Can A Pill Improve Your Musical Ability?


Could a a pill one day improve your musical abilities?

Takao Hensch, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, is studying a drug that restore your brain’s early-life learning abilities. In an interview with NPR, Hensch discusses how how a pill might be to give adults perfect pitch:

Hensch is studying a drug which might allow adults to learn perfect pitch by re-creating this critical period in brain development. Hensch says the drug, valprioc acid, allows the brain to absorb new information as easily as it did before age 7.

“It’s a mood-stabilizing drug, but we found that it also restores the plasticity of the brain to a juvenile state,”notes Hensch.

Hensch gave the drug to a group of healthy, young men who had no musical training as children. They were asked to perform tasks online to train their ears, and at the end of a two-week period, tested on their ability to discriminate tone, to see if the training had more effect than it normally would at their age.

In other words, he gave people a pill and then taught them to have perfect pitch. The findings are significant: “It’s quite remarkable since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch,” he says.

Want Perfect Pitch? You Might Be Able To Pop A Pill For That

Check it out and let us know what you think of this research!

Image: nadworks

30 thoughts on “Can A Pill Improve Your Musical Ability?

  1. Learning perfect pitch would certainly be useful, but it sort of buries the real headline: “Drug increases ability to learn to childhood levels!”

    If I had access to this drug (and was fairly certain it wouldn’t have horrific side-effects) I wouldn’t waste time with perfect pitch. I’d pick two or three instruments to practice. I’d finally learn a few software titles I’ve been procrastinating.

  2. This is fascinating research. I could see this as being a great equalizer for people who never had musical training in early life. And could just give people who were impoverished in early life and didn’t have good educational opportunities new ability to learn and do other things?


    1. I wonder if there’s a pill for misplaced anger (which results in poor grammar and spelling) and over-use of caps, because…….

    2. If you suck at Internet comments so bad that you haven’t figured out upper/lower case yet, you should not even be on it in the first place!

  4. I wonder if the mood is the reason, cause they say it is a mood-stabilizing drug. If you’re free of preconcepts and frustration of having to learn you might get a more “elastic” mind.
    I’d be curious of similar studies using meditation.

    1. In the podcast, Hensch says that nothing has previously been shown to let people ‘learn’ perfect pitch, and it’s even been thought to be something you’re either born with or not.

  5. This is bollocks. Pill and musicians is common in the world as i know it. But to give someone a pill to learn how to critical listen I bet there are some side effects. Like turning you into a Justin Bieber or something… xD

  6. Restoring juvenile mental plasticity for a bit will not make up for years of non-practice, nor can that imbue sudden talent. Perfect pitch doesn’t stand alone. Its not an absolute necessity, either, just an added plus. If they can devise a mere pill that can also hand someone a surrogate of the same years of hard work, defining setbacks and weird wins in my musical background, I’d be keen to see it. Or perhaps NOT! Its like cloning: you can recreate the meat, but not the total experience of the original. That’s the centerpiece of what makes each musician unique.

    1. Exactly. As with a lot of pop-science journalism the headline detracts from what is actuallyvery interesting study.

      Perfect pitch is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for musical ability. It can be a benefit, but also a curse. On the benefit side (with additional training) it makes getting what’s in your head onto the manuscript / computer much, much easier. But, it won’t make what’s in your head any good. On the curse side, tiny variations in reference pitch (a=440 in the uk and us, but a=442 and sometimes 445 in Central and Eastern Europe) can be terribly distracting, even maddening.

      1. “Man given mood-stabilizing drug… develops perfect pitch… goes insane and attacks numerous people after realizing all his favorite songs now sound like garbage.”

        There will be consequences to gaining perfect pitch in 14 days at age 30

  7. Mood-stabilizing? No good. Musicians feed off of their angst and emotions to create good art. I’d rather feel everything in their extremes than nothing at all.

    1. Perhaps you could go on The Pill as well, just start stop it at random times to mess with your hormones, you’ll be premenstrual in no time 😉

  8. “The foremost and most severe concern for anyone taking valproic acid is its potential for sudden and severe, possibly fatal, fulminating impairments in liver and impairments of hematopoietic or pancreatic function, especially in those just starting the medication. This particular warning is the first one listed on any drug adverse effect listing when one receives the drug at the pharmacy”. In other words, this is a substance you don’t want to f*ck around with!

    1. I am reminded of articles on people that suffered some kind of head trauma and suddenly became excellent painters or musicians. However while the doctors were not entirely sure how it was possible they suggested the trauma rewired their neurological system to be able to perform such tasks with no training or inclination towards them before the accident. As many have said perfect pitch doesn’t stand alone, so if you’re looking to be the next Paganini or Rembrandt with zero effort then … uhmm … apply blunt force trauma to a specific part of your head which rewires your neurological system? But until the sci-fi future when small nanobots will be able to do that there is no substitute for practice practice and then practice some more.

  9. Question: If this drug makes you as impressionable as a little child does this mean you will be traumatized by violence like a child? It would really suck to get loaded on this drug and then witness a car accident or terrorist attack. Or imagine the potential for ideological indoctrination and brainwashing! You don’t have to be a crafty science fiction author to imagine some “horror stories” to go with this…

    Now on the skeptical side…isn’t it bizarre to teach and test something as relatively useless as hearing absolute pitch? Other than helping jazz students do their transcription homework this isn’t going to be a huge benefit to most people, even most musicians. Rather than teaching the students an obscure parlor trick why not teach them something more practical like a new language or motor skill?

    Human Growth Hormone already turned sports into a sick joke of a chemistry contest, why not ruin “sports music” (i.e. Chopin and Monk competitions) with drugs too?

    You can’t teach taste.

    1. You can’t teach taste the same way you’d plug in a module, but it can be cultivated through varied musical exposure. “Taste” is misused. Yeah, it’d be in bad taste to show “Pink Flamingos” to a Baptist ladies’ auxiliary. Otherwise, it partially means that you’ve reached a point where you can sift through things and pick out their merits. It means that you can have a broader appreciation outside your inner circle of favorite musics. It also means that you can critique in a sensible pluses/minuses manner, rather than just slamming something that doesn’t grab you the first time. Half of my pleasure in music is digging through it for motive and ‘painting’ style. I like a little complexity and challenge in the mix. No two of us come to that point on exactly the same path, so I’d be curious to see what happens when you chemically speed up and force-feed that territory.

  10. I am 34 and taking German (Deutsch) classes in Berlin, forget the music, I want these pills for learning a new language at my age. I worry that if I applied it to music I would just end up making Jazz Fusion like my music major buddies. Total garbage IMO, I don’t care if it has a 13/16 time signature or a microtonal progression, nobody normal likes to listen to it outside of old porno movies.

    1. I completely agree, I’d much rather learn a language than have perfect pitch!
      If it had to be a musical skill I guess I’d learn piano properly, scales, chords, finger dexterity etc..

    2. I don’t like hearing music behind my porno. I prefer a simple close-mic technique. Maybe a little added delay/reverb for the last scene. If it involves midgets, pitch-shift the voices up a few notches. Make the show sparkle with those thoughtful touches.

  11. Open your mind and naturally absorb the learning through the journey in discovering and exploring music – a drug will potentially move your psyche in way but as a spiritual expression through art is a much more powerful PILL to take. Brain plascitity is something we can all build – just have to want to do what it takes for your passion.

  12. Looks like they found a a steroid for music and brains instead of the body to me… Next thing you know, they will be checking musicians and DJs for steriods! Everything has to be about the drugs now, cause now, everything it seems is based on the drugs and apparently, we obviously soon wont be able to work without them… Kinda reminds me of those cartoons where everybody started taking pills for everything in the future instead of food… One I rember in particular, dexters labrotory.

  13. Perfect pitch is not used to transcribe music; It is relative pitch. Both could be used, but relative pitch is much more efficient.

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