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Carefully Screened Young Adult Male Ella Fitzgeralds
January 5, 2014 10:09 PM   Subscribe

"This study was an investigation of adult brain plasticity and whether we could reopen it through the use of a drug called valproic acid. It's a mood-stabilizing drug. But we found that it also restores the plasticity of the brain to a juvenile state. And during a two-week period on this pill or a controlled substance, a healthy cohort of young adult male subjects who were carefully screened not to have had musical experience early in life, they were asked to undertake a number of training tests online. And at the end of this two-week period, they were then tested on their ability to discriminate tones to see if the training had more effect than it normally would at this age."
WERTHEIMER: So, you actually gave people a pill and then you taught them to have perfect pitch?
HENSCH: This is the result and it's quite remarkable, since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch.

Kung fu, on the other hand...
posted by carsonb (62 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
TV Personality: And how many people have you treated so far?
Dr. Alice Krippin: Well, we've had ten thousand and nine clinical trials in humans so far.
TV Personality: And how many have absolute pitch?
Dr. Alice Krippin: Ten thousand and nine.
TV Personality: So you have actually cured not having absolute pitch.
Dr. Alice Krippin: Yes, yes... yes, we have.
[cuts to post-apocalyptic New York three years later]
posted by codswallop at 10:16 PM on January 5 [43 favorites]


I bought a perfect pitch lesson plan and went through it when I was in my early 20's. It didn't work, but did improve my listening skills. I'm disappointed to this day.

I guess I'm asking where I can volunteer for a clinical test of this.
posted by bswinburn at 10:18 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]


It's in the tags, but I had to do some looking before noticing that to figure out that the drug in question seems to be basically Depakote, which is really interesting because I know a lot of people who've taken it, and I don't seem to recall any of them having become belated prodigies or anything.

On the up side, if it hasn't caused a zombie plague yet, it's probably not going to.
posted by Sequence at 10:19 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]


If we can restore plastic to the brain like this, does that mean we can restore other petrochemicals? I'm really hoping we can use these pills with our brains to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. Imagine: a whole new era of brain pill powered fuel combustion engines for America!
posted by oceanjesse at 10:25 PM on January 5 [6 favorites]


Imagine: a whole new era of brain pill powered fuel combustion engines for America!

Advances in straw technology allow the HFCS in Big Gulps to cross the blood-brain barrier.
posted by carsonb at 10:30 PM on January 5


Valproic Acid is a drug that is being tried (off-label) to reduce the chance of metastasis in the particularly nasty form of eye cancer I have; it seems to turn the more aggressive genetic form into the less aggressive one in vitro and in mice. The aggressive form, which I have, has a 70% rate of mets to the liver within 5 years. The non-aggressive form has a 10% rate of mets. I've been thinking about getting my oncologist to put me on it, even though there's only a chance it will work, as it's always been described as having few side effects.

I just read the side effects: dementia, depression (it's an anti-mania drug, and I have depression, currently okay but always ready to pop up again), hair loss, weight gain...(I've gained 60 pounds in the past 10 years, only from quitting smoking and middle age).

This is really, really depressing, as it seems I have a choice between being a live 450 pound hairless woman with psychosis and snake-like movements of the tongue and a normal corpse.

On the flip side, maybe I'd have perfect pitch.
posted by jrochest at 10:38 PM on January 5 [47 favorites]


Just on a purely intuitive basis, many of the side-effects of valproic acid seem like what you'd expect from a extended state of induced (or excessive, in the case of the fetus) brain plasticity.

I imagine that if their hypothesis is correct, then certain kinds of learning associated with the young brain can be achieved with very directed stimulation over a limited period using the lowest effective dosage — which is all very much different from people taking depakote chronically for epilepsy or other conditions.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:48 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]


But there are a bunch of us who are musicians who lack absolute pitch who'd be very interested in this. Sounds like an invitation for some less-than-wise self-experimentation.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:49 PM on January 5 [4 favorites]


This study

"Page not available"
posted by pwnguin at 10:51 PM on January 5


Sounds like an invitation for some less-than-wise self-experimentation.

Indeed, I'm very interested in this not just for perfect pitch (although I'd take that), but also for things like phoneme recognition. I'd also like to try relearning/improving my handwriting and basic drawing/sketching techniques if it works for motor skills at all. Hell just learning how to throw something accurately could be useful assuming brain plasticity is the issue with my spazziness in that regard, and not just my slightly aneurotypical wiring.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:07 PM on January 5 [5 favorites]


It's hard not to think that there's a relationship between the window for absolute pitch acquisition and the window for native language acquisition — so language education (phoneme recognition, for example, as you mention) certainly seems like an obvious possibility.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:09 PM on January 5 [5 favorites]


I didn't really understand much of the study. As someone who is totally non-musical, is perfect pitch like when my HS BF could hear a song once on the radio and then pick up a guitar (or any instrument, probably) and start playing it?
posted by Room 641-A at 11:11 PM on January 5


(And I read the wiki page, but I don't know if what my ex-boyfriend can do is related to pitch or tone or notes or something else.)
posted by Room 641-A at 11:14 PM on January 5


Not quite - perfect pitch is when you can tell which note is being sounded. Eg whether it's an A, C etc etc.

It's not necessary to have perfect pitch to be a musician - indeed for genres which like to play around with melodies by transposing them to other keys it can even be something of a liability - in some ways it's better to have an excellent sense of relative pitch.

Being able to hear a sing and immediately play it could be using either variety.
posted by pharm at 11:24 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]


People are always talking about perfect pitch but you almost never see anybody who can throw a complete game of them.
posted by Anitanola at 11:31 PM on January 5 [20 favorites]


..." in some ways it's better to have an excellent sense of relative pitch."

That's true. And that can improved in adulthood. It's called "ear training".

I was trained as a percussionist and so never really had to learn much pitch discrimination. When I briefly majored in music at university, I really had to work hard at ear training, and I still sucked at it. It's frustrating because I can hear and compose melodies and harmonies in my head but have a lot of difficulty figuring out what they really are. I mean, really frustrating.

Fairly regularly, I have dreams where I write and play music extemporaneously and I'll wake up occasionally with very definite melodies in my head. It's such a joy in the dreams to be able to express them effortlessly.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:38 PM on January 5 [5 favorites]


Since one person had trouble accessing the study, and I got two different views when clicking the link two different times in the same browser, I'll add all the viewing links for the study here, in case it helps anyone having trouble:

Classic view | PubReader | ePub (beta) | PDF (1.3M)
posted by taz at 12:19 AM on January 6 [4 favorites]


Is valproic acid the same thing as sodium valproate? I was on it for a few months for depression/bipolar and it made me dotty. I was forgetting appointments and didn't quite know what day it was. Maybe my brain melted.
posted by divabat at 12:35 AM on January 6


divabat: "I was forgetting appointments and didn't quite know what day it was. Maybe my brain melted."

Sounds exactly like my teenage years, so maybe it worked perfectly.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:50 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]


Never mind perfect pitch- could I use it to learn C++? I just came upon it too late in my life to understand it.
posted by happyroach at 1:01 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]


Okay, so now the link works (magic, I suppose), and I've had a chance to review the results, my initial impression is underwhelming*.

First, the obvious: it's a study including 23 people. So a typical psychology study, with small sample size. Equally troublesome, they admit to outright losing some data and having to exclude a person.

Second off: The study design divides the groups in half, does the normal random assignment double blind, gives a couple weeks to get the drug out, then does another double blind with the assignments flipped. 18 went through both arms. Only one group did statistically better than chance: the first treatment group. The other treatment group had a lower mean than chance, but well within error of chance. To me, this second group is weird.

Thirdly: There's technically 23 subjects in the control, and 23 in the treatment group. But we never see a direct comparison, presumably because the results would not pass statistical tests.

Fourth: They assert it is unlikely that anyone in their group has perfect pitch, but one of their participants reports 10 years experience playing music. It seem most likely they're also the one who started at age 7. They neglected to perform an initial test before treatment, so we don't know if there was a dead ringer that should have been excluded.

Finally: Any effect that was found does not appear to persist; when the first treatment group with apparently perfect pitch comes back a few weeks later to begin the placebo, they perform almost identically to the other placebo group.

*I Am Not A Scientist.
posted by pwnguin at 1:55 AM on January 6 [22 favorites]


I've always heard a perfect pitch described as "when the banjo you throw into the dumpster hits the accordion that's already there." How does a pill help with that? Does it create accordions? Mad Science, indeed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:55 AM on January 6 [7 favorites]


My wife, Mrs. mosk, has perfect pitch. She's an amateur violinist and plays in a community orchestra, and she takes her instrument seriously. She says in her case, perfect pitch is very much a mixed blessing - knowing when you (and others) are wrong is not the same as being right. On balance she's happy to have this ability, but cautions not to place too much emphasis on it, as it's just one tool, not a tool box.
posted by mosk at 2:02 AM on January 6 [6 favorites]


I really hope all these brain drug study participants have read Flowers for Algernon.
posted by DigDoug at 2:12 AM on January 6 [12 favorites]


I suspect that a lot of people who think that they have absolute pitch actually do not.
posted by thelonius at 2:30 AM on January 6 [6 favorites]


@sequence, re: I know a lot of people who've taken it, and I don't seem to recall any of them having become belated prodigies or anything

If they weren't prodigies the first time they had brain plasticity, why would they be the second time?
posted by lastobelus at 2:58 AM on January 6 [3 favorites]


It's an interesting area, neuroplasticity. It doesn't confer much by itself, but with the right stimulus (ie, training for absolute pitch, assuming that this is something which can be trained for at the right developmental stage) it can be a major benefit.

In my case, I've got recently broken optic nerves and retinas which still transmit some useful info, but my visual cortex is prone to buggering up the scene component recognition process - it's still wired for the inputs that it got in my early visual system development. If I could reboot that process, I could end up with much better eyesight. Might mean having to spend a couple of years learning to read again... The same might help with people with refractive lazy eyes, which is really a problem of early-stage visual cortex development (although that is now caught early enough to be averted).

Similarly, it might make language acquisition much easier in adulthood.

Interestingly, neuroplasticity or the lack thereof is possibly linked to depression. There's a lot of recent work that's showing many long-held assumptions about the brain's loss of reuropasticity in adulthood are wrong, and it is - as always in this business - turning up far more complexities as we get better tools for poking around in there.
posted by Devonian at 3:16 AM on January 6 [5 favorites]


This made me cry, because as a person with treatment-resistant depression neuroplasticity is exactly what I need, and if you have a drug that helps that and a structured environment focused on teaching you beneficial things give it to me now. Teaching absolute pitch is one thing, but you could do something really life-changing for people with tough lives.

I've absorbed more of the details now (small sample size/the drug in question is depakote etc) and am less taken in by the study's self-hyping, now that I'm not caught up in the dream so much. I'm thinking a lot about people's experiences with depakote and what I know about therapies and approaches for the various mental disorder classifications that affect me - I feel like a good structured environment that's going to work even for one specific patient is going to be hard to come by. You need to guard against the fact that an increased learning ability/propensity doesn't discriminate between good habits and bad.

It's food for thought for me, though.

on preview: yep, Devonian has it. It's a really, really promising new field and the work in it is solid, and gives me hope, rational-scientifically speaking as well as 'a reason to keep going'.
posted by lokta at 3:31 AM on January 6 [10 favorites]


(sorry, 'basically depakote' rather than actually depakote, yes - crazymeds page on valproic acid)
posted by lokta at 3:39 AM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Being able to trick the brain into earlier plasticity could indeed be interesting for foreign language mastery. Pronunciation is one of those things best learned young and so difficult to master as we get older, or so goes the prevailing ESL theory.

Then again, this does sound incredibly like the first chapter of an SF novel. Atwood, or maybe Sterling.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:30 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]


She says in her case, perfect pitch is very much a mixed blessing

I imagine perfect pitch is like being well-versed in grammar or typography. It's a good skill to have, but at the price of noticing everyone else's mistakes whenever you leave the house.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:35 AM on January 6 [5 favorites]


Interestingly, neuroplasticity or the lack thereof is possibly linked to depression. There's a lot of recent work that's showing many long-held assumptions about the brain's loss of reuropasticity in adulthood are wrong, and it is - as always in this business - turning up far more complexities as we get better tools for poking around in there.

I find this fascinating and I can't help but ponder the connection to my own dealings with depression. My family seems to be predisposed to it. For years I managed somehow to not fall into the pit but a couple of years ago I did and for a while it was pretty bad. It's alright now. The thing is I've always been a learner and am constantly teaching myself and learning new things. I feel like a thrive when I'm doing this.

When I fell into the pit it was at a time when for various life reasons I had stopped being so gungho about learning. That article makes me wonder whether there may be a connection. Perhaps my constant giving my brain a workout as well as the drive to do so isn't just because of an inherent love a learning and curiousity about the world but also a biological pill of sorts that helps keep it from falling into the depression state.

For the past several months I've been doing crash/cram courses in several areas and struggling to cram new info in. It's exhausting but I haven't felt this good and my head space so alive and ticking since I was in the pit.

It's interesting to ponder the possible connection.
posted by Jalliah at 4:47 AM on January 6 [5 favorites]


I am a musician and I am happy with my ability with regular pitch. Perfect pitch would be more of a liability for reasons those above me here have mentioned. For those who want to improve, if you sit with a piano and keep trying to reproduce what you hear, you WILL improve. It's a skill like anything else.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:32 AM on January 6 [1 favorite]


"The thing is I've always been a learner and am constantly teaching myself and learning new things. I feel like a thrive when I'm doing this. When I fell into the pit it was at a time when for various life reasons I had stopped being so gungho about learning. That article makes me wonder whether there may be a connection."

I don't know. There very well may be a connection for other people and my own chronic major depression is atypical. But, in all honesty, I've met few people with as voracious a curiosity as I have and I've kept learning new things all my life. It's what I do. And yet I still suffer from chronic major depression.

And certainly when I was younger and learning new things, and more widely divergent things, at a more rapid rate, I was more intensely depressed than I am now. Although that could be, and probably is, more a function of a lifetime's worth of acquired coping skills that I didn't have then. These days, I can semi-regularly reach crisis level depths of a depression, with intense anxiety and despair, and yet I'll know that given enough time, it will pass. Because of this awareness, I don't absolutely freak out, like I would regularly do thirty years ago. It took me a long time to realize I had a serious problem with chronic major depression and get medication for it, but before that happened I'd developed some practical skills to deal with it, things to divert my attention and such. Those skills are a bit rusty because I don't have to rely upon them when I'm medicated, but in general I'm much less likely to just freak the hell out, even though I'm arguably just as severely depressed. So maybe it's just experience and those coping skills.

Because I was sure a mess when I was younger. But also even more an active learner than I am now. But I still am.

There's a relationship to creativity, too. I sleep a lot and I have almost zero dream latency. My dream life is very vivid and weirdly creative. At least half my dreams aren't personal, mundane stuff, but rather entirely fictional narratives where I'm not even me. Some of them are pretty good ideas, too. (A few nights ago, I first had a series of dreams that reconceived the vampire myth where nosferatu-type vampires were the result of an alien parasite infecting another spacefaring alien species ... and then the parasite successfully infected me after I was attacked, resulting in something new. Then, later that night, I had another series of dreams where I was a low-level worker at a mysterious government facility that had some weird arrangement with ethereal angelic beings.)

I don't know what the fuck is going on in my head.

But all this reinforces what I was thinking earlier, and that's that the plasticity we're discussing is probably not a monolithic thing. As the references and research and the comments above indicate, there's a lot more plasticity in human brains than was previously thought. What we're discussing may be a certain kind of plasticity, both with regard to absolute pitch and what valproic acid is affecting, and also what's involved in depression. These may be different kinds of plasticity, or in different regions, or whatever.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:37 AM on January 6 [6 favorites]


Jalliah, thanks for that. It really resonated with me. (Sorry, no perfect pitch pun intended there...)
posted by sutt at 5:38 AM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Never mind perfect pitch- could I use it to learn C++? I just came upon it too late in my life to understand it.

Nobody understands C++, and nobody with any taste wants to.

Don't give up your taste.
posted by flabdablet at 5:39 AM on January 6 [3 favorites]


I picked up my perfect pitch at a very young age and it seems reasonable to me that it's something that you (generally) have to acquire pretty young, when you're learning to put names to things.

I don't find that it decreases my musicianship or creativity in any way. It's like hearing someone talk and being able to identify the individual letters in their words. It's nice to be able to do it, but knowing how to pick out the letters doesn't mean that you're distracted from hearing the words or their meaning.

The one place where it's annoying is when listening to music performed at older levels of pitch while following along with a score (or performing it), where you kind of have to transpose in your head. But good musicians should acquire that skill anyway.

I do agree that if you had a choice between having only relative pitch or only absolute pitch, you should pick the former. But it's easier to acquire the former given the latter than vice versa.
posted by dfan at 5:50 AM on January 6


Absolutely wonderful! I soo hope this improve language acquisition as well!
posted by jeffburdges at 5:53 AM on January 6


Valproic acid (VPA) is sodium valproate which is also divalproex sodium.

It is a branched carboxylic acid with noted antiseizure, antiabsence, antimigraine, and mood-stabilizing effects.

I do find this plasticity finding interesting, because as a few other comments noted, people on VPA tend to be a bit "dotty."

All antiseizure medications to some extent cause sleepiness and cognitive/memory problems. It's a consequence of our current state-of-the-art of medical seizure treatment, which is: make it harder for neurons to continuously and synchronously fire.

The authors are making a point about VPA's effects on histone deacetylase (HDAC) and corresponding machinery for making epigenetic changes. (Epigenetic changes are kinds of molecular "annotations" that don't directly affect the DNA sequence but do mark it in meaningful ways.) I find it interesting the subjects could learn anything new on 1000 mg/d of VPA (not a humongous dose, but sizeable).

The effect size doesn't seem to be that great, although it was significant. Maybe it's dose-dependent--although they didn't find a blood concentration correlation.

Interestingly, absolute pitch seems to be more prevalent in native speakers of tonal languages such as Mandarin or Vietnamese, although it is still by no means universal. This seemingly despite the fact that tonal languages typically rely on relative pitch for meaning. I also recall seeing a study (or two) that made a case for tonal language proliferation among populations with greater prevalence of certain genes, although I can't remember which. And it's just a bitch, sometimes, disentangling effects of language contact and "horizontal transfers" from other effects in linguistic evolution.
posted by adoarns at 6:00 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]


These may be different kinds of plasticity, or in different regions, or whatever.

When I worked in a psych lab that studied language, we had a physicist on board who studied neural nets. He had this idea that maybe a neural net would be able to learn more complex things (like a grammar) if different layers of the net were allowed to learn at different times. That is, it's not like the whole net should be plastic during the whole training period- you make one layer be plastic, then another, etc.

He called this idea the "plasticity wave" hypothesis.

So. Two problems here.

1. He was a physicist who wasn't familiar with the pre-existing literature on plasticity. He later found out that his idea was not original.
2. His term "plasticity wave" is so catchy that I can't think of what else to google for to show that yes, people think plasticity affects different brain regions at different times. Sorry.
posted by Jpfed at 6:00 AM on January 6 [4 favorites]


I can't help but wonder if "perfect" pitch is really just a trap for people to get further indoctrinated into the clashing compromise of equal temperament.
posted by sonascope at 6:26 AM on January 6 [8 favorites]


I find it interesting that Depakote use among pregnant women results in a greater risk of autism in the child.
posted by domo at 6:42 AM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Perfect pitch, previously.
posted by entropone at 6:57 AM on January 6


As pointed out above, plasticity for language acquisition would be really great, and for me, far more useful.
posted by haiku warrior at 7:03 AM on January 6


Valproic acid (VPA) is sodium valproate which is also divalproex sodium.

Actually, I don't believe that's right. Sodium Valproate/Divalproex Sodium is Depakote. Valproic Acid is an ingredient in Depakote, but it's not Depakote. (See the bottom of the page here.) I took Depakote for many, many years as an anticonvulsant and my neurologist would not let them fill the scrip as VPA. At the time there was no generic for Depakote, though some pharmacies would attempt to fill the scrip with VPA. My understanding is that the drugs -- Stavzor (VPA) and Depakote (Divalproex Sodium) -- are similar but not identical. In any case, all of the valproates are extremely heavy drugs. Don't let anyone tell you they have limited side effects.

As a long time user of Depakote I can tell you it was a truly awful drug for me, creating many of the classical symptoms of depression without my even knowing it (fogginess, low energy, inability to concentrate, substantial weight gain etc.). My experience is shared by many others, but I didn't even know how bad it was until I got off it. And the side effects for women are worse even than they are for men. There is no way any person should volunteer to take this drug if they don't otherwise need it -- even in exchange for perfect pitch.

That doesn't mean it's not a very good, even life-saving drug for people who need it. It just means it comes with a huge amount of baggage that people need to be aware of.
posted by The Bellman at 7:07 AM on January 6 [4 favorites]


So....when can I order this from India?
posted by sourwookie at 7:07 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]


Any weight gain might be caused by brain plasticity leading to acquiring bad eating habits, jrochest. If I had your eye cancer, then I'd try the valproic acid, but self-improve my ass off trying to improve my habits : eat healthy, reduced alcohol, exercise religiously, yoga multiple times per week, etc. And focus on retaining good habits like brushing teeth too. All the exercise helps with depression of course, but maybe activities like meditation or reading help too, not sure. And maybe I'd take language lessons if I still had time after all that. If you're lucky, maybe you'll wind up a live fitter woman with less of a sweat tooth. You should at least research brain plasticity given Ivan Fyodorovich's comment.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:50 AM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Sequence: "It's in the tags, but I had to do some looking before noticing that to figure out that the drug in question seems to be basically Depakote, which is really interesting because I know a lot of people who've taken it, and I don't seem to recall any of them having become belated prodigies or anything."

You are seriously misreading the post. There is no claim of this drug suppying genius.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:19 AM on January 6


pwnguin: "*I Am Not A Scientist."

You have enough skepticism and statistical knowledge to qualify as an amateur scientist.

I'm one. Get two more blessings, and you're in. (You'll need to meet in person to get the secret handshake. Sorry, that rule is invariant.)
posted by IAmBroom at 8:23 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]


"suppying"="supplying"
posted by IAmBroom at 8:26 AM on January 6


So sorry to hear about your struggles, jrochest. The human body can be a real piece of garbage sometimes.

I would absolutely love more neuroplasticity in most areas of my life (hello, psychotherapy), but I don't think I'd want perfect pitch. I've developed good relative pitch thought years of training, but for the people I know with perfect pitch, it seems like more of a curse than a blessing as often as not. Give me a score that's out of my range, change the starting pitch, and I'm good to go. I've known perfect pitchers who get actual headaches trying to do that, or trying to tune with singers around them when the audience can't hear the difference. Good pitch pipes and tuners, both mechanical and electronic, are available and relatively affordable.

The only person I know with perfect pitch who seems to enjoy a truly practical advantage from it is a professional piano tuner.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:01 AM on January 6


jrochest: speaking from personal experience (and experience of three friends), Depakote fully earns the online nickname "Depabloat". It caused significant weight gain for myself and everyone I know, strong but not insurmountable mental cloudiness ("mild cognitive impairment" if you prefer), and sleepiness in my case.

However, you have an *actual serious life-threatening* illness at stake, so I'll point out that the side-effects of Depakote are precisely opposite those of Provigil (Modafinil): weight loss, increased mental acuity, and it's primarily diagnosed as a sleep-blocker (also the only mania-safe way of handling excessive sleepiness that I know of, as it blocks the VLPO rather than acting as a direct stimulant). The nootropic effects are strongest for those suffering from dementia and/or "chemobrain" so it seems like a perfect fit in that regard.

I have not been on both Depakote and Provigil simultaneously, but my strong suspicion after five years on the former and seven years on the latter is that their side effects would nearly cancel out - they felt equally strong in each direction. Very obvious YMMV/not a doctor disclaimer goes here.
posted by Ryvar at 9:14 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]


First, the obvious: it's a study including 23 people. So a typical psychology study, with small sample size. Equally troublesome, they admit to outright losing some data and having to exclude a person. . . .

Thirdly: There's technically 23 subjects in the control, and 23 in the treatment group. But we never see a direct comparison, presumably because the results would not pass statistical tests.


FWIW when I was working on my undergraduate degree in music, we did an absolute pitch teaching experiment with our group music classes.

The experiment consisted of spending about 10 minutes per week in a classroom setting, doing ear training exercises similar to those outlined in this course (or more inexpensively, here) but adapted for a group situation.

Anyway, based on a pre-test and post-test of three different classes, the results we got after that relatively small amount of time spent in training/practice were much larger than those reported by this study. It sounds like we were more rigorous in our protocols, as well.

We didn't use any drugs, though, and didn't bother to publish or publicize our results anywhere--I'll definitely keep those ideas in mind for next time.

For those interested in the results: We did a pre-test, then 10 weeks of training, then a post-test. In pre- and post-tests, we played 12 notes on a piano, all 12 chromatic notes in random order, randomly choosing the octave for each note from a four-octave range. Students wrote down their guess for each note. We didn't do any 'warm-up' or practice prior to either test--it was the very first thing we did during class that week.

Pre-test, all classes averaged 8-10% correct responses, exactly what you would expect from random guessing (1/12 = 8.3%).

Post-test, after the 10 weeks of training about 10 minutes per week, all three classes averaged 15-20% correct responses, about double what you'd expect due to random guessing.

Students were older teenagers, 15-18 years old, so not exactly adults but well past the age usually considered ideal for picking up absolute pitch.

That certainly doesn't amount to 'teaching absolute pitch' but considering the small amount of training time, we considered it a pretty interesting and significant result--more than we would have expected given the small amount of time and work invested. One student did go from 1/12 correct on the pre-test to 12/12 on the post test.

posted by flug at 10:31 AM on January 6 [5 favorites]


jeffburdges: with less of a sweat tooth

eww.
posted by Naberius at 12:38 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the supportive thoughts, guys: the off-label use of VPA as an adjuvent treatment for ocular melanoma is experimental and very new, with only one researcher convinced that it may have an effect. But there's not a very active culture of research, given that it's a rare, rare disease. Patients who have been gene tested (and had the bad results, like me) have been asking their oncologists to put them on it, just in case. Given that it has the 'chemobrain' side effects I may not push for it, unless it shows some benefit -- I'm not keen on the 'bloat' aspect but even less keen on the intellectual impairment, as I need my brain for work and I'm only just getting it back.
posted by jrochest at 1:02 PM on January 6


One student did go from 1/12 correct on the pre-test to 12/12 on the post test.

They could have just had really fantastic relative pitch and guessed the first note correctly.
posted by moorooka at 1:15 PM on January 6


moorooka, you missed that the note were played in random order. Guessing the first correctly only makes the second guess 1:11 odds (since one note is removed from contention).
posted by IAmBroom at 2:05 PM on January 6


Guessing the first correctly only makes the second guess 1:11 odds (since one note is removed from contention).
Not if you have fantastic relative pitch.
posted by dfan at 2:22 PM on January 6 [3 favorites]


Carefully Screened Young Adult Male Ella Fitzgeralds

Not-so-young adult male Billie Holliday.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:50 PM on January 6


I can't help but wonder if "perfect" pitch is really just a trap for people to get further indoctrinated into the clashing compromise of equal temperament.

Dude, Big Chord is listening.
posted by sneebler at 8:37 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]


>>One student did go from 1/12 correct on the pre-test to 12/12 on the post test.

>They could have just had really fantastic relative pitch and guessed the first note correctly.


Yes, except that this wasn't some bit of a data from a huge impersonal study where we could only guess at the reasons.

We knew the student, personally and well, both before and after this little experiment. She did not (at that time, anyway) have fantastic relative pitch at anything like that level, and she did report afterwards that she could identify pitches by their sound, similar to what other people with absolute pitch report. And she couldn't do that before these lessons.
posted by flug at 10:36 AM on January 11


Is it just me, or is Depakote a really discordant name for a drug? To my ear, it sounds like it ought to have something to do with paint, like Penetrol or Killz.
posted by flabdablet at 7:03 AM on January 12


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