How could a pill give you perfect pitch?

Could you be the singing superstar you always wanted to be, with a little help from an anticonvulsant medication?
Could you be the singing superstar you always wanted to be, with a little help from an anticonvulsant medication?
Sergey Nivens/iStock/Thinkstock

Ever have that recurring dream where you're suddenly thrust onto a stage and expected to sing your heart out to an audience full of strangers? It can go a few different ways: The first is your run-of-the-mill nightmare where you clam up, forget the words and Taylor Swift disinvites you to her birthday party because you're so lame. But it also can be the rare kind of triumphant dream, where you open your mouth to discover you're an amazing singer capable of incredible feats of songistry, a term they invent to describe the originality of your talent. You steal Taylor Swift's boyfriend after the show.

But what if it weren't a dream? What if -- by taking a pill -- you could suddenly carry a tune without practice or training, after years of embarrassing karaoke performances and mumbled "Happy Birthday" refrains at parties? While we're not quite there yet, the reality is still tantalizingly close: Scientists from France, Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain have conducted a small study that shows that a supplement of the anticonvulsant medication valproic acid can help adults absorb lessons in perfect pitch.

To be fair, learning perfect pitch (or absolute pitch) isn't the same thing as magically turning into a songwriting chanteuse. But it also isn't something that's easily acquired, either: Only 0.01 percent of the population has spot-on pitch, and there have been no known cases of an adult being able to "learn" it [source: Gervain et al.].

But scientists can explain, to an extent, why that is. It turns out that those rare people with perfect pitch develop it during a so-called critical period. That's a time early in life when experience and training can influence lasting brain function and behavior [source: Gervain et al.]. They've also observed that an enzyme called histone-deacetylase (HDAC) seems to curb that critical period. So what if they were to inhibit HDAC later in life? Would that window reopen, allowing us all to tune an orchestra with nothing but a cheerful hum?

More to Explore