Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Music, madness and Manila driving

When news of buses being banned in the city of Manila came out, how did you react? Were you the picture of unbridled fury, feeling like the female version of the Incredible Hulk in mid-transformation? Did you simply whimper, imagining the chaotic daily morning commute to the office you would now have to bear with? Were Mayor Joseph Estrada and Vice-mayor Isko Moreno the target of your verbal darts on Facebook? Or, did the news go ignored since you don’t pass Manila anyway?

Well, the news was totally unexpected for a lot of us. What was expected was the barrage of protests as a result of the move aimed at addressing the perennial traffic problem in the metropolis. Frankly, after getting over the initial incredulity over the news, my dismay turned to delight. No buses in Manila? That means... Taft Avenue without those horrible things that zoom and zigzag down the road as if each of them was designated Manic Driver of the Day? Yeheyyy! And now they’re even cracking down on colorum bus units!

If you get behind the wheel at least once in a while, you know that driving in Manila is a test of virtue. In fact, “patience is a virtue” is one helpful slogan to keep in mind when plying the city’s streets, as you are bound to encounter temptations of various kinds. Since people of different persuasions and temperaments are on the road, expect differences in driving styles and even in definitions of words – such as courtesy, right of way, one way, no parking on this side – so you can more easily adjust to those differences and overcome temptations to yell invectives or shoot dirty looks at the other driver to show your displeasure.

After having driven around these streets for over 20 years now, I’ve discovered some things that help make the driving experience more pleasant, less nerve-wracking, and most important of all, safer. One of them is the fact that music can make a lot of difference.

So you like listening to the radio or your own carefully compiled playlist while driving through traffic. That’s good. Music can do wonders to calm the senses, lead to positive feelings, facilitate focus, and keep one wide awake. God knows a drowsy driver has no place behind the steering wheel of a moving vehicle! And positive feelings are definitely vital during the daily rush hour. But have you considered that your choice of music can spell a big difference when it comes to calm, focused and safe driving? At this point, let me exalt the merits of classical music, which not everyone relishes and which can even put some to sleep (not good in this case). There is reliable data to back up my claims but first let me tell you why I opt for Mozart, Bach and some of the other classical giants when I drive through routes that include Taft, Edsa, Espana or any other major road in the city:

The resonant strains of violins, the melodious patterns played on the piano, and the cadence the instruments in an orchestra produce as a result – these soothe the soul. Minutes after this kind of music starts playing, it’s like I am enveloped in serenity. And it doesn’t matter if I’m with three other people in the car or driving on my own. But it has more of an effect, I suppose, when it’s just me and the music.

Someone said that classical music can draw people closer to God, and a friend theorized maybe that’s because it encourages contemplation. Well, this is something good because contemplating things of God is crucial when the only other thing you feel like doing is getting even with the driver that almost hit you as he swerved to your lane. I mean, a clear head and a clean heart should be constant – whatever situation you’re in – but on the road, when tempers can flare, when pride has led disgruntled drivers to resolve situations by shooting, and a corrupt system issues driver’s licenses to people who seem oblivious to traffic rules and road courtesy, those Godly qualities become even more important to keep your sanity (and to stay alive!). Can you imagine having the one with the horns and forked tongue serve as your “inspiration” whenever you encounter drivers that cut you off or motorcycle riders that zigzag down major roads as if they were stuntmen in action? You will want to contemplate God, not the one whose goal is to make you do wicked things.

As for empirical data showing the benefits of classical music on human behavior, yet another recent study has yielded findings that show how listening to Mozart enables people to concentrate more. This time it’s a research led by scientists from Kyoto University and Harvard University and which involved children aged 8-9 and adults aged 65-75. Participants demonstrated significantly quicker reaction time and committed less errors on tests when taken with a Mozart minuet playing in the background. The two other times had them taking the tests in silence and with a modified version of the minuet (with dissonant or irregular intervals). 

So is it any wonder that institutions turn to classical music as a means to alter behavior? They have found that listening to Mozart helps restless and agitated people – children and adults alike – become more relaxed. In the case of Manila’s exciting streets, unless there is a way to feed Mozart’s minuets into the headsets and speakers of every driver for some mind control, it’s only you who can benefit from the soothing sounds of the Austrian composer – or any classical composer for that matter.

Regardless of scientific findings on the effects of this musical genre on the brain, listening to Strauss waltzes as well as pieces with titles like “Canon in D Major” and “Symphony No. 9” frankly makes me unconsciously adopt the demeanor of someone like Elizabeth Bennet rather than Lady Gaga or Rihanna (Who is Elizabeth Bennet, you ask? Think “vulgar,” coarse,” “crass” – words that do not describe the protagonist in Pride & Prejudice). So, would a lady from the 1700s yell at a rude driver? No, she’s likely to inspire courtesy on the road – and any other place she graced with her presence. Would someone like the pop performers inspire courteous behavior on the road and good manners anywhere else they showed up? Well, let’s just say ladylike bearing brings out the gentlemen in men, and I certainly don’t want to bring out rough attitudes on the street (in myself and in others). If it’s the likes of The Nutcracker Suite and Fur Elise that will inspire virtue in me whenever I’m on the city’s major roads, then this type of music will dominate my playlist. Let’s leave Call Me Maybe and other pop staples for the times I’m a pedestrian or a passenger far from the steering wheel.

 Woman Today magazine
November 2013

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