push down the right and left hand at the same time, it sounded clearer. So I was syncopating things automatically. I wouldn’t play seven notes, for example—I’d play six and then five and then four,” Milne laughs, “as I waited for the two-month tune up.” The syncopation of Joplin’s famous rag was very unique for the time period, and the structure defined the ragtime genre going forward.

Milne played in saloons and lounges for 25 years, until the early ’80s, when piano bars and supper clubs began to die out. Then he hit the road, crisscrossing the United States as a traveling musician and playing more than 200 ragtime shows per year. He fondly remembers spending a lot of time jamming with great players after hours. “We all learned from each other, and the motto was, ‘Learn from everyone, copy no one,’ Milne recalls.

During his lengthy career, Milne discovered audiences don’t want to hear the same version of a popular ragtime tune every time. “At every show, they want me to play the ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’ If you play it exactly the same way every time, you sound like a robot and the audience will feel that. I made a mistake one time at the Rathskeller when I was playing ‘Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home.’ Everyone was singing; I played the heck out of it! People cheered. I decided to do the same tune the same way the next night, and there was very little reaction. The audience could tell I was playing an arrangement; it wasn’t spontaneous. I never wanted to sound like a robot, so I’d always play it differently,” Milne says.

“Audiences may recognize the tune, but they don’t know if it’s being played as it was originally written. They do know whether you’re playing it well or badly, and the audience is right every time. I change what I play every time and I never change it the same way,” Milne continues. “When Mozart played, he wasn’t playing at all what he wrote down. Scott Joplin played fairly close to what he wrote down. Chopin was always in the publisher’s office trying to change notes. Vladimir Horowitz was once playing Chopin and in the middle he dovetailed into improvisation and came back to Chopin, and when asked why he did that he answered, ‘To make it better.’ So I’m always improvising and trying to play it better than the last time.”

Bob’s Brain

While traveling and touring, Milne discovered audiences enjoyed his entertaining stories as well, so he started telling tales as he played the highly syncopated treble lead over the rhythmically steady ragtime bass. At a gig in California, a neurologist in the audience approached him, saying that the level of coordination and use of both sides of his brain at once (as evidenced by his onstage multitasking) shouldn’t be possible. He asked if He could do MRI scans of Milne and introduced him to Kerstin Bettermann, an associate professor of neurology at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine and director of the college’s Vascular Neurology Fellowship Program. During her intensive study, Bettermann discovered that Milne could hear four compositions in his mind at once. They hypothesized that some phenomenon related to synesthesia—experiencing music in shapes and colors—was facilitating Milne’s ability not only to hear multiple songs simultaneously, but also to memorize whole arrangements and an awe-inspiring library of songs.

Bettermann tested Milne to see if hearing all four songs concurrently would negatively affect his memory of any given one. Bettermann gave Milne an hour to familiarize himself with a Schubert symphony and pieces by Bach, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn; he then went into the MRI machine. He was signaled at staggered times to start the pieces in his mind, and after three minutes he was asked to stop the songs and report the melody and note of each piece. He did so with total accuracy by floating over the four imagined orchestras in his mind in a completely visceral experience. “I was totally struck by how accurate he is. He really can do it,” says Bettermann. The MRI showed that Milne’s brain uses different networks than normal and that he accesses information in a simpler way than expected. In addition to the frontal lobes, the center of Milne’s brain was also activated, which suggested that he receives information more playfully and automatically. Bettermann is excited to find out if tonal therapy can be used to shift networks and aid in the recovery of stroke and brain injury survivors.

Bettermann remains “fascinated” with Milne’s unique abilities and will continue her work with him at Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Meanwhile, in the spirit of fellow traveling musician Scott Joplin, Milne will continue crossing the states and keeping the ragtime tradition alive. Look up Bob’s touring schedule at