Monday, June 22, 2009

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the subway

For those of us who hadn't already heard this story and I was one of them until this morning (April 8, 2007 - 2 years ago now), as part of a social experiment, Joshua Bell played incognito in the subway and was largely ignored. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100. I posted this story here because it struck me it has some resonance with the point of the NotReallyRelevant project. (See:

Below is a longer version of the story story that has circulated via email. (See snopes: Snopes: Joshua Bell playing incognito in the subway But the story checks out. You can read the full story as it was originally published in the Washington Post here: Joshua Bell playing incognito in the subway, including video. Also the Washington Post have a channel on YouTube. A video to go with the story is here: YouTube video of Joshua Bell playing incognito in the subway... that's the video I decided to embed above. The Washington Post's channel on YouTube is here.

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?


Unknown said...

You can't reach any kind of conclusion from this "experiment"...

1) People on the subway are GOING SOMEWHERE... and the trains run on a schedule. The fact that the children all turned around belies the point of the article. People DO recognize beauty when they hear it... but children DONT HAVE A SCHEDULE TO KEEP.

Suppose you had a meeting with a client in half an hour... would you stop to watch for 45 minutes and just tell the client.. I saw something beautiful and had to stop. How about a doctor's appt? Dentist appt? Lunch date with a friend? ANYTHING?

The subway is the quintesential place for people trying to get somewhere. To make any kind of conclusion based on the fact that they didn't stop is totally bogus.. in fact, elitist.

2) Most people are not TRAINED to recognize GOOD from GREAT violin playing... Are you? And I would bet 80% of people would not know Bach if they heard it.. I bet he was great.. and I bet most of the people there could not tell.

3) What difference does it make how much the violin was worth... would you recognize a 3.5 million dollar violin?

4) It seems to be saying that people do not support the arts? Lets see... $35 in 45 minutes = $46/hour - One could make a living on that. So any conclusion about how much people pay for entertainment is also bogus. I mean.. if you really think about it.. this guy sold tickets at $100 an hour... he was actually making MORE than that on the subway platform...

Read it again... 20 people gave him money without even stopping... which means.. they heard about.. oh 20 seconds of music. If 20 people gave him a $1 for 20 seconds of music, then he was making $180 an hour !!!

People do support their fellow human beings when those fellows contribute something nice to the environment... even if they can't stop to fully enjoy it. Personally, I think this says GREAT things about the people on that subway platform.

This article reached all the WRONG conclusions about people...

Andrew said...

Thanks for that, William. I think it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusions from things like this. I expect there is some truth in what you say. What struck me as interesting was how much CONTEXT seems to make a difference to something.

Jonathan M said...

William, I read the WP article and to me it seems you're missing the point of the article. I think it's a very interesting piece. I don't think the point is to prove something by way of setting up a scientific experiment, but to raise questions.

1) I think the scenario is interesting precisely BECAUSE people are on a schedule. There are obviously things that will make ignore your schedule. Is a worldclass violin performance one of these things? I don't understand where elitist comes in here.

2) I think that's exactly the point, most people didn't recognize it was Bach. I don't see why this would make the article a weaker peice though.

3. But it DOES make a difference how much the violin was worth! It raises a whole bunch of interesting questions about how we create and assign value in society.

4. I don't think the point of the article is that the arts are not supported. Bell says that he thought the pay was decent (32USD/hour. The point of the article, or one of the points, is that we assign different value to art depending on the context in which it is presented.

Unknown said...

Or people who are interested in violin music generally don't take the subway?

Unknown said...

i'm i veracruz, port. México. I just read the newspaper called Centinela. I cant believe this amazing histoy. Then i taok my smartphone and i have been reeading everything about joshua. And congratulations. This is something new to me. And it helps to put more attention in every things i do.

ARose said...

I live in DC and i just want to say the metro is basically hell. the red line has been deemed the "trail of tears." I can understand why people want to get in and out of the stations as fast as possible.

Dr H said...

Agree with William. People think they can just throw any variable out to sink or swim and they've somehow conducted a meaningful "experiment".

The only thing this exercise tells us is that yes, people will react differently to something presented in a deliberately inappropriate context than they will in a more expected context. This is news?

Joshua Bell may be one of the world's greatest musicians in the concert hall, but what does he know from busking? People who play on the street for a living know how to work the crowd, they don't just stand there an play all day. If he put a little banter into his act, he probably would have made twice as much -- and it still wouldn't have mattered how much his violin was worth.

Andrew said...

Very good points, Dr H! :-)

DonnaB said...

#s1-3 are fair enough. #4 is just as bogus as you proclaim this experiment to be. The individual would have to continue the effort for a minimum of 4-8hrs, say for example, daily for a week, to produce a realistic average. That's not rocket science. lol

Unknown said...

My 17 yrs-old cellist granddaughter Gabrielle wrote the following. I think she is wise beyond her years:
Thoughts on Joshua Bell in the Subway Car
By Gabrielle Toner-Godbout

It seems to me , that if people really stopped to smell the roses every once in a while, even though they are in a rush, or coping with a difficult day, they might notice the wonderful things that are taking place in the world.
Think, for example, of Joshua Bell performing in the Subway. How is it, that people were in a position so prestigious, were they to have paid the deserved price, they wouldn't have been able to feed their children for a month? How is it, that these people barely shifted their eyes to the virtuoso? Consider the fact that young ambitious violinists around the world might have lost control of their bowels, were they to have been lucky enough to encounter the world class prodigy.
Now, this leaves the question, is this lack of care because people are too caught up in their own daily lives, or because they are incapable of recognizing talent when it is placed directly in front of their noses?
Say a girl is running through a forest, trying to outrun a vicious dog. The forest she is travelling through is filled with berries, roses, lilies-- all of the girl's favourite things. chances are she will not notice all these great things that are around her-- she would most likely be too occupied trying to outrun the vicious dog.
All the people who had been rushing to work on the subway are no different from this girl running through the vibrant woods-- people are just too preoccupied to stop and notice their surroundings.
One should, however, consider the fact that a man busking on a Subway might seem like a musician who can't be that good, if he's desperate enough to stoop so low, right? It is possible that Mr. Bell created the impression that he was not a good musician by busking in a Subway, which is usually a habit of a struggling musician, who tends to not always be so outrageously talented as Mr. Bell.
But I do believe that was the point in question when Mr. Bell was put to the task of playing in the Subway-- the scientists knew that the Subway was not usually the place a great musician might be found.
Yet the people ignored the music as though it was rain on a window-- they might look, but they might not care much, with an odd child here or there pointing to the obvious "Mom, look, it's rain\a violin!"
You also can't forget that popular music draws attention more than classical music, which usually gets little to no interest from your general crowd. Had the music been a popular Beatles song instead of a Verdi, people might have noticed...
It is also notable to say that people tend to match their opinions to a popular one...
On the Subway, before it was revealed that the strange violinist was in fact a famous musician, people didn't care whether or not he was there, but, once the secret was out, people tripped over each other to hear him again. Wait a second, a moment ago, people scarcely cared to tip him a dollar... How is it that the revelation that his playing was worth so much make them care more about it?
The quality is the same, yet, when the music is free, no one cares to hear, but when it costs 400$, people fight to pay the price first...
Either way, the message is the same: had people stopped to look and listen at Mr. Bell's performance, they would have experienced a moment priceless to someone on this planet. Of all the classical enthusiast in the world, many, I'm sure, were devastated that they had not been there to take the Subway that day. This shows that a moment that seems meaningless to one person could be the single most happy moment in someone else's life. Appreciate what you have, because someone out there in the world would sell their leg to be as lucky as you forget or don't realize you are.