Can a Drug Give You Perfect Pitch? (No)

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Image credit: ABC Informática/Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever known someone with perfect pitch? It’s the ability to immediately recognize whatever note they hear, along with the ability to tell if a note is even one hertz out of tune. It isn’t really something that you can teach yourself, either - you have perfect pitch, or you don’t.

One of my band teachers in high school had perfect pitch, and frankly, it was incredibly irritating. To start class, we’d spend 15-20 minutes meticulously tuning our instruments with electronic tuners. We’d start playing a piece, but a few bars in, the teacher would get a sour look on his face, and he’d tell us to stop.  Then, he’d make all of us in the woodwinds retune our instruments, and we’d start again, play a few more bars, get the sour face, and we’d repeat the whole process.

It’s amazing that we ever finished a song. The worst part was, nobody else in the band had perfect pitch, so we could never hear for ourselves when we were off. Super frustrating! It would’ve been terrific if there were some magic pill that everyone in the band could’ve taken to acquire perfect pitch, but alas, no such drug exists...or does it?

Valproate (aka Depakote) is a drug that is widely prescribed for mood and seizure disorders. Researchers have known for a few years that adult mice that are given valproate are able to learn things that adults typically are unable to learn, like how to tell the difference between certain sounds.

How is this possible? The researchers concluded that valproate essentially re-opens the brains of these mice to changes that usually only occur during a very small window early in their lives, known as a critical period. (The critical period is the same phenomena that causes ducklings to imprint on and follow around the first thing they see when they’re born - check out this adorable video for an example.)

Helping mice learn is all well and good, but what about us humans? A recent study asked the same question, and found some interesting results.

Participants (all males without any music training) in the study were given valproate or a placebo for one week, followed by another week of training, during which they were taught to recognize the sounds of specific musical notes. It’s important to note, that this was a double-blinded randomized control study, the gold-standard of research: neither the participants nor the researchers had any idea which group was which until after the study was completed. After training, all the participants were tested on how well they had learned to recognize a note’s pitch. Sure enough, the group who had been given valproate performed significantly better than the placebo group, and the study’s authors concluded that valproate had similar effects on learning in people as it had in mice.

Based on the results of this study, should all of us wannabe musicians start bugging our doctors for a prescription? I most certainly will not, for a bunch of reasons. First and foremost, none of the participants came close to having “perfect” pitch - on average, they scored less than 50% on the test, which is better than chance, but by no means perfect.

Second, this study employed another wrinkle, known as a crossover design - after going through one phase of treatment, participants switched groups (so the people who got placebo the first time got valproate the second time, and vice versa), and the whole procedure was repeated. In the second phase of the study, there was no difference between the groups, suggesting that there was some kind of order effect of treatment.

Third, it turns out that the majority of the participants in this study (17 of 18) correctly guessed which group they were in, which defeats the purpose of a double-blind study design. And finally, valproate is not a drug that sounds like it should be taken for anything short of a serious health condition. Check out this list of side effects!

I want to make one last point as well. These kinds of studies tend to attract a lot of attention from the media. Google “perfect pitch pill” and you’ll see that any science blog worth its salt has covered this study, and most of them used pretty sensational headlines in doing so. Are the study’s results exciting? Sure. They even offer up the possibility that we could someday use pharmaceuticals to help us learn new languages or skills. But, we’re not there yet, and it’s important to recognize that this study (like all studies) has limitations and flaws.

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