This documentary is called Musical Minds, and is well worth a watch. It’s about how music works in the brain, and how little we really understand about it; it comes across as almost a kind of magic, as something unrelated to rational thought. That’s not surprising to musicians. You don’t play well when you think too much, after all. You play well when you relax and let those patterns developed through years of practice do their thing undisturbed by your worry.
The middle section is about a guy from upstate New York with severe Tourettes who can relieve his tics through drumming. Interestingly, he doesn’t drum in a keep-the-beat way, but does it free-jazz style, fills and riffs bursting out, less an ordering of his tics than a translation of them to an acceptable medium. But that’s not entirely true. Here’s how he explains why drumming makes his Tourettes better:
I was playing this rhythm in a very balanced form of my body, a very balanced form of tempo and everything else - It was almost like my brain was a puzzle, and some of the pieces were not in place. And all of a sudden, everything just kind of clicked in the two hemispheres of my brain. And I literally felt it like this: I was doing it and then all of a sudden it just clicked into place and it went down my body, this fast. It was a very symmetrical balance of my entire being.
The weird thing about music is that there aren’t a lot of rational standards to determine whether or not it’s right. Sure, there’s being on-pitch and on-beat. But beyond that, it’s just up to your feeling as to whether you’re playing just enough behind the beat, or bending the note just enough, or changing your tone just right until your part suddenly fits in with everything else. You’re looking for that feeling of alignment, that “click.”
But that mirrors the actual physical process of sound generation. Two noises sound “sweet” together when their waveforms align, building on each other rather than interfering and causing a “beat” separate from any rhythm you’re playing. Going on feel seems nebulous, but it’s really just the reflection of the physical experience of listening to music. We like a sound if it feels good when it vibrates our eardrum; we don’t like a sound if it feels not-good. Sure, we can’t touch or see music, but the hearing is just as valid a judge. We’re just listening to hear if things are aligned right, just as we would look at two pieces of wood to see if they can support each other.
Tourettes, too, is a kind of rhythmic experience. Your brain isn’t cycling right; instead of a steady beat, the impulses within (which are themselves waves) jerk and misfire out-of-sync. Music feels good in this context because you can overwhelm those impulses with something louder, injecting your brain with new waves that can overwhelm and preempt the bad ones, and if you play with a rhythm, you can reorder them, making the impulses steady rather than random. And it’s all expressed as physicality, as movement: waves hitting your eardrum, sticks hitting the drum head, your head twitching up and out, muscles contracting to make you shout.
Music seems strange to us because we are visual creatures, and it seems either invisible or unrelated to those aspects of it that we can see. But music is sound is movement is energy, and if nothing else, we understand the need to be in alignment, to have everything working steadily, predictably, harmoniously. Music makes sense just as music makes not-sense. If anything, it’s closer to a model of how the brain works than any other human endeavor. With Tourettes, it’s easy to get into a feedback loop, tics building on tics because the input and output are too closely linked, and the only way to break the loop is to force everything into a kind of order, to have the random noises somehow tell a story. A story is a song is a movement: we find comfort in the organized. Music both expresses and enforces organization. It tells us that all is right with the world, that beauty is still possible, that randomness can be ordered into pleasure. It is a reassurance that everything is going to be OK.