a test of taste and place

I guess packaging is important!

via Long Views: The Long Now Blog by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander on 5/17/11

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?

I love that story. You can read more about it and other stuff like that in “Sway” ( http://www.amazon.com/Sway-Irresistible-Pull-Irrational-Behavior/dp/0385530609/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1305839288&sr=8-3 )

I think they call it “value attribution”. The context and “packaging” matters more than we think.

I think this is a case of more than packaging, but also society. We often hear of someone being robbed in a crowd that doesn’t stop to help. Psychology tells us that this is because, as individuals, if we don’t see other people helping, we don’t recognize it as an emergency.

In this subway station, there was no crowd and no one paying. Therefore, we don’t recognize the value of what is being played.

One of the coolest things I ever saw was this street musician, when I was maybe sixteen, on a field trip in Chicago on one of the lower level streets. He had a kick and hi hat, a harp and green bullet, and an electric guitar he played lap style. The guy was a riff monster and I must’ve watched him for 10-15 minutes. As long as they aren’t some sensitive pony tail dude strumming a plaintive faux-folk song, I have a hard time ignoring street musicians.

It’s not packaging, it’s context.

Unless you imply that packaging is part of that context, I wouldn’t limit it like that. If he was dressed in an expensive suit, put on a pedestal, with some banners announcing his greatness - but still in the subway and free - you can bet more people would stop. Even if it was some some less talented no-name dude but “packaged” nicely.

I’m with 914 on this. If a crowd had been starting too form - say a larger group of ~10 people decided to stop - more people would stop to find out what’s going on. It’s the same thing when you’re looking for a restaurant in an unfamiliar city - pass by 10 empty restaurants and one full - which one do you choose?

The interesting question is what gets the crowds forming in first place, what gets the ball rolling? ONE factor, is the content. So the harsh truth is that Joshua could not rely on his content alone to attract the subway travelers.

Also, there is a huge difference between playing for random people and assuming they should be interested and playing for a crowd that is specifically there to hear the performer. All the people at the theater in Boston had either a musical or social interest in being there. Everyone in the subway was in transit and by definition, going somewhere else (yes the music is beautiful, but would I get fired from my job for being late so I could enjoy it?). That skews it quite a bit in my mind.
Obviously this story is great b/c he’s a world famous musician, but you know what they say…Different strokes for different folks.

^^ Nice take, asango.

Thanks for the book tip engio. It’s next on the list.

I agree that presentation does color people’s impressions of things. Frank Lloyd Wright and Loewy both understood that putting effort into the way concepts were shown, talked about, and the setting in which that happens makes a difference. FLW famously would make hyperbolic statements as he showed work, I believe when he showed the SCJ Wax building, he explained the to the client how it actually was not an office building at all, but temple of work, a cathedral to industry… very Don Draper. Would this very non-traditional workplace, with no outward facing windows, and a ceiling made of glass rods have been accepted by the client if he just came in said “yeah, I thought this might be cool, I’m not sure if it will work”

Putting that amount of effort and heart and belief into something can be contagious.

That said, one of the things I miss most about Boston is that there is a tradition of street musicians there that play in the underground T stops and Harvard Sq. It is not unusual for some of these players to be students or professors at the Berkley School of Music. If heard some amazing music there. Sometimes seeing (or hearing) something so good, so out of context helps you to appreciate it differently… but it probably doesn’t work most of the time as illustrated by zippy’s story.

Just one more note…the article says “world famous”, but famous for whom? People that listen to symphony music. In other words, a very tiny minority of people. Maybe if it was Elton John or Mick Jagger or Kanye West, it would have been different. I’d like to repeat this…

I don’t think it’s so much that we don’t recognize talent in an unexpected place, it’s that most of us don’t have the capacity to recognize certain kinds of talent. It takes an aficionado to distinguish mediocre violin playing from good violin playing, and an expert to distinguish good violin playing from exceptional violin playing. Probably less than 1% of the population listens to enough classical music to even manage the former. I know I couldn’t.

If you showed an average person 10 sketches for a chair, would they be able to pick out the good design from the bad? I doubt it.

Combine that with the fact that most people on the subway are going somewhere else and can’t hang around, and you get this result. That said, he made $32 in an hour, which seems like a pretty good take for a busker.

I’d like to see the experiment reproduced with an exceptional pop music singer or guitarist. I would expect more people to recognize talent in fields that they are exposed to more regularly.

Isn’t “exceptional pop music singer” by definition an oxymoron?



Ya, I’m sure there are some. But I think if you put Justin Beiber or whomever in a subway station, they’d probably do worse. Not to mention that so much pop music is over-produced, auto-tuned, whatever, so in real life they are actually worse than on the CD.


I didn’t mean “pop” like Justin Bieber pop, just anything non-classical.

In his time Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was “pop” lol.

true, I wonder if people would notice Beethoven’s 5th? Hit them with the standards.