What Are You Missing?

Check out the following story from “Bits of Wisdom” about an experiment performed by the Washington Post regarding perception, beauty, and the tyranny of the urgent.


Something to think about….

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:

The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:

A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:

The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest 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 Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true 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 people’s priorities.

The questions raised:

*In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

*Do we stop to appreciate it?

*Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made.

How many other things are we missing?



So, do you think you would have stopped to listen?

10 Responses to “What Are You Missing?”

  1. Mike Foster  

    question of perception?
    Not particularly scientific experiment, being there was no debriefing on the folks who walked by (would have been very difficult with over 1900 persons to interview) – so no knowledge of what was going through their heads – did they silently appreciate the beauty?
    Question? How do we respond to beauty when we do recognize it? do we know how to truly appreciate that which is beautiful? or do we attempt to own/possess/covet said beauty?
    of those persons who gave $$ – why? was it because they felt they some how should ‘pay’ for such a performance?
    How do we respond to beauty?
    How many chances to respond to beauty (or love) and we miss out because we do not possess the skill set needed to truly appreciate?

  2. K.L.B.  

    Yep. I’d have stopped.

    I stop to smell the roses… literally.

    When I was working at CRMC, I’d stop to smell ’em on the way in to work (sometimes, I’d pick one and wear it), and would take another on the way home. Yep, I pick flowers. Sure do.

    I find beauty everywhere. Even in decay, I find beauty.

    I take time. That’s all we have.

    That’s why I don’t eat while driving. If it’s worth eating, it’s worth sitting down at a table to be enjoyed, preferably with others.

    Hurriedness is a type of selfishness.

    But then, most folks probably don’t care for Bach, Beethovan, Dvorak, or other classic composers. Put B.B. King, Robert Cray, The North Mississippi All Stars, John Mayall, Billy Gibbons, Taj Mahal, Keb Mo, Cheryl Crow, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, George Jones, Alan Jackson, Eric Clapton, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, Sugarland, or any other MODERN artist… you’ll have just about EVERYBODY stopped.

    And, it doesn’t make any difference whether they play cheap instruments or über expensive ones.

    To some extent, it’s that with which we are familiar.

  3. Anthony Velez  

    Mike – Yes, this was not a scientific experiment, but rather a social experiment, and so there was no control group, and likewise, but nevertheless, I still think this was illuminating insofar as an uncommon variable was placed in a very common situation, and the response of those in the common situation to the uncommon variable was negligible. Why?

    I agree with you that because there was no debriefing of the folks who walked by we cannot definitively say there was no appreciation of the music being played. Perhaps in their own small way there was. However, my gut reaction is to say that beauty of the magnitude being expressed in that context should have caused a greater stir, should have stopped more people dead in their tracks, and it is instructive that the majority of those who did stop were kids, a class of humanity that has not yet been conditioned by social forces to mildly respond or neglect all together such aesthetic moments. Of course, the kids may have stopped because they are just curious by nature, but that just raises the question, as to why adults aren’t also curious?

    Anyways, I like your questions about beauty and our relationship to it, particularly the one about whether we have the skill set (capacity) to appreciate some forms of beauty?

  4. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin – In accord with what you said, it did strike me that perhaps Bach, and Joshua Bell were just not these people’s cup of tea. But, dang, it seems to me that one ought to be able to appreciate the sheer virtuosity of Bell’s performance, even if it wasn’t one’s type of music. Perhaps, this just points to the idiom, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” However, I don’t want to chalk up the general response of the crowd to this alone. Particularly, I suspect that one of the forces at work in this situation is related to one of the questions the article asks, “Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?” I suspect that most people probably thought this could not have been a significant event, or person, since it was after all just a Metro station. And so, context profoundly influences our perception and assessment of what is going on.

  5. Mike Foster  

    Sooooo, what was the reason for displaying the beauty? Do roses display themselves because they desire or even need the accolades for their beauty? No, they display their beauty because that is what they do, it’s who they are – their beauty is not defined by who does or does not respond.
    The reality of roses we can attest is the lasting effects they they produce – recalling memories, deep breathing, relaxing, – we have a lifelong relationship with roses – it’s cultivated in us.
    An interesting experiment (social;) would be to put Joshua bell in that same Subway terminal for a month straight for an hour – the same hour – of each day. and then afterward, see if there’s a way to gather the honest subjective data of how folks ‘felt’ over the course of the month. More relaxed, less stressed, less stressful, more inclined to appreciate. (Josh can donate the 32$ he’d make each day to a homeless shelter or something)
    Question: beauty for the sake of itself being noticed, maybe isn’t true beauty.

    Just some thoughts

  6. Roger Green  

    If a rose grows between the cracks in the sidewalk, is it considered a weed?

  7. Mike Foster  

    I believe that if a rose grew in a crack in the sidewalk – that’d be a miracle (act of beauty?) in and of itself. – and I would stop and smell it, notice it, marvel at it. but I don’t want to in any way presume what others should/might/aught to do (at least publicly)

    Technical def. of weed deals with those plants that take an invasive/opportunistic advantage of particular weakened areas of earth, terrain, terrafirma (sp?) and exploit it for the purpose of propagating and making more.

    a more fact of the matter definition of weed is any plant that’s growing where we don’t like it or want it.

    But, a weed by any other name would still smell as sweet.

  8. Mike Foster  

    “There’s not a plant or flower below but makes Thy glories known, . . . .”
    Isaac Watts 1715
    do we take the time to stop and witness the glories; which ones? the ones we expect and anticipate? the ones we take for granted? or the ones that hit us upside the head and command our attention?

  9. Simon  

    Great post Anthony. I heard this one tonight on my iPod as I was catching up with your blog. Amazing. Would I have stopped? Well probably not because I cannot really stand the violin, but I have stopped from time to time to listen to a subway musician.

    Funny thing, while I am not really much of a reader of books, I did very much enjoy ‘Subwayland’ by Randy Kennedy. You might too?

  10. Anthony Velez  

    The thing that gives me pause about this experiment is the question regarding the relationship between context and recognizing talent. If I saw someone like Bell playing in a subway, I would likely think “hey that person is good, but surely if that person was really good he or she would likely have been discovered and would be playing on some big stage somewhere.” The subway context would very likely limit my overall estimation of the person.