Social Experiment

Joshua Bell plays Bach

Joshua Bell plays Bach
at a Metro Station in Washington,
D.C. on a cold, January morning

The man with a violin played six Bach pieces in about 45 minutes. During that time approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After three 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.

Four minutes later the violinist received his first dollar from a woman who threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk. Six minutes later, a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

Ten minutes later a three-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.

The musician played continuously for 45 minutes. Only six 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 $32.00.

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 $200.

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. In a common place, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One 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?

One comment

  • Joni Mitchell wrote a song about this some years ago, talked about a man on the street corner, “playing real good for free…”. I always remembered this song and thought the same.

    Joni Mitchell “Real Good for Free”

    I slept last night in a good hotel
    I went shopping today for jewels
    The wind rushed around in the dirty town
    And the children let out from the schools
    I was standing on a noisy corner
    I was waiting for the walking green
    Across the street he stood
    And he played real good
    On his clarinet, for free.
    Now me I play for fortune
    And those velvet curtain calls
    I’ve got a black limousine
    And two handsome men
    [ Find more Lyrics on ]
    Escorting me to the halls
    And I play if you have the money
    Or if you’re some kind of friend to me
    But the one man band
    By the quick lunch stand
    He was playing real good, for free.
    Nobody stopped to hear him
    Though he played so sweet and high
    They knew he had never
    Been on their T.V.
    So they passed his music by
    I meant to go over to and ask for a song
    Maybe put on some kind of harmony…
    I heard his refrain
    As the signal changed
    He was playing real good, for free.

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