A Social Experiment

Joshua Bell playing in the subway

On a cold January morning in 2007, a man with a violin played music by Bach for about 45 minutes in a Washington, DC Metro station. During that time thousands of people went through the station, most on their way to work.

About three minutes into the violinist’s performance a middle-aged man noticed him, stopped for a few seconds, then hurried on. About four minutes later the violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat, and without stopping, continued to walk. At six minutes a young man leaned against the wall to listen, then looked at his watch and started to walk again. A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along. The child stopped again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head to keep watching the musician. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent — without exception — forced their children to move on quickly.

In total, six people stopped and listened to the musician for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32. When he finished playing, silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

Joshua Bell playing in the Washington subway
Joshua Bell playing in the Washington subway

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world, playing some of the most intricate music ever written, on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where people paid an average of $100 to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story originally titled “Pearls Before Breakfast” in the Washington Post Magazine — it’s been told many times with many different takes on what it might mean. The experiment was organized by staff writer, Gene Weingarten. I heard about it only recently.

On first hearing the story, we might think,”Isn’t it terrible that people don’t recognize great music unless they’re paying big dollars to hear it?” or “Isn’t it terrible that nobody but a child can slow down to hear the music?” or the usual “What are we missing in our big hurry?”

On second thought, I think that perhaps the people using the subway that morning might have been in trouble if they were late for work, and many, if not most, would be in the segment of society that wouldn’t recognize Bach or Josh Bell or a Stradivarius. The few who can afford the time & resources to really ‘know’ classical music and musicians are a very small percentage of society, and an even smaller number would have been in that subway station at that particular time. I’m thinking that it’s an interesting story, but really doesn’t say anything particularly important.

And BTW, isn’t it wonderful that children stop and stare and listen to anything that’s out of the ordinary? Don’t you wish that we all allowed ourselves the social freedom of childhood!

2 Replies to “A Social Experiment”

  1. Afraid that I can’t watch 60 Minutes with my old dial-up! (I feel like I’m writing with a quill and driving a horse & buggy sometimes.)

  2. Ah “this strange disease of modern life with its brisk hurry and divided aims.” Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) thought life was hectic back then Jane but I wonder.

    That’s a nice story and coincidently last night 60 minutes had an uplifting documentary on Conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s Musical Mission with kids.

    If you missed it: http://bit.ly/buQ7lv

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