A Lesson in Perception


In Washington DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to keep his schedule.

About 4 minutes later:

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

At 6 minutes:

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

At 10 minutes:

A three-year-old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. Again the child stopped to look at the violinist, but the mother pushed hard and the child slowly walked away, turning his head back to look at the musician.  Several other children repeated this action, but every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes:

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

After 1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

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 played before a sold-out audience in a theater in Boston.  Seats averaged $100 each.  He played the same music.

This is a true story.

Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.  Check out more details at: http://tinyurl.com/32a32w 

This experiment raised several questions:

In a commonplace environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

If so, 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 as we rush through life?

Enjoy life NOW.  It has an expiration date.

Note: This is a departure from my usual posting, but I felt it was an amazing experiment and wanted to share it with you.

7 thoughts on “A Lesson in Perception

  1. Wow this is an amazing story. What a creative way to give all of us a message that life goes by too quickly. Let’s be sure to stop long enough to enjoy it!!!!!!! Thanks BOOMER HIGHWAY!!!!!!!!

    • George Brooks sent me this in the a. m. It touched me so I researched it and redrafted the foreward and there it was. John H. said he remembered seeing this a long time ago. It’s a great experiment. Just yesterday there was a quartet playing in our grocery store and though I watched for a moment, I did not stop and listen. So I am at fault too. Beth

  2. Your conclusion is crucial. Thirty some years ago I was hurrying to meet someone in the Louvre. Passing through one of the arched corridors to reach the entrance I passed a musician, seated, playing on his ‘cello one of the Back suites. There we were all alone with that beautiful music echoing off the stone walls. I hurried on. I’ve never forgotten that beautiful moment but now I realize it didn’t have to just be a moment.

    • Well he played Bach too and a very difficult piece. This happened at L’Enfant in DC–excuse spelling, but I knew nothing about it–happened a few years ago, I believe. Amazing. Of course part of it is people rushing, like you did years ago and I did yesterday when a quartet was playing, in of all places, our grocery store! Yes, the conclusion is crucial, but also the fact of how Bell was dressed. People hurry away from that scene too or just drop a dollar as if to say–there, now don’t bother me.

      Have a good one, Beth

  3. I so enjoyed this post Beth. In the NYC area, one often comes across super talented artists. And in the whirl of people and the next thing that has to be completed, beautiful music registers but I am guilty of not pausing to enjoy. This is a beautiful reminder .

  4. Thanks for your comment, Patricia. Would you believe that yesterday a quartet of musicians were just beginning to play IN MY GROCERY STORE. This is a first and I stood and smiled and heard a few bars and then hurried on. After coming across this amazing experiment just today, done by the Washington Post, I wish I could replay yesterday and that’s what it is all about. We cannot. Yes a beautiful reminder. And thanks, Beth

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