The violinist in the subway was a social experiment that proved that people often look without actually seeing what is in front of them. The experiment took place for the first time in 2007 and was repeated seven years later. The protagonist? The world famous violinist Joshua Bell. The experiment seems to prove that humans are very good at ignoring beauty.
The Washington Post organized the experiment to answer a simple question: can beauty attract people’s attention if presented at an inopportune time in an everyday context? In other words, can people see beauty in unexpected contexts?
The results of the experiment showed that people look without actually seeing and hear without actually listening. Perhaps we place too much emphasis on appearances, or we are so absorbed in our own thoughts that we cannot see the diamonds that glow between the dead leaves.
“There is beauty in everything, but not everyone sees it.”
Joshua Bell, a virtuoso
Joshua Bell is one of the best violinists in the world. He was born in Indiana in 1967. When he was a very young child, his parents saw him use rubber bands to mimic the noises his mother made when she played the piano. Bell was just four years old. His father bought him a violin and Bell gave his first concert at the age of seven.
Joshua Bell is known for his love of classical music and his commitment to the idea that everyone should have access to it. He is not a traditionalist who believes that this type of music is only enjoyable in certain environments and only for a certain type of audience.
Bell has been to Sesame Street and has helped produce soundtracks for several films. For example, he played the theme song for The Red Violin and had several cameos in the film. So the Washington Post felt that Bell was the right person for their experiment.
A violinist on the subway
The experiment involved Joshua Bell playing the violin at rush hour in a busy Washington, DC subway station. Bell chose his Stradivarius violin, an instrument valued at over $3 million.
The developers of the experiment estimated that between 75 and 100 people would stop to listen to Bell. They also hypothesized that the hour he played he would make about $100. Finally, three days before the experiment, Bell played a concert where the bad seats cost about $100.
The experiment was performed on January 12, 2007 at 7:51 a.m. Bell appeared at the subway station in a black long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and a baseball hat. He began to play a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, followed by Schubert’s Ave Maria. He kept playing, one masterfully interpreted song after another. It became clear pretty quickly that people often look without really seeing and hear without really listening.
The violinist in the subway: we look without seeing and hear without listening
In total, the world-famous violin wonder played for about 47 minutes. During this time 1,097 people passed him. To everyone’s surprise, only six people actually listened. In total, Bell earned $32.17 for its performance. He later said that the most frustrating part of the experiment was when no one clapped at the end of a piece.
Only one of the 1,097 people recognized him. A 30-year-old man listened to him the longest. John David Mortensen, an employee of a government agency, listened to Bell for six minutes. He later said that the only classical music he hears is classical rock, but Bell played so beautifully that he stopped to listen. “I felt very peaceful,” he told reporters.
During the violinist’s experiment in the subway, most commuters were completely indifferent to Bell. They didn’t notice or care that a world famous musician was playing a free concert right in front of them.
It was disturbing to Bell to see so many people ignoring him. So he decided to repeat the experiment at the exact same location seven years later. However, this time there was a lot of attention given to him before the event.
When Bell returned to the subway, hundreds of people gathered to watch. The goal was to connect young people with classical music, so Bell gave a kind of teaching concert. He was upset that so many people were unable to see beauty on the first experiment and wanted to do something to change that.