The Virtuoso of Multitasking

Head Full of Symphonies

What do you get when you combine a ragtime piano performer, classical symphonies, and a neuroscientist? A feat that pushes the boundaries of the human mind. Radiolab’s “A Head Full of Symphonies” left me breathless with its lush sounds and tight reporting. I have forever been enthralled by feats of fortitude and wit and this story does not disappoint.

With its signature rich sound effects and suspenseful narrative, Radiolab is at its finest. In this blogpost, I want to point out a technique in which Radiolab anticipates the audience’s questions. When the facts are laid out before us, the results are so unbelievable, they cause spontaneous expletives from Jad. Those expletives give the audience a feeling of “Yeah! I feel that way too!”

We are introduced first to Bob Milne who quickly turns from an unassuming man from Michigan to one of best ragtime players in the world.


He is deemed a national treasure by the Library of Congress not for what his fingers can do, but for what his mind contains. He has an intimate and emotional relationship to music, and slowly, listeners are able to glimpse how his brain processes music.

At one point in the piece when the researcher attempts to explain Bob’s unique talents, Jad asks, “Did he just say he can hear TWO symphonies in his head at one time?” an exclamation that echoes the audience’s potential incredulity to which Jessica Benko, the reporter, affirms to drive the point home. Jad also acts as an ambassador on the audience’s behalf to clarify any possible points of confusion. For example, instead of just accepting Bob’s talents, Jad asks, “Can he hear the entire symphony or just the melodies?” and “all in his head?” infusing the exchange with just the right amount of skepticism and gut reactions (“Huh!” and “I can’t believe this!”) that ultimately make the story not only compelling but relatable.

These short bursts of questions and requests for clarification force the neuroscientist and the reporter to slow down and repeat the most important details of the experiment. By anticipating what the audience would ask, listeners are increasingly invested while simultaneously becoming more familiar with the experiment’s finer points. The spurts of dialogue that interweave the reporter’s explanation also add a human touch to an otherwise dry and analytical scene.

The next time you’re producing a story and need to break down a technical or complex concept, try anticipating your audience’s questions, and interweaving dialogue that will slow the action down. These strategies will help clarify the technical details for your listeners, and will increase their investment in your story’s outcome.

Podcast: A Head Full of Symphonies

Produced by: Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, Jessica Benko, and Mark Phillips at WYNC’s Radiolab 2013

Duration: 18 minutes

Article written by: Tina Tran on 2/24/2014