Want perfect pitch? Maybe you can take a pill

If you’re like I am, you may have thought half-heartedly about making a New Year’s resolution or two.  But one New Year’s resolution that wouldn’t occur to most musicians is to resolve Blue Xmas Backgroundto acquire perfect (absolute) pitch – if we don’t already have it.  There are no documented cases of an adult ever being able to acquire perfect pitch – in spite of some advertising claims to the contrary.   But what if, as an adult, you could pop a pill and voila!  You could develop absolute pitch!  Impossible?  Maybe not. 

You may recall from an earlier post  that there is a critical period in early childhood when AP is most likely acquired.  Critical period refers to a window of time when the brain is at its most plastic and learning experiences have lasting effects on brain function and behavior. That’s when we acquire absolute pitch and that’s when we most easily learn languages.  That critical period is before the age of 7 – at least it has been until now.

But in a study published in December and conducted at the University of British Columbia, a drug called valproic acid (Valproate, VPA) recreated this critical period of brain development in a group of adults, allowing them to develop perfect pitch.

Valproate is an anticonvulsant and mood-stabilizing drug that is usually used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder and is also used to treat migraines.  VPA had earlier been found to reopen critical period plasticity in adult mice, and apparently the researchers decided that a good test of reopening critical period plasticity in adult humans would be to try to train subjects to have absolute pitch (yet another example of some aspect of music being used as the basis for research into brain function).

Twenty-four adult males took part in the study.  All were right-handed, English speaking and monolingual.  Prospective subjects were eliminated if they were taking any medication with psychoactive effects or were recreational drug users, if they were functionally bilingual or studying a second language, or if they already had perfect pitch.  No one was included who had any significant musical training and of those who had studied music briefly, none had done so before the age of 7.

The participants were given Valproate or a placebo for several days, and after full dosage was reached, the actual training began.  Through video training, they were taught to associate pitches, not with letter names, but with proper names.  (I assume letter names were not used to avoid any possible carry-over in those participants who had studied music briefly.)  There were two training periods – each one using one of the two whole tone scales found in Western music (A#/Bb, C, D, E, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, for the other A, B, C#/Db, D#/Eb, F, G) and each with a different set of proper names (for the first – Sarah, David, Francine, Jimmy, Karen, Leo; and for the second, Eric, Rachel, Tyler, Irene, Owen, and Peggy – check out where the first letter of each of these names occurs on the QWERTY keyboard).  Participants were divided into two groups of 12, and in each of the training periods, one group was given VPA, and the other, the placebo.

The participants were tested after each training period and results showed that they performed significantly better on a test of absolute pitch after using VPA.   Absolute pitch depends on frequent reinforcement of the pitch, so unless the participants in the study continued the training, their newly acquired AP probably didn’t (or won’t) last very long.  But at least for a period of time, they had acquired perfect pitch.

So why is this important?  AP isn’t crucial to one’s life as a musician, and I can’t imagine that very many professional musicians would rush out to start taking a drug to develop AP.  But the authors suggest that, if future studies confirm these results, then a drug that can return critical period plasticity to an adult brain may be extremely useful in certain circumstances, such as needing to learn a foreign language in a short amount of time.

However, the authors of the study also caution that the critical period of plasticity in humans probably developed for a reason and we may not want to tinker with that unnecessarily.  Although plasticity of the brain occurs throughout life, the critical period plasticity of early childhood plays an important role in the development of who we are as individuals.   One author wonders whether or not we would want to run the risk of erasing any of that if we were to reopen another highly plastic period of development as adults.  Good question.

2 responses to “Want perfect pitch? Maybe you can take a pill”

  1. loren.amacher@facebook.com Avatar

    This is most interesting! However, it is the sort of result that needs replication before it is taken very seriously. It’s like my memorizing a low C at times, keeping it reinforced for a few days by repetition, but losing it after even one day of non-repetition. Over a span of a few weeks, I can USUALLY come within a half tone of a specified note. But, to me, that’s not AP.

    1. Lois Avatar

      Hi Loren, Absolutely the study needs to be confirmed, and the authors say that themselves. The interesting fact here is that the subjects who were taking VPA scored significantly higher on a test of AP than did the subjects who had a placebo – and the ones with placebo did no better than random. So the training – without VPA – did no good at all, and with VPA, had a definite effect on pitch perception. But there’s no way to know, at this point, how long training with VPA in an adult would need to continue in order for absolute pitch to be fairly consistent. So I’m sure there will be more studies in the future.