28 May 2010

Perception, taste and people's priorities

Hope people don't think this is too trite - I thought it was interesting and exemplifies much about the way we live today.


In Washington DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent - without exception - forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest 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, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $200 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

*In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
*If so, do we stop to appreciate it?
*Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:

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 ever made . . .

How many other things are we missing as we rush through life


  1. Sheff

    I would have listened, applauded and put something in the hat.

    the other question around this s what it is that people realy value - the music or the 'scene'. Is attendance at expensive 'high culture' cncerts also for some at leastabout being seen in the right place surrounded by the right people?

  2. Cheers Sheff,

    I'd actually read about this before...

    (On the other side of the coin, I wonder how many people who paid $200 dollars in Boston thought it was worth that....??)

  3. George Harrison used to go out busking regularly in the mid-late 60's after the Beatles gave up playing live. By all accounts he was never recognised, so I don't think ignoring buskers is a recent phenomenon.

    There was a wonderful clip (since pulled) on youtube of Neil Young busking at the entrance of Glasgow Central in 1975. It was filmed on b&w super 8 and he sings 'The old laughing lady' on banjo. I wish to god I could find it again.

  4. Duke,

    I never saw that one, but there's this one from Bruce, although he was obviously very recognised......

  5. Sheff:

    Can't thank you enough for that.

    Even looking at that violin in a grainy pic, I can see it's a bloody quality instrument, I'm looking at his left arm - it's fluid...the mark of someone who is at one with that instrument and the music he's playing.

    This is a complex one. Being a muso, travelling on the Tub, or sometimes, just scrawling around central London, over 20 years, I've had the inexplicable pleasure of hearing some the most exquisite music being played.... often before I see the person playing it.... whether they were famous musicians in disguise or not, I've heard virtuoso violinists, tin whistle players, virtuosos harmonica players, trumpeters, harpists, you name it, I've heard it... and as for singers, well, don't even go there for the beauty of some voices I've heard...

    On the flip side, I've heard some terrible people, but unlike most passers-by, if I can and if I have time, as with the best, I always make time for the ones who are never going to deliver 'exquisite beauty' but even they have a beauty, all of their own and I salute them ;)

  6. Leni

    the other question around this s what it is that people realy value - the music or the 'scene'

    I think this is part of it - particularly in the States where people love to see and be seen at the 'right' cultural events. although they have a monopoly on that by any means. You've only got to go to the National theatre or the opera in London so see people in evening dress snoring in the stalls. Not that I go that often but I noticed it when I worked in the theatre

    it is a sad indictment though - although i should have thought that anyone who knew the remotest bit about music would have recognised what they were getting.

    I take a lot of photos so I'm always looking about for what's going on visually but not being a muso - whilst I would have enormously enjoyed a busker playing Bach well, I probably would have missed the real quality of the playing and certainly the preciousness of the instrument.

    We have some really great buskers in Sheffield from string quartets to jazz sax players, little indie groups and Chileans on pan pipes. Some of them gather quite a crowd - others just get walked past. I can't always understand why.

  7. Sheffpixie: I know bugger all about music but when I lived in Sheffield a certain Mr Cropper (Michael I think) who lived on the same Street in Fulwood asked us to look after his violin whilst he had to go away. He was part of the Lindsay Quartet and his violin was a Stradivarious worth hundreds of thousands of dosh in whatever flavour you like.
    It's a long time ago and I can't remember the context or even how we eventually re-united him with his violin.
    My point being that he might as well have left the contents of his bin for our safekeeping since the value of the violin was never mentioned!
    Make of that what you will but it's a true story.

  8. BTW; following on from my previous post in which I mentioned that I don't know bugger all about music. I spent the first third of my second year studying drama in Portugal at the Univerity of Porto.
    One of the exercises we did was directing percussion after which the tutor came up to me and said; "It was obvious from the way you conducted that you are a musician."
    To which I had to reply that I'd never played a musical instrument in my life!
    Make of that what you will also!

  9. Great piece, my mate Luke Plumb, was busking in a mall in Tasmania, and a member of Shooglenifty saw him playing. Their mandolinist had just quit, they asked him to dep for a few gigs, he joined the band and lived a few years over here. You'll often stumble across world class players in pub sessions...

  10. Only just spotted this, Sheff, really interesting little piece. In rush hour London i dont think people would stop for anything, not even Megan Fox stripping off next to them - people are just machines in rush hour, oblivious to the world.

  11. Really interesting - particularly that it was children who wanted to stop! hope those kids manage to hang onto that sense of discovery and wonder and don't get it all kicked out of them too soon...