The violin player in the subway was a social experiment. The protagonist? A famous violinist, Joshua Bell. It provided proof that people often look without really seeing what is happening right in front of them. It took place in 2007 and again seven years later. The experiment seems to prove that human beings are very good at ignoring beauty.
The Washington Post organized the experiment to provide an answer to a simple question. Can beauty attract people’s attention when presented in an everyday context and at an unusual time? In other words, are people able to recognize beauty in unexpected contexts?
The results of the experiment showed that people look without actually seeing. They hear without really listening. Perhaps we value appearances too much. Or we become so absorbed in our own thoughts that we cannot discover the diamonds that sparkle among the dead leaves.
Joshua Bell, a virtuoso
Joshua Bell is one of the best violin players in the world. He was born in 1967 in Indiana. When he was a very small child, his parents watched him use pieces of rubber to imitate the sounds his mother made when she played the piano. Bell was only four years old. His father then bought him a violin. Bell gave his first concert at the age of seven.
Joshua Bell is known for his love for classical music. He is also committed to the idea that everyone should have access to classical music. Moreover, he does not approach this in the traditional way. So he doesn’t believe that you can only enjoy it in certain environments or that it is only intended for a certain kind of audience.
Bell has been on Sesame Street and also helped create the soundtrack for several movies. He also played the theme song for the movie The Red Violin. He also had several roles in the film. That’s why The Washington Post felt Bell was the right person for their experiment.
A famous violin player in the subway
The experiment involved Joshua Bell playing the violin during rush hour in a crowded Washington DC subway station. Bell also decided to use his Stradivarius violin. That instrument has an estimated value of more than three million dollars.
The people who designed the experiment estimated that between 75 and 100 people would stop to listen to Bell. They also hypothesized that he would earn about $100 in the hours he played. Three days before the experiment, Bell had played a concert where the bad seats cost about $100.
They started the experiment on January 12, 2007 at 7:51 am. Bell showed up at the subway station in a black long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap. He started with a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. After that, this famous violinist played Ave Maria by Shubert.
He continued to play and performed one song after another in a masterly way. Very quickly, however, it became clear that people often look without really seeing and hear without really listening.
We look without seeing and hear without listening
In the end, the world famous violinist played about 47 minutes. During that time, 1,097 people walked past him. To everyone’s surprise, only six people actually stopped to listen.
Bell earned a total of $32.17 from his performance. He later said that the most frustrating part of the experiment was that no one clapped when finishing his pieces.
Only one woman out of 1,097 people recognized him. A 30-year-old man listened to him the longest. John David Mortensen, a policy department employee, stopped and listened to Bell’s play for six minutes.
He later said that classical rock is the only classical music he listens to. However, Bell’s playing was so beautiful that he stopped to listen. He also told reporters “I felt at peace.”
During the experiment of the famous violinist in the subway, most passers-by reacted indifferently to Bell’s performance. They didn’t notice or didn’t care that a world famous musician was giving a free concert right in front of them.
Bell was shocked to see so many people ignoring him. That is why he decided to do the experiment again seven years later and in the same place. This time, however, there was a lot of publicity prior to the event.
Another free concert in the metro
When Bell returned to the subway, hundreds of people gathered to watch. The aim was to bring young people into contact with classical music. So Bell gave a kind of educational concert.
Bell was so disturbed that so many people were unable to recognize beauty during the first experiment. So he wanted to do something to change that.