Joshua Bell Incognito

A while back, professional violinist Joshua Bell conducted a social experiment with The Washington Post. He played some of Bach’s greatest works, on the violin, in street clothes, at DC’s L’Enfant Plaza metro station, during rush hour. The concept behind the experiment was, would people recognize great music and beauty in a mundane setting at an unexpected hour? If they recognized the beauty would they stop and listen? Out of thousands of people, only a few stopped to listen, and only one recognized Joshua Bell.

Joshua Bell certainly has a significant presence in the subway. The Washington Post article notes, “You don’t need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there’s a guy there, playing a violin that’s throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell’s bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.”

It does seem to be a remarkable phenomenon that such an anomaly could be so blatantly ignored, so why didn’t people stop to listen to one of the best violinists of our time, playing one of the most intricate pieces of famous classical music, on a $3.5 million violin?

Plugged in. You listen to music during your commute. To make the journey faster, because you can’t get that new hit single out of your head, because you don’t want to listen to the obnoxious conversation going on next to you. The volume is turned up loud to block everything else out, so of course you didn’t hear a violin this morning. 

Perception. People who play music in public places in hopes of tips are sketchy. If you can’t make money any other way, you’re dangerous or violent, maybe even homeless or a drug addict. Don’t get close, don’t make eye contact, and you’ll live to see another day. 

Classical music sucks. You don’t care one cent for classical music, so why would you stop, even if it’s the best violinist in the world playing a one-of-a-kind instrument. And don’t expect even a penny for a tip. 

No recognition. Out of context, you don’t recognize a master. Joshua Bell looks different in a t-shirt and a baseball cap. Or you don’t know who he is in the first place.  

Preoccupied. You’re not anticipating enjoying a beautiful concert. Instead you’re thinking about that presentation you have to give, your proposal review, your two kids who are fighting. There’s not enough room in your brain at the moment to register that something is different this morning. 

Too busy. Your alarm didn’t go off, you missed the bus, you had to go back for your lunch, in short you’re running late. No time to stop and appreciate the beauty, there’s an upcoming deadline you can’t miss.

I’m sure you can add a few more, but the real question is would you have stopped that day? Do you stop on a daily basis for something out of the ordinary? Do you even notice something out of the ordinary?

Most of the articles written after the study marveled at how strange it was that no one stopped to listen to Joshua Bell. After all, people spent $100 the night before to see him in concert, and here he was playing for free. The takeaway message was that no one slows down to appreciate or observe things around them and because of that we miss out on great things. It’s bad that so many people don’t stop and pay attention to the world around them. But is this the right assumption to make?
All of the reasons above seem like perfectly legitimate excuses to not pause for a moment. It’s unclear whether someone who did stop had a better day than someone who didn’t. Maybe we find beauty in our lives in other ways. So would you change any of your habits to stop and recognize a special moment?

Posted on February 9, 2012
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