Monday, November 14, 2011

"A Violinist in the Metro"

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 thousand 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?

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?


  1. I have seen this before Shan and it is surprising and yet not surprising at the same time. "Value" is so subjective and context based...

  2. Such a great reminder buddy!! Sad that it's not surprising...

  3. Hey Shannon, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this since you felt so inclined to post it :) I personally feel it's such a biased place to stage an experiment like this. I mean the metro station is a place where people are not meant to be loitering. They are there because they are trying to go somewhere, not to listen to some music. I'm sure many people appreciated listening as they took part in their daily commute, but just because they didn't stop and reflect and pay money doesn't mean they didn't appreciate what they heard.

    The saying "context is king" (mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in the great book The Tipping Point) really rings true for me for this story, and why shouldn't it?


  4. Thanks for the in depth comment Justin - love it! I realized after I posted it that I didn't share my thoughts on it so instead of editing the post I just left it as an "interesting read post"!

    The context I received this in was in my "Human Relations" class; the teacher used it to illustrate perception and how different situations can create different outcomes. We were about to start presentations and she felt it relevant to that which I thought was a neat thing for her to share.

    That is a very good point that context really puts a whole different spin on this situation - I fully agree on that. I basically took this story as a reminder of how we all go about our day to day life. For the most part, we rush everywhere and don't take a few seconds to show appreciation for small things such as music in the metro station.