Perceiving Beauty


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My daughter shared a link with me about a social experiment the Washington Post set up in 2007.  To summarize, a man with a violin played for over 40 minutes in a Metro station.   During that time, approximately 2,000 people passed him.  Most ignored him or glanced at him with pity, then looked away.  A few slowed their pace to listen and drop money.  When the musician finished, no one noticed; no one applauded.  He had collected just over $32.

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 to sit and listen to him play the same music.

The experiment raised several questions.  Can we perceive beauty in a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour?  If so, do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

Not wanting to spread anymore untruths over the internet, I looked this up to see if it was real.  It was.  The link to the Washington Post story, “Pearls for Breakfast” is HERE.  I found these points intriguing:

  • Children—no matter race or gender, consistently tried to stop to listen to Bell as they passed; and every single time, a parent scooted them away.  The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us.  It may be true with music, too.
  • Many never noticed Bell because they were on their phones or listening to iPods.  The articles states that:  “…the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences.  Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.”
  • Adults who stopped to listen and appreciate had been exposed to music lessons as children.

One who stopped that day was John Picarello.  He hit the top of the escalator just as Bell began his final piece, and stopped dead in his tracks.  He searched for the source of the music, then took up a position near the shoeshine stand and didn’t move for almost 10 minutes.

When called later and asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work, he was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.

“There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator…”

Haven’t you seen musicians there before?

“Not like this one.”

What do you mean?

“This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn’t want to be intrusive on his space.”


“Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.”

Picarello had learned the violin as a child.  He was a fan of Joshua Bell, but didn’t recognize him from far away.  But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing.

The newspaper worried about what would happen if people recognized Bell during this experiment.  As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end. Stacy Furukawa had been in an audience three weeks earlier at Bell’s free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what was going on, but she wasn’t about to miss it.  With a huge grin, she positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center.

“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”

When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that — it was tainted by recognition — the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.

“Actually,” Bell laughed, “that’s not so bad, considering. That’s 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn’t have to pay an agent.”

If you have time, go read “Pearls for Breakfast” or listen to the video of Bell playing.  It’s beautiful.  Then consider whether you would have stopped to listen if you had passed through the station that day.  How many joys do we overlook in our life?  I’m guessing a lot.  Maybe it’s time to change that.


16 thoughts on “Perceiving Beauty

  1. What a thought-provoking experiment and results. If it was during rush hour, I could understand people not having time to stop and listen. But anytime else, I hope I would have recognized the caliber of the musician. I studied piano and flute, and I think I have the ear to recognize a world-class violinist!

    Wonderful post!

    • Yeah, rush hour didn’t help the experiment. Many of the people interviewed admitted that they were late for jobs and rushing to get somewhere. They didn’t have time to stop and listen to ‘another’ musician. It made me think though about how we think people doing these type of things only want money–a dollar dropped in the hat. Maybe instead of dropping a dollar, if we gave them a little respect instead–a smile, a moment of our time to show we value them as a human–it might be worth a lot more…and last longer.

  2. Read the article when it happened. I loved this! It really puts the posers in their places.

    • You’re welcome. It was kind of fun to read more about it and discover things I hadn’t read before on the Facebook snippets.

  3. A friend of mine posted about this on Facebook a few weeks ago and I was floored until I found out more about the audience. A bunch of government workers with non-creative, boring jobs. I think he may have had a little more success with a different audience. It would be a good experiment to have.

  4. Wow interesting…not at all surprising though considering the day and age we live in. We rush from place to place…appointment to appointment…one busy thing after another. I appreciate these teaching moments that remind me to “stop and smell the roses”.

  5. I remember hearing about this social experiment, and it truly is amazing. What strikes me the most is that children wanted to stop and listen, but adults shooed them away. It should serve as a huge lesson as to what we, as a society, are doing to our children. And then we wonder why adults have such a hard time connecting, communicating, appreciating nature and the simplicity of life.

    It actually made me a little sad. But I appreciate the reminder. We have to do better as contributing members of society. Thanks Char.

    • Yes, it made me a little sad. I’ve been thinking about it a lot too. There are many times I see beggars on the street and feel bad for them (but have no cash–the story of my life with teenage kids around to clean me out). I find that I can’t even look them in the eye, but realize now that even if I don’t have money to give, I can at least give them a sense of dignity and look at them and smile and give them my acknowledgment that I recognize their plight and worth as a human being–one of my spiritual brothers or sisters.

  6. i heard & saw this quite some time ago… yes it was sad to watch the people just hurrying along, not even caring… we need to take time to smell the roses once in a while… we need to teach our kids to do the same… to live a little…

  7. I loved this more than words can say. I had a year or two of piano lessons as a girl, but my teacher moved away and I was too flighty to stick with it. But I would be the sort of person to arrive a little late to work because of this and apologize with, “There was a man playing the violin!! I had to stop!!” Strings of any kind pluck at my heart (strings!) and start the waterworks. I won’t use my mp3 player except at home; before bed, reading, or doing dishes, and it’s precisely because I refuse to miss any potential happenings.

    The reactions (or lack of) from the passers-by made me really sad. That’s just… it’s so sad!

    • I took a couple years of piano as a kid too before my teacher moved away and we just never picked it up again. Luckily, I’ve been able to pick up a couple years of piano/organ lessons as an adult and can play most anything I want to (I just choose not to play super technical pieces that require fast fingering–old people can’t learn new tricks). But I agree, if I had heard that caliber of music that day, it would have made me stop and stare. The video of it was hauntingly beautiful.

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  9. wow. cool experiment. i especially liked the part about how children are born with an innate sense for all things beautiful and life/society snuffs it out of them. How sad that we allow non-important and non-beautiful things to take precedent in our lives.

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