Life

The Joshua Bell Experiment (Video)

Over ten years ago, a short, unassuming article was published in one of America’s leading newspapers, the Washington Post. It was about a social experiment that highlighted some harsh truths about the society we live in. Most of the mid-level bureaucrats disembark at L’Enfant Plaza station, located in the heart of federal Washington. On Friday, 12 January 2007, as people slurped coffee and scarfed down doughnuts, as they scurried off to work, an inconspicuous man, in jeans and a T-shirt, stood next to a dustbin inside the station playing a violin.

In a city like Mumbai, it would not be considered highly dignified for someone to play music on the street. The perception in the States is different. They are not part of the aristocracy, but not considered impoverished either. They are just seen as street performers, who can at times attract quite a crowd and media attention.

Advertisements

If you see someone playing music in a public area, do you stop and listen? Do you ever give any change to show your kindness? Or do you hurry past in guilt fearful of your lack of time? That winter morning, the Washington Post conducted an experiment to see if people would stop for one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing the most elegant music ever written, on one of the most expensive violins ever crafted. Would they accept their free front-row ticket to witness the musical genius or squander their opportunity, as they rushed to Capitol Hill?

The artist was the internationally renowned violinist, Joshua Bell. Thirty-nine at the time of the experiment, Bell had swapped the concert hall for the Metro hall, and an adoring audience to one who may just ignore him. Days before the experiment, Bell had filled Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where run-of-the-mill seats sell for $100.

This was a test of context, perception and priorities: Would people pause to appreciate beauty when it’s right in front of them?

Bell was a child prodigy. His parents, both psychologists, decided to get him formal training when they noticed that their four-year-old was making music with rubber bands—he would stretch them, opening and closing them across side-cabinets, to vary the pitch. His fame was amplified as a teenager. ‘Does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live,’ one magazine interview commented. But would the humans at the train station tell him that? Would the masses recognize this disguised genius playing perfect masterpieces on a violin worth $3.5 million? So what do you think? A free concert by one of the world’s most famous musicians! You would expect a swarm of commuters around him. The opposite happened.

It was at three minutes that a middle-aged man glanced at Joshua for a split second, but kept walking. Thirty seconds later, a woman threw in a dollar and dashed away. It was six minutes later that someone leaned against the wall, and listened. The stats were dismal. In the forty-five minutes that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped and hung around for at least a minute, twenty-seven gave money amassing a grand total of $32. This left 1070 people who were oblivious to the miracle happening only a few feet away from them.

Advertisements

The Washington Post recorded Bell’s whole performance secretly, creating a time-lapse video of any incidents, or in this case, lack of them. ‘Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler’s movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience—unseen, unheard, otherworldly—that you find yourself thinking that he’s not really there. A ghost. Only then do you see it: he is the one who is real. They are the ghosts,’ the article said. Can we label the thousand people who ignored Bell as unsophisticated? Not necessarily.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the context of a situation matters.

‘One’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgements,’ he said. But to do this, the ‘viewing conditions must be optimal’. Art in a gallery and art in a coffee shop are going to be treated differently. In the coffee shop, the art may be more expensive and of a higher value, but there is no reason to pay attention as people sip a variety of mochaccinos. In most galleries, the ‘optimal’ conditions have been created to appreciate beauty. Light in the right place, enough room between the art and the viewer, a description of the piece, etc. Funnily enough, many have lost ordinary objects in art galleries later to find that people are gathered around them taking pictures thinking that they are exhibits! Context manipulates our perspective.

Therefore, we cannot make judgements about people’s ability to appreciate appreciate beauty because Bell did just look like a humdrum violinist.

However, what does this say about our ability to appreciate life?

I have found that we as a people have got busier over time. We tend to exclude parts of our lives which are not directly related to hard work and accumulating wealth. The construct of the modern world is such that we have less time to press pause, and appreciate beauty. Minding their own business, stressed, with their eyes forward, people on the escalator ignoring Joshua Bell have the capacity to understand beauty, but it seems irrelevant to their lives so they choose not to. If we cannot take a moment to listen to the beautiful music, played by one of the best musicians on the planet; if the drive of modern life suppresses us, so that we are deaf and blind to that spectacle, what else are we missing?

Ps. If you really like the concept of this experiment, you should check out ‘Roomies by Christina Lauren’. It is a romance novel based on a similar idea and a nice read.

Advertisements

21 comments

  1. Good article. I traveled the subway daily and always appreciated those musicians and singers that preformed there. It was rewarding at the beginning or end of my day to hear them, I was not a ghost and neither were they. 🎵🎶🎷🪘🎸🎺🎻🎼

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was raised in New York City and always appreciated the street musicians. Well, my parents were musicians and tried to instill in me an appreciation for good music. They were classical musicians but enjoyed all kinds of music. I did notice most people did not stop to listen to the street musicians, and remembered once I wrote an essay on that very subject for school.
    I once took care of children after school until the parents came home. We were playing Monopoly when the father came home, watching us play for about five minutes until he raved and ranted about the missed opportunities one of his children did not see buying some make-believe property. He was the kind of person who surely doesn’t stop for a street musician.
    You article is more pertinent to today than it was back then.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great read.

    One flaw in their experiment is that they assumed that all people who listen to music will appreciate their sense of what is defined as good music. So, it may have just been a time period in the day in which the majority of pedestrians were not appreciative of classical music.

    Not to criticize classical music buffs to harshly, but when I worked at a CD store, I found the these types of listeners to find it incomprehensible that someone might not love classical music (or opera). I had one customer even suggest that any other form of musical taste was a perversion and told me we’d better serve our customers if we got rid of everything not identified as classical, opera or choral.

    So, it is an interesting, but flawed, test. I’d be more interested in seeing if they did multiple locations at multiple times with multiple music genres. Then it would be a more meaningful study.

    I’m a stats and experimental design geek (who gets paid to criticize these kinds of things), so I’m more aware than most people when it comes to design flaws. But it *was* an interesting test. I’m just not certain it necessarily told the story they designed it to tell.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree completely with everything you have to say.

      I don’t listen to classical music either, and I probably wouldn’t have recognised it’s brilliance. In fact, I listen to music as entertainment, so I probably wouldn’t even be able to differentiate between a good musician and a great one, unless they’re playing side by side.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It may also be that the audience in that theatre which listened to Joshua Bell and paid hundreds of dollars to see him does not travel in subways.

      Can’t expect a layman to recognise world class music they’ve never heard before!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My point exactly. An average joe might not give two rips about how awesome Mr. Bell plays if they don’t care for the music (or about music at all, for that matter). It might have also been impacted by the pieces he chose to play.

        Too many variables and not enough controls to say much of anything. Heck, I made that much money 30 years ago in less time playing *air guitar* Beatles covers. There’s something to be said for approachability as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. True that in the hurried stressed pace of the world, people fail to hear, or stop to hear the beauty. It is also true about context, perception and value. What you put your focus on grows and what you pay for in monetary terms becomes valuable to you. Like a concert, art gallery etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good reminder to “stop and smell the roses,” but isn’t it also part of our survival instincts to remain focused in crowds? I have stopped to listen to street musicians, but if there’s a huge crowd around me, I get uncomfortable. Got to think about this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Brilliant! I’m a classically trained musicians. A group of us once rehearsed as an ensemble for a concert and virtually everyone that passed the shop we were rehearsing in walked past without any sense of interest or wander.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree that context plays a large part of how we make meaning of things that we see and experience. Even though the saying says “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we always see the cover first and can’t help but make a judgement based on what we see. And those judgements are based on what we have been told or experienced. Such a sad truth of the human condition.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. First, I think you’re a great writer. This is not a criticism of you. As experiments go, the Josh Bell experiment was more poignant than anything. It’s useful for illustrating one perspective. I think it would have been more useful and interesting if they tested against different factors and settings. East Coast winters can be rough. If it was cold, maybe the commuters were in a rush to get to a warm office building. I’ve heard Josh Bell play, but out of context, there is no way I would have recognized him. I have walked past close family members when I’ve encountered them in the wild, in unexpected places. Also, audiences get warmed up just before live performances. Street performers often have gimmicks that let people know, “hey, this guy is worth a stop-and-listen.” I’m not defending the discompassionate nature of most humans, but it would have been really interesting if the WaPo had conducted this “experiment” more scientifically.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I watched a similar video in which Christiano Ronaldo changed his look, started playing football on the main road. He invited people to play Football. Most of the people neglected him.
    When he finally uncovered his face, everyone rushed towards him to get his autograph. Thank you so much Bombay Focus. Your work is unique and excellent. I am fan of your presentation skills.

    I am working on starting a blog series on a tribal society. I have not much information about it. I have to visit their residence to observe their daily life, beliefs, rituals and behaviour. Any suggestions for me ?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: