Do you have a moment… for pure genius?

Posted on Tuesday, May 17th, 02011 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments

Somehow I missed this story when it came out (even though it won a Pulitzer),  but today I came across it at random on of all places Jeff Bridges website who wrote a fantastic synopsis.  But as they say, the Dude abides:

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 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 hat 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. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but 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 their children to move on quickly..

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.

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 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 $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as 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 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?

  • Notus

    It was a statement of a fact. I think it is true as well. No need to make it personal.

  • this show how stupid the public is

  • tekoyaki

    I think you're right. Beauty is relative. And it's harder to appreciate beauty from something unknown.

    There's probably only 1 in 1000 people in the city who appreciates classical music. Maybe even less…

  • Breslin

    It is not strictly the public that is lack of conscious enough to realize true beauty in front of the eye. Did Joshua Bell realize the wealth of individual beauty that passed him by in the Metro station that cold January morning, or was his impeccable narcissism too damaged to notice?

  • Pmorris

    It could have been that the noise he was making did not have the ability to stop people in their tracks and move them, even though it was intricate and brilliant and expensive. It's all about emotions.

  • When people pay for something ($100 / seat) they put value into it.  People enjoy wine when it's expensive, and use things they pay for.

  • Israel

    This is kind of an ignorant post.

  • Hernán Rivas

    I live in Buenos Aires, and it is fairly common to have very capable musicians playing in the subway. It's always nice to see them getting some recognition (some people, like me not only enjoy the music but also expect it as it is a pleasant way of starting the day). I think it amounts to the cultural level of the city in question.

    How many would have stopped for a good cover of a popular artist for example?

  • Alex

    It's interesting to think about the other side. Like you point out, the experiment itself even brings up many sociology/psychology concepts.

  • Christopher

    I believe that this instance confirms what my brother told me 40 years ago when I was 11 years old…..”The masses are asses.”

  • Bruin

    What was the piece?

  • Guest

    I don't know. I understand what the results of the experiment were meant to insinuate, but I live in a metropolis with lots of street musicians too, and most of the performers get freaked out if you stare at them for a long time.

  • Ope557

    I actually think that Mr. Robertson's comments were exactly on the mark.  I agree that not everyone is in a “hurry” at the metro but everyone is *going* somewhere.  Their minds are engaged and their bodies are in motion towards getting to some place.  It's not the type of place or mindset that makes people want to stop and listen.  A park, outdoor market or other setting where people aren't actively in motion with a goal of getting somewhere far away would have a very different result.

    A very good friend of mine is a musician, plays in metro stations, markets, etc.  The difference in the audiences' attention levels in the different settings is very notable.

  • Kizsole

    Very interesting, however usually when a price is put on the value of any given thing it is then that it becomes worthy, although this shouldn’t be the case people in this society equate high prices with quality because we are conditioned this way overtime.  Its ironic how the children were more attentive  because they are not brainwashed as we are therefore they can pick up eclectics better also they have no job to run to or no worries to cloud their minds so they have the beauty of perception, taste and no priorities

  • wow

  • Nobody knows what they want

  • iquanyin moon

    if wearing a tux changed things, that would be just more of the same point, no? (and i'm pretty sure the changes you mention would definitely affect the outcome, just as you figure they would). our brains are just wired like this. most people find food tastier when its on fine china in a plush restaurant, and so on. joni mitchell wrote a song many years back about this phenomena, “for free.”

  • iquanyin moon

    or maybe…he was concentrating on playing? people arent really good at multitasking. and no reason bell would be free of the same brain wiring as the people in the subway. not arguing, and i dont know if bell's narcissistic, so i guess i;m wondering why you call him than and presume about what he did or didnt notice? does he have a rep for being a douche or something?

  • iquanyin moon


  • iquanyin moon

    i think you're also correct, tho surely a few folks still like classical…

  • iquanyin moon

    kids shortsighted? they seem often empathetic and sensitive to me (not all kids, but many). adults, otoh, seem shockingly shortsighted and self-centered in far higher numbers. just look at how things get done (or get neglected) in ways that are /certain and known/ to cause trouble later. again and again. kids, their brains are still growing and they don't have much experience of things. but adults…oy vey.

  • iquanyin moon

    fiddle, ok, but how about violin? lol. (fiddle style is like, irish and bluegrass and sometimes country…)

  • iquanyin moon

    lol! he may indeed be a shitty street musician. its an art in itself. good point.

  • iquanyin moon

    wow, where do you live? i never heard of that before (i play music)

  • iquanyin moon

    you're right. he funny!

  • Musicman

    Wait, did everybody else miss this?  He got 32 bucks in 45 minutes, and it was clear nobody was appreciating his music?  Wow, 40 bucks an hour for hanging out down in a subway station doing what you love to do?  I would be willing to bet most talented musicians don't make that much even if they play for a living.  Maybe I'll give up my job and start hanging around down in the subway. But I can't play a note.  Oh wait, we all just established that musical ability doesn't mean squat down in the tunnels with the slack-jawed masses.  As long as you're down there with a hat for a handout the money flows freely. See you down in the tube!

  • an interesting question provoked by such a beautiful idea


  • Peanut

    You have a good point.Not to argue, just inquiring -> have you ever practiced a single act so much that you become nearly “perfect” at it.  It requires an immense amount of energy to achieve such a state.  I feel it is relatively safe to assume that the violinist is close to being “perfect” in performing the act that he has devoted nearly all of his waking energy toward.  Please allow this loose association…to not assume that he is narcissistic about being as “perfect” as one could be at an act the one has devoted such an incredible amount of energy toward, would not be consistent with human personality. In order to protect his ego (his ego would be hurt if he found out he is actually not good at something he devotes such an incredible amount of energy toward), his personality will assume that he is one of the best violinists of his time (in the strict sense, this does not fit the criteria of narcissism  but it fits the layman's use of the word).

  • Rakesh

    wonderful experiment.. kudos to the the does and the promoters

  • Time to slow down and smell the roses. And listen to the music.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to point out that in the clip, posted by the Washington post, on youtube a woman actually recognizes him and says quote: “I saw you at the library of congress … it was fantastic (…)”

  • Flavioparenti

    Joe satriani is old stuff. Put an half naked chick and some tecno music, and maybe you'll get some money

  • kathy mccrary

    We are undoubtedly missing many things. Beauty is all around us. Our ability or interest in participating determines how much of it we “get”. And unfortunately it is a function of time.  According to a recent PBR story, beauty is a commonality that transends culture or relgion and can unite us.

  • Thought this was great.

  • Most people are just too “busy” I guess!

  • I think what matters here is the question, “How many other things are we missing?” in the context of our perceptions and our priorities. Great question!!! That's true journalism in my opinion.

  • This experiment summarizes the whole concept of “Awareness”. This is what every spiritual teaching is abt (irrespective of what religion its been branded as). Our experience /understanding / actions  are influenced merely based on the brains ability to respond to the nearest logical memory of the past. This can be referred to as reactive living (humans live their entire life as just as a spontaneous reaction). We continuously miss everything right here right now just coz we live in either tmrow or yesterday. Simply saying “Living in the Moment” and that’s what the kids were doing but unconsciously..

  • Most people are too inwardly focused to see what is going on around them – much less appreciate this gift.

  • What chance is there for usI

  • Mook Merkin

    Pure crap. An excuse for the author to feel superior to the masses. Acoustics suck. People are on a mission to get somewhere. Most people (myself included) cannot tell world class playing from a good amateur; I wonder if the author could differentiate?

    I guess it helps one to feel superior to think that ” the others” cannot appreciate beauty and should be lectured about how to live their lives. Walk a mile in their shoes before pretending you know what is best for anyone.


  • Gjoiu

    I saw many awsome musicians when I was in Boston!
    Stoped , listend, and gave a few bucks.
    You never know?

  • inevitable

  • Khansalmanahmad

    It is an arbitrary context “our lives” in which we are of necessity “focused and in a hurry”. 

    Come on. Really?!?

    As we grow older, our priorities change. We evaluate things in “utility” not beauty. Another thing, beauty matters to everyone, but then beauty is qualitative.

    In another 1000 years Bach will remain Bach! In another 1000 years I am definitely not going to remember much of what I did during my life.

    It's amazing, children who were not biased towards notions of making money, getting to work, purchasing groceries, recognized this as something to be at least given second thought. While we grown-up just slog it off in the rat-race.

    Beauty is temporal and fleeting, and once experienced, eternal, We must take the time out and appreciate it.

  • Fantastic!

  • katiemae

    I do not believe in the idea that as we get older our appreciation of things is tied to their utility. My mother is almost eight-eight years old and was so busy with life; raising her children, building a business with my father, going back to complete two additional degrees (after we left home) and being an educator. I never heard her express an appreciation for any spontaneous  beautiful things in my life, but when I take her on outings (she still lives alone but does not drive often) everything she sees is so pretty and appreciated by her. So, this time for beauty is not (at least for her) a function of age.

    Somebody remarked that beauty is eternal, well I never considered that. Carly Simon wrote a song that says, “Love is eternal, life is imortal and death is only a horizon.”  The first time I heard those lyrics I was driving and had to pull off the road just to think about it. Guess beauty is eternal as well.  That is a good idea too.

  • katiemae

    I live in the country where the only music we get out of doors is typically, the sounds of nature or farming. You can bet if a street musician played on the streets of our mostly rural, southern town, it would be not only appreciated, but written up in several area papers, on local tv, and never forgotten. And, the musican would be invited to eat home cooked meals with several folks and asked  if he could'nt stay and move here at least for a spell.

  • Amna Feroze

    i think, u didnt get Khanslamanahmed's point here..he didnt said that appreciation of beauty is a function of age. the words he used is ” as we grow older”, which means that as we grow up, our time is more filled up with practical things and we got very less time to appreciate beauty..but people are always there who always have time to give value to such beauty even in their busy schedule

  • Amna Feroze

    PERFECTLY said

  • GG

    It may be more of a case that adults are less likely to be in a mental space compatible with devoting significant attention to music appreciation when they're on their way somewhere and have to be at another platform in a couple of minutes.

    I would hazard that adult mentality is more compartmentalised than children's, and that given a situation where they were concentrating on the music, they would quite easily be able to tell the difference between good and bad.

    While rushing around with other things on their mind, however, the music isn't categorised as either good or bad – it's just background noise of no immediate significance.

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