Transforming Tourette's: the sonification of 'tics'

Issue date: 23 September 2013


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Dr Tom Mitchell, senior lecturer in Computer Music at UWE Bristol, has created a unique piece of music based on data experienced and recorded by Jessica Thom who has Tourette's. The composition, a collaboration between Dr Mitchell and Professor Joseph Hyde of Bath Spa University, is a sonification, the process of conveying information through non-speech audio, of Jess's 'ticking fits', and will be played as part of a talk by Jess at TEDxAlbertopolis which takes place at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 23 September.

Jess Thom was diagnosed with Tourrette's in her twenties and subsequently set up Touretteshero, to raise awareness of the syndrome by celebrating and sharing its creativity and humour. Tics, a key feature of Tourette's, are the involuntary and uncontrollable movements (motor tics) and sounds (vocal tics) people with Tourette's make. Jess's motor tics frequently escalate and can become completely overpowering for distinct periods of time, during which every part of Jess's body may move, shake, contort or lock into painful positions.

“Jess had been keeping detailed notes on each of these episodes, recording the location, time, duration and severity of each fit,” Dr Mitchell comments. “With up to 20 fits in any one day this amounted to a lot of data, representing a great deal of discomfort for Jess. She asked whether it would be possible for me to convert a year of this data into sound or music, to transform it into something beautiful.

“We wanted each individual fit to be represented and identifiable within the music, so I set about developing a music sequencer that would load the data and 'play' it at high speed. This enabled a year's worth of data to be converted into a series of musical events that lasted approximately six minutes. Professor Jo Hyde from Bath Spa University then converted these events into a fantastic musical piece. The result is a wonderful composition that forms a true representation of each fit, offering an insight into Jess's year.”

The piece will be played, in part, during Jess's talk which will be streamed live from the TEDxAlbertopolis website at approximately 15.45 on Monday 23 September. You can learn more about the process and the work of Dr Mitchell by visiting his webpage. For more information on Creative Music Technology courses at UWE, click here.

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