Famous Violinist Joshua Bell Plays At Metro Station
Email forward claims that virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell performed incognito at a metro station in Washington DC playing on a violin worth millions of dollars but his performance received very little interest from passersby.
By Alexduff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The information in the email is true. In January 2007, Joshua Bell did indeed perform incognito at a metro station in an experiment organized by the Washington Post.
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Subject: Joshua Bell
A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the
violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their
way to work.
Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician
playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried
up to meet his schedule.
A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw
the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.
A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but
the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother
tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist.
Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his
head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All
the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed
for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal
pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no
one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the top
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 his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a
theater in Boston and the seats average $100.
This is a real 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 priorities of people. The outlines were: in a
commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty?
Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do
not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the
world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we
This email tells how world famous violinist Joshua Bell, posing as a street musician, gave an incognito performance to morning commuters at a metro station in Washington DC. According to the message, the virtuoso violinist performed beautiful and complex music on an instrument worth $3.5 million, but nevertheless received only cursory attention, or none at all, from the majority of commuters who passed him by. Although, only days earlier, Bell had played at a Boston theater where ticket prices averaged $100 each, he only made a paltry $32 from his subway performance.
The story may seem a little far-fetched, and many commentators have suspected that it is just another hoax. However, the information in the email is true. Joshua Bell is recognized as one of the greatest violinists of our times and, in January 2007, Bell did indeed perform incognito at the metro in an experiment organized by the Washington Post.
According to an April 2007 Washington Post article about the experiment, Bell played on a violin handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713 - an instrument that he bought several years ago for a reported price of $3.5 million.
In spite of the fact that he used his outstanding ability to the full and performed some of the most intricate music ever written, only a few people even noticed the maestro and even fewer stopped to listen. The article notes:
No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
Journalist Gene Weingarten was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his outstanding and thought provoking analysis of the experiment. Weingarten discusses the ramifications of Bell's subway experience. What role does context play in our artistic perceptions? To what degree is our perception of beauty influenced by our mindset at the particular time we perceive it? He notes:
It's an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?
Last updated: 2nd August 2010
First published: 8th January 2009
Article written by Brett M. Christensen
Pearls Before Breakfast