Violinist In The Metro- A Social Experiment

  1. Thom
  2. March 14, 2009 12:35 am

“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 for work.

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 best 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.

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an 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 context?

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 missing?”

Ego Dialogues

Being a musician myself, I love to stop and check out buskers, regardless of skill. I came across an elderly Asian man playing the violin in front of the Art Institute of Chicago. His tone and playing were actually sub-par, but I stuck around and threw some change anyway.

When walking around downtown Orlando, I came across many street beggars and a few buskers. One in particular was a saxophonist who found his nook right in the middle of all the action. I stopped and had a conversation with him, talked about some favorite tunes, and left him a few dollars.

Music is something we [most of us] run our lives around all the time. Shouldn’t we take some time out of our lives every now and then and appreciate some one else bringing music into our lives? Take the case of the performer at the metro. Everyone hurries past paying little attention to whats going on. In the end a couple of people take notice- but with no applause to finish.

Now what if you were visiting a Disney theme park and came across one or more musical performers? In my experience they gather massive crowds of people. Aside from maybe being late for work, what is the difference otherwise? Would you stick around and listen to a street busker?

Joshua Bell playing his violin

Before I knew what I was doing, I busked at my middle school in the foyer for people hanging out late participating in after school activities. Later on when I worked at a music store a fellow guitar teacher and myself would go outside on our breaks and jam to encourage foot traffic. Few people ever really took notice and stopped to listen, although if you were to take the same performance to a local open mic we would be stormed with people wanting to talk to us afterward and tell us how much they enjoyed the performance. It would seem as if people can only enjoy themselves if they are out to enjoy themselves. What is your take?


  1. Hi Thom,

    I loved the way you played ODE TO JOY on Violin Lesson #10 by Beethonven’s Ninth
    that piece is played in Neon Genesis Evangelion ( my favorite Japanese Anime)

    After watching you played that piece in youtube, I decided to learn how to play it on Violin.
    So, I immediatly buy one and watch all your violin lessons in youtube.

    I hope you will continue what you have started to inspire other people from around the world like me.

    Can you add me in your freindster account (if you have one). I’ll be glad if you add me as a friend. here is my friendster account:

    Here from Philippines..
    Rei =)

  2. I have been searching hard for info on this, so thanks for the post, any ideas where I can get more information?

    • I only came across the small article that I qouted (ego dialogues). Wish I knew more!

  3. Shang says:
    Posted July 12, 2009 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Yup this is something we don’t usually do in our daily live. We tent to “drown” ourselves in our own work and not having a moment to stop and paused what we are doing to listen and observe the best ambiance around @.@

  4. ??????? ?? ????? ????????????? ????? ??????. ? ? ??? ?? ?????? ????????, ?? ??? ????? ????? ?? ?????????????.

    • Hello Dobqueuet!

      Unfortuantely I cannot read your comment, I couldn’t even translate it. It just shows up as “????” I’m guessing my blog doesn’t support Russian text? Does anyone know how to fix this?

      Perhaps you can try re-posting by using google translate to turn it to english?

  5. nadia27oct says:
    Posted June 5, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Oh man, that nearly made me cry.

  6. Steven says:
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    I remember about 15-20 years ago there were two street performers who used to play in Chicagos subway system who were both of Asian descent. An elderly gentleman presumably the grandfather of this little 5-7 year old girl who played the violin. She was an INCREDIBLE player for her age! It’s too bad that experience will never be heard again as she hopefully is in college by now.

  7. sad…I love the violin…My niece played it in school. I miss is so… I would have stopped…no matter who was playing what….

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