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Bell in the metro

Kendra sent me (and a few others) an e‑mail message this morning. It described an experiment the Washington Post performed in 2007.

They recruited violin virtuoso Joshua Bell for “an experiment in context, perception and priorities.” The Post had him leave his fancy clothes at home in favour of jeans, a t‑shirt, and a baseball hat, and he played some of the most enduring masterpieces of classical music on his $3.5 million 300 year old violin as he stood at the bottom of an escalator in a metro station. Taking on the guise of a street musician, he left his violin case open at his feet to accept monetary appreciation from the passers-by.

During his 37 minute morning rush-hour performance, 1097 people walked by. Just 27 people left money, totalling $32.17. Only a handful of people stopped to listen to Bell for more than a moment. One man realized how talented the street musician really was, himself having trained to be a concert musician but ultimately becoming a postal supervisor. One woman recognized Bell, having seen him perform three weeks earlier. She dropped a $20 bill into the violin case bringing the total to $52.17 but the experimenters didn’t count her contribution because she knew who he was.

The article is nicely thought-provoking without judging the crowd while the e‑mail message asks the reader to self-judge:

The questions raised: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments … how many other things are we missing?

It’s an interesting question to ponder, but I don’t buy the built-in criticism.

The phrases “one of the best musicians in the world,” “some of the finest music ever written,” and “one of the most beautiful instruments” are all value judgements. Yes, there are some factual aspects to each of these phrases, but placing them in the metro entrance during morning rush-hour cleanly strips away these facts leaving only personal taste.

For most people, classical music is purely background music. It is music one listens to while doing something else because there are no lyrics. Most haven’t heard a skilled performer play a quality violin live. Take music that most people don’t hear and put it in a place where they’re busy trying to go elsewhere, and the only question is how few people would even notice, much less pay attention.

I do not accept criticism for failing to notice everything around me. Yes, we should strive to be aware of our surrounding and the beauty in the world, but there are a finite number of hours in the day. If we stopped to pay attention to everything around us on our morning commute, we’d never get to work.

We also filter our surroundings based on what we know. There’s no doubt about Bell’s skill, the quality of his violin, and the beauty of the music he played, but you don’t gain an appreciation for these things in the metro. I think it’s a shame that the majority of the passers-by weren’t equipped with the experience and knowledge to appreciate the performance, but this is not the same thing as ignoring the performance. They weren’t stupid for not seeing what was before them.

I’d like to know how many of those 1097 people have attended a classical music concert. Even more to the point, I’d like to know how many of them sat down in front of their stereo and listened to a classical piece. Not while reading or doing anything else. How many have simply listened for an hour.

I’d guess fewer than 20. They’re the only ones who even had a chance to recognize what was there in the metro that morning.


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  1. _don

    An interesting sidepoint to this. In the book Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell points out a similar experiment, where people were told to give a talk on being a good Samaritan (I’m paraphrasing for brevity). These people were then told they would give a talk in the building across the street. An actor, dressed as a bum in distress was placed in the path where the speakers would go. Half of the speakers were told they were running late, and better get going, the other told they have some extra time, but just head over early. In this case, nearly everyone who was told they were running late, ignored or stepped over the person in distress (and ironically, the topic of their speach was being a good Samaritan). Conversely, those who had extra time to get to their speech, took the time to see what was wrong with the person.

    The power of context is equally true with this violin experiment. There is a reason its called rush hour. People are in a hurry to go to work (or get home), so of course Bell would be ignored — after all, its just some guy playing music. Do the same experiment on a Saturday or Sunday, when the context of getting somewhere is removed, and I’m sure the outcome would be different. Having been in Washington during rush hour, it is a madhouse!

  2. Jessica

    I was thinking exactly the same thing – that beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, and many people in that subway station just might not have found that music particularly beautiful. Not all of us can tell the difference between a “great” violinist and a good one. Not all of us care. And besides, just because an instrument is way old and cost a bunch of money, doesn’t mean *I* have to think it’s wonderful. It’s still just an instrument, and the player’s skill (and, more importantly, passion) is far more noticeable.

  3. Kathleen Masse

    Our brains are actually designed to FILTER our environment through the senses. Think about that for a second and you realize, that if this wasn’t the case, if we had to ‘process’, every scrap of sensory information we perceived, we’d all be gibbering lunatics. (Or much more highly evolved.) That said, we’re conditioned by the environment we’ve adapted to ourselves and behave accordingly. The experiment, while slightly disappointing, is not surprising.

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