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Home » Artists, Music, News

Music: What are we missing?

Submitted by on July 17, 2009 – 4:34 pm 49 Comments

Here is something very profound to think about. This story is about music, and how the set, setting, and our preconceived ideas can affect our judgement and our perceptions. It is in fact a music story, but speaks about more than just music:

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

4 minutes later:

the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the till and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:

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

10 minutes:

A 3 year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly, as 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. Every parent, without exception, forced them to move on.

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.

1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. 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 Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was a part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. The questions raised: in a common place 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, then what else are we missing?


  • alex says:

    or, not that many people are interested in violon

    • Christian says:

      You would think that one of the best violinists in the world playing some of the best music ever would get noticed by someone interested in violin. He was playing for an hour in a crowded metro station. Someone who enjoys the violin would probably have passed by at some point. I would just find it hard to believe that nobody passing by had a taste in violin.

  • Jamesnao says:

    You see lots of people will even breeze by the simple beauty in this story as well…. To me life is about those unexpecting moments that leave you breathless and remembering why this life is amazing…

  • scarr says:

    This story has been bouncing around for a while. It ignores some fundamental issues:

    1) Not everyone likes classical music. On a synth blog, that shouldn’t be surprising. If you look at the percentage of the populous who attend classical concerts, it’s relatively small. You could bump the number up for people who “otherwise couldn’t afford” to go, but I would correspondingly bump it back down on account of many of the wealthier patrons not using the subway. I probably wouldn’t spend more than a minute listening to the greatest accordion player in the world, and I wouldn’t expect any more of the general population with a violinist.

    2) Almost everyone in a subway station is trying to get somewhere else. Probably sooner rather than later. If I had to get to work, I couldn’t stop for more than a couple minutes to watch Depeche Mode if they appeared en route.

    It’s only after you extract the remaining population out of those two filters that you can start to accurately gauge the situation. That isn’t leaving many people. The story does note some people pausing along their way to listen to what they could. Those people might be the end result of those filters.

    3, kinda) I don’t doubt that preconceived notions of the quality of buskers was a factor, and that is kinda the point of the story, but it’s an incomplete argument. Your brain is constantly filtering out tons of the outside world — it’s the only way you can function. People with autism don’t have those filters, and that’s why it’s difficult for them to interact with the world. Joshua Bell is an extreme example of where that filtering deprives us of an excellent opportunity. However, if you stopped to give every street performer an hour of your time though, you’d have a much longer commute each day.

    (If you disagree, I invite you to spend an hour listening to my music. You definitely missed it.)

    • DRAGON drums says:

      the question of whether you like something (classical music) in you own private life or not is not an issue, simply because you dont take time out to listen to classical music does not mean you cant appreciate the beauty, art and skill involved.

      i like to consider myself a musician of sorts, and to be able understand where music has come from even dating back to the 5 ages of classical music is relevant in every current music today.
      if you (as a population) cant take a minute or two out of the “oh so busy work schedule” to appreciate something as pure and beautiful as talent and true art then this simply proves how wrong society has gone.

      i must add however that in my 8000 or so album collection i do not own a single piece of classical music. but i have taken time out from my busy, busy life to go see some and even spent some money on doing so.

      life is not about being successful (in its most materialistic form) at what you do, its about progressing and being the best you can be, expanding you knowledge as far as it can go and not limit yourself to the having the life and thoughts of just a clever monkey.


  • RIXTER says:

    sometimes you just have to “stop and smell the flowers”.

  • kev on music says:

    that’s a consequence of having a price tag to virtually anything, especially music. U don’t perceive it worthwhile if u don’t see him at some royal hall (where, historically, all the classical music was performed, or was dominant). so it’s not only about the perceptions we have.

    also true, violin it’s not the instrument ordinary ppl can make tell a difference. i wouldn’t.

  • not the whole story says:

    This is not the whole story. At one point, a man stopped for a total of 9 minutes and listened to him play. Toward the end, a woman finally recognized him and stayed to listen to him for a few minutes before approaching him. There was recognition, but not until the very end; the woman who recognized him gave him $20.

  • Donna says:

    Put him somewhere where people arnt so rushed
    Were not all morons

  • spinner says:

    one of the best musician in the world? this make me laugh… come on?! wheres his own original composition? the best player DOES NOT make you the best musician. I guess he’s not so amazing when he’s not playing in a world class theater wearing his thousand dollar tux and playing his million dollar violin. I say Philip Glass is one of the best musician/composer in the world.

    • DRAGON drums says:

      there is a difference between composer songwriter and musician, by the way.

      jimi hendrix couldn’t compose a 20 minute piece of music comprising of one hundred instruments, having to transpose between different keys for each instrument, knowing how many semitones there are between an Eb saxophone and a guitar, bassoon, bass, violins, violas, clarinets, trumpets, … you get my point.

      but because hendrix could not do this does that make him less in any way??

      and now for the violinist because this guy isnt all that great at siting in a room getting high and jamin out some sick beats, does that make him any less of a musician.

      all in all the point i am making is you a moron! and a disgrace to anything music related. go lock yourself in a dark room with garage band open, and just mess around until you expire and do everyone a favour.

      all the best keep well and hope you had a good week.


  • Lewis Wall says:

    for some strange reason its good to know

  • spinner says:

    I guess he isn’t that amazing when not wearing his expensive suit playing his million dollar violin in a theater is he ? one of the best musician in the world… come on?!

  • Christine says:

    It’s too bad that I missed that. I can honestly say that I definitely would have stopped to listen to someone who displayed that much talent, even though I would not have known he was famous. I would have thoroughly enjoyed the free concert.

  • Laurissa says:

    I Think It’s A Lovely Story. It Truly Shows That Not Many People Can Just Slow Down And Enjoy Life. For Those Critisizing This Story Saying Stuff Like “Not Many People Like Classic Music And Bla Bla Bla” I Think You Are The Ones Who Would Just Walk By And Not Care. You’re The Ones Who Really Need To Stop, And Just Relax. Enjoy Life. I’m Sure You Could Spare A Few Bucks And A Couple Minutes To Really Enjoy Some Wonderful Music.

  • IrishPikey5546 says:

    Whats sad is beauty gets passed everyday of our lives and we never stop to just take a deep breath and realize how good thigs can be. Kids missing the opertunity to admire beauty and thaqt some of those people who passed are some who pay the $100 seat price to see him play. I wish I could have seen it. I might have called in sick lol.

  • Dan says:

    That isn’t the violin that he usually plays. I wonder if he was scared of being mugged for it.

  • gls334 says:

    One Biography of naturalist John Muir tells how people want to seek beauty, “Muir knew people’s hunger for the wilderness. He would come back from his hikes out of San Francisco with his arms full of flowers, and the children, who had only streets for playground, would beg him for some.”

    It is not as though the type and quality of music and performance were commonplace. A subway “Great, more Bach, another virtuoso playing a Guarneri violin. Ho-hum.”

    We now actively deny a natural pull to beauty in life. Like bees to flowers, our nature is to seek visual, aural satisfaction. Creativity and expression in sculpture, dance, theater, music, poetry is what separates us from being machines. It is a destination with meaning and a destination that provides purpose.

  • jesus says:

    people use the subway to travel, not listen to musicians or to kill time. perhaps he would have received better results elsewhere.

  • ViolaPlayerGuy says:

    I agree with scarr. Not everyone likes classical music, people have places to get, and people may just not be thinking about their environment as much. He is an amazing musician, though I think he plays with far too much tension in his body and he is painful to watch. The above picture of him is a perfect example: observe how far that muscle in his neck is visible and how high his fingers are from the bow (while in that part of the bow).

    In commentary of spinner’s comment, he is ONE OF the best players (and by “best” I think they mean most publicized), not THE best player. I can think of several players that are better in my opinion. In the world of string playing the trick is to play as effortlessly as possible…a trick that I am still working on. To play with as little effort as possible, one should be a excellent player (implying high technical facility). Once you achieve that high level of facility, you have room to be a better musician. I also think that this article distorts some language.

    If I were trying to get to a gig on time I probably would have noticed him and stopped for a sec, then kept going. Or, if I were more militant, I would have just filtered him out all together. That’s the problem with this experiment: you can’t expect people to stop their busy day to listen to a musician they may or may not know. Oh yeah, he also has that weird double chin look when he plays.

    • ViolinPlayerGuy says:

      This is unrelated to the article, but being a violinist myself, I would half agree and half disagree with your statement of trying to play as effortlessly as possible.

      On one half, playing effortlessly, the repetition of all the scales and passages becomes so great, that whatever they play is easy to do because they’ve already done it before, just in another context!

      But on the other half playing requires extreme effort. All the things to concentrate on, bowing speed, pressure, placement, vibrate, pitch, intonation, balance, string crossings; just to name a few. While practicing lessens all of those, you do have to admit, playing in front of an orchestra is not an effortless thing.

  • Michael says:

    I the story doesn’t prove anything about how someone perceives music or “beauty” in “common place environments”. for one the people doing this social experiment didn’t find out where everyone was from. they didn’t quantify or measure how common the environment was to each person. also, perception of beauty and more importnatly, musical perception, is both different from person to person, is based on experience, and may require education of the music. if anything, the study shows how we trust authority figures and or context of a situation to judge art. if the musician is in a famous theater and the crowd knows his instrument is worth millions, then they will assume he’s playing something worth all that, and they will read into it. in the street they assume he’s broke and not successful so they read into that too. we are all affected by social context and by just who it is that is telling you what you are perceiving.

  • luigi says:

    It also shows that people have very little perception of what is talent. That is why we are subject to the noise made by so much mediocre entertainment today.

  • anniefanny says:

    one question…”money in the till”? did he have a cash register beside him? Buskers ususally use a hat or their case for $

  • joe says:

    This just proves that A) not many people like violin and B) That they couldn’t tell apart SHIT from AWESOME if they heard it. Most people can’t hear for shit when it comes to music.

  • Michael Jon Clarke says:

    Another case of “pearls before swine”

    The fact o is that very few people have the ability to discern genuine beauty. They are fed by the entertainment industry as to what they should buy. They have very little basic aesthetic sense at all.

  • Xander says:

    I don’t know about you, but 32$ in an hour sounds pretty damn good to me.

  • Ann says:

    An interesting experiment but one that also begs respect for place before blanket conclusion about the nature and priorities of all Americans… I’d like to see results from the same experiment having been conducted in San Francisco’s BART where people meet all the same criteria that have been suggested as factors in their lack of appreciation. While citizens of that city are equally rushed, focused, and conscious of pricing tags, I believe the responses would have been completely different. The two locations, DC and SF, represent opposite ends of the spectrum of life choices from people of equal educational background and diversity.

  • Rene says:

    I think 32$ in 45 minutes is very good. If you measure it that way, he got his attention. 100$ for a concert is too much. You pay for the social event.

    I bet that many recognized the well played violin, but did not want to stop, or did not want to pay, or did not want to be observed stopping. Mothers seem to be especially in a hurry, always.

    I have met some very good street musicians, and certainly would have noticed the professional play. That does not mean I’d have wanted to stay there inmidst the stream of people and listen. I might have asked myself why he plays on the street. And the answer would be, that he is just another jobless musician, what a pitty.

  • Jonthecomposer says:

    I can believe it. Today, it’s all about money and popularity: “if we can make you popular, we both can make a lot of money no matter how we do it.” This is how popular music works and how 90%+ of the public views things.

    Not only that, but if your instrument isn’t “popular,” neither are you. I know first hand. I play bass. And even though I arrange and write songs for a full band/orchestra and can play any style including but not limited to funk and metal (read: Flea and Les), the guitar player who doesn’t even read music still gets more recognition than I do.

    It’s not fair, but you gotta do what you love… and won’t switch to guitar for the recognition : )

  • Ash says:

    This article wants to prove that people give as much, if not more importance to the environment in which music(or any other aesthetically pleasing form of art)is presented. In the process, it seems to have taken a condescending/preachy tone implying that the general populace is superficial in its appreciation of art.

    I disagree. People going to concerts expect to be served some good music and thus their frame of mind is more perceptive and appreciative of what they are listening to. People in the subway have other things on their minds, like getting some place, and getting there quick. So just because they hurried past some good music doesnt imply that theyre superficial.

    And furthermore, who cares if its Joshua Bell, or even Santa Claus who is playing on the violin. People who stopped, did so for the music and not the artist.

    The only conclusion i drew from this article was-It wis yet another attempt to tweak the emotions of the fluff-hearted, hoping they would in turn Mass-Forward it to all their unsuspecting non-fluff friends.

  • Jerome says:

    I think essentially most people here are viewing all of this from a very superficial and shallow perspective, what is being asked despite argument, or lack of argument is that are people able to observe a form of beauty despite being classical, or played by a very good musician and despite being played on an expensive instrument. How much made and those who stopped for a short time are not what is being shown as important. What this is trying to describe is that in the busyness of life people ( in general) are not willing to give time out of their day to give something that could be potentially beautiful a chance to touch them. We have become a culture based on the numbness of hard decisions and commercialisation where musicians of any stature are regarded more as novelties rather than what they deserve to be regarded as. Essentially if you look at how much the guy made, or who he was or any human element involved in this except that the experience itself could have been beautiful and something just worthwhile to take a moment out of your day, then you’ve missed the point of this and having commented i think you’ve not only wasted your time, but mine.

  • Megan says:

    one of the best musician in the world? this make me laugh… come on?! wheres his own original composition? the best player DOES NOT make you the best musician.

    This is absolutely ridiculous. Since when was composition a requirement for being a good musician?

    If composers are superior musicians to players, than surely players aren’t even necessary; composers, as the “best musicians,” can just get by on their own.

    In all seriousness, though:
    While musicians should be well-rounded, every musician has a specialty. We do not expect our world-class conductors to be phenomenal opera singers, or our world-class percussionists to excel on a woodwind instrument. So why should we expect a world-class violinist to be a great composer?

    He is a great musician, his playing demonstrates a great understanding of music in general, as well as his instrument and the pieces he performs. He may not be the best in the world- I wouldn’t know, I am not a violinist- but he is a great musician.

  • mohamed says:

    Awesome story.. Thanks

  • Linda Muhl says:

    I will wager that all (or at least most) of my high school humanities students would have stopped to listen. Music and art appreciation can be taught, yet so many people are still in the dark and missing out. Individual taste is the basis for what we choose to see and hear; however, a broad-based humanities education will lead to our acknowledgement and appreciation of all of the great works, personal taste or not. Many colleges require enrichment courses that give this kind of exposure. Why not high schools?

  • Lorena says:

    If the same thing had happened to me and it had been, let’s say, Cecilia Bartoli singing Vivaldi coloratura, I would have deffinitely stopped unless I was late for work or a very important appointment that I cant miss.

  • Lindsay says:

    I agree with all the people here.
    Classical music while I appreciate it (especially on a rainy day) at home with a cup of coffee is not something I would go out of my way for. If this guy had been an old timer from West Virginia playing a rare old lively tune that was shaped and moulded by the country and environment then I may have stopped. If I didn’t have to be somewhere.

    also I object to the assumption that the ‘name’ of the musician, ‘the cost’ of the violin and the ‘label’ that Bach is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written should influence a decision to take time out.

    People go to concert halls for music seeped in elegance, warmth, the momentous sound of applause, the chance to dress up, the heavy crinkles in red plush curtains. Do they go for the performer. maybe. I don’t care who this guy is or how perfect he gets his notes. On youtube this performance lacked soul.

    When you play in doorways expect people to pass through them.

  • matt says:

    My instructor told us about this experiment a year ago. The class is designed to get people over their fear of playing in front of your peers and large audiences. For most, this fear can be crippling and causes the person to lose any musical ability. I firmly believe that people want to hear me when I play. It makes me better. I am not saddened by these results nor surprised. I think that Mr. Bell would say the same.

  • Shawn says:

    I am a professional musician & have been on the business side of things as well for over 20 years. I agree with the above comment that classical might not be the choice of many, I for one would not show interest merely because the violin to me is scathing. I would probably look at the young man & think “what a waste of talent…playing in the subway”. There is more to the concept than simply one experiment. Have Celine Dion sing in a redneck country bar and you would probably get the same reaction…people have other preferences at this particular place. Is it a problem with the people? NO. Today’s music lacks soul, period.

  • Ace says:

    32/hr is good money.

  • Andrés says:

    This is sad. That’s why I look to the city landscape, the mountains on the horizon, and the music of street musicians whenever I walk around the city.
    And as a musician myself, I feel offended by the attitude seen in the experiment.

  • Alex says:

    I think it’s interesting how lots of the kids stopped but were pulled along. It can also be noted that children are (generally) happier, kinder, and have a different sense of right and wrong than adults do. Just a thought–

  • SgtPepper says:

    maybe its the music dont get me wrong if you take about 3 minutes of your time and listen to clasical music you will enjoy it “A LOT”
    but I think more people would have stoped if the heard something a little more popular
    Ei:who in their right mind whould have not stop if they heard “sweet child of mine” on the violin,just a thought

  • Stacey says:

    I watched the video of it on youtube – and there was a small crowd of about 4 people gathered at the end. A lady approached him after he was finished to say she had enjoyed his concert the other night. Did you see the same video? I don’t think it’s fair to say that nobody recognized him.

  • Nick108 says:

    similarly devotees around the world, stop people to ‘chat’ about their spiritual lives, ‘sorry, no time’, ‘whats in it for me’, ‘too busy’, the world keeps on moving at an incredible pace, no one has time to stop and hear beautiful music, or make enquiries about their own ‘spiritual life’.

    I’ve heard some brilliant musicians in bands, can’t get work, rehearse in a garage for years, go no where and split up because of no work.

    And some absolutely bad sounding crud, that goes on to make them better off than most.

    Guess its progress.

  • worth it?…

    mal was zum nachdenken:washington dc. in einer u-bahn station spielt ein violinist stücke von bach. etwa eine stunde lang steht der mann dort und spielt für die leute, verdient sich dabei 32$. niemand klatscht, als er fertig ist. niemand nimmt irgendwi…

  • Nick108 says:

    Krishna devotees doing street seva tell me often they find the same situation, in peak hour traffic, they ask “Do you have a spiritual life?” and the people say, “Sorry, no time”. What, no time to consider that you will die one day. Oh this is a tragic world. No time to stop and listen to an awesome musician. No time, have to get to work to get the money to pay the bills so I can afford the box they put me in when I die, and when I’m dead and buried they will say, “Can you come to the funeral” and they will say again, “Sorry, no time”.

  • Sxip Shirey says:

    I find this story frustrating as a musician and a New Yorker who hears ALLOT of a great musicians in the subway everyday. The city is a busy place and people are going places. This is not the story it sets itself up to be. The story itself is a set up, “oh look, no one stops to listen to the amazing musician” but, that’s not actually what happens always. It depends on allot of factors. Often people DO stop and listen to a great musician and there are allot of GREAT musicians already playing in the subway. Sometimes you’ll hear a musician that is obviously an immigrant and obviously was playing in an orchestra back home. I’ll often stop and listen a bit and give them some money, if I am not rushing off to a gig I have to make myself. So….

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