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Not With The Band: A Pill For The Perfect Pitch? No, Thanks!

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According to Wikipedia, perfect pitch is ‘a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone’. Great singers and musicians obviously have something close to perfect pitch, and history says that Mozart had it since the age of 7 as he was able to name a musical note he had just heard.

Several authors have proposed that the occurrence of the perfect pitch is as rare 1 in 10,000 people, but it is still predominant among certain populations as a study demonstrated that 32% of Asian American music students had perfect pitch compared to 7% of non Asian American students. According to a 1999 study done by psychologist Diana Deutsch from the University of San Diego CA, this ability is quite common among native speakers of tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese, even when people had no musical training. While previous theories had proposed that this ability is an inherited trait and others had claimed it can only be attained with early musical training, these findings show it could be acquired due to language.

As usual, I bet this trait is both genetic and environmental as many other human abilities, but how much would you want to have this perfect pitch? Would you like a pill for that? Because it seems there’s one! In this article published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, a group of researchers has found that people who took valproate, a drug used in the treatment of epilepsy, anorexia, migraine, panic attack and bipolar disorder, learned to identify pitch significantly better than those taking placebo. Researchers actually followed 23 young male adults with little or no previous musical training, and coached them after giving them either valproate or a placebo. After only 2 weeks, people were asked to identify pitch tones and the valproate group identified them much better than the placebo group. Researchers even think the drug could be used for teaching other skills as one of them explained to NPR: ‘There are a number of examples of critical-period type development, language being one of the most obvious ones. So the idea here was, could we come up with a way that would reopen plasticity, [and] paired with the appropriate training, allow adult brains to become young again?’

That’s very weird to say the least, and since we still understand so little about the brain, I can’t be totally satisfied with the explanation proposed by the researchers: ‘result was not due to a general change in cognitive function, but rather a specific effect on a sensory task associated with a critical-period’. More studies are needed to exactly identify what is different in the brain of someone with the perfect pitch and what this drug is exactly doing in term of brain neuroplasticity, but this opens lots of possibilities. Some people, for example, can’t even sing at all, if they try, they are totally out of tune, would this pill help them somehow?

But I have a big problem with this search for perfection. Mariah Carey is supposed to have that perfect pitch and I can’t stand her singing or her music… Do you want another example? Celine Dion comes to mind, and there are many others. I don’t care for perfect singing, true singing isn’t about hitting that perfect note, there is the personality, the emotion and all the subtle elements you can’t put in a pill. Plus you can sing perfectly well on a shitty song… Plus, isn’t it a bit extreme to suggest a pill treating bipolar disorder to reach the perfect note? Doesn’t the drug have any side effects? All drugs have! Would musicians accept to take such a drug just to be able to compose the perfect song, to reach the perfect note? Of course if you are a musician fighting panic attack or anxiety disorder – and I bet a lot are – it may be the next thing coming from the pharmaceutical industry, just perfect for you, but I’ll pass on that one.

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