A number of articles have been popping up as links lately, passed around by people I know, about an “experiment” that took place actually all the way back in January 2007 in the D.C. Metro during commuter rush hour. (Before the Gilded Age financiers took down the economies of the world.) The experiment was not conducted by scientists, which is why it was a crappy social science experiment. It was put together by one of the Washington Post journalists, who talked Grammy-winning virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell into taking his incredibly valuable violin into the D.C. Metro at rush hour and playing classical music — a concert people pay hundreds for ordinarily — for about forty-five minutes. The “idea” of this venture was to see if the unwashed masses, the little people, in a plain, pedestrian venue, at an inconvenient time, would be able to distinguish this master musician from your common street player and stop and perhaps give money or recognize his famous face, which would therefore somehow prove that they were able to understand art and appreciate beauty. In other words, the confirmation bias of the endeavor was as large as a horse.
The journalist wanted the people in the Metro, people already cast as peasants interested only in their labors, to fail so that it could be announced that the general public, unlike educated elites who could afford expensive concert tickets, were clearly mostly unable to appreciate real art and beauty. And fail they did. Only a few people stopped, some more threw money as they passed (which came to $32 dollars which isn’t bad for a subway performance in a 45 minute time period,) and most rushed on by.
The notion that only if people could tell Bell was a famous, master musician despite him playing in the subway as a way to determine people’s ability to appreciate beauty is of course fundamentally flawed. The reality is that numerous street performers are professional musicians, technically skilled and highly artistic in their playing. There have been many cases of famous, praised musicians trying out a subway performance for the acoustics and to interact with the public in a unique experience. (Witness the music video by singer Aloe Blacc performing in the New York subway station with a supporting band that I put up a few months ago. ) As a consequence, the people who rushed by and did not stop were not necessarily ignoring Bell’s skill or even discounting the possibility that he was a famous professional musician just because they were in a subway.
Music is an auditory experience; it can be heard for quite a distance and does not require listeners enjoying the music to stand and watch the performer. So insisting that only if the commuters looked at Bell for more than a second and stopped to watch him were they appreciating the beauty of his music is not an accurate measurement either. (Noting whether people looked at a visual painting, complete or being painted, as they passed would have yielded clearer results.) The notion that real appreciation of beauty occurred only if the commuters overcame the “inconvenience” of having to get to work on trains whose schedules they don’t control and the pressure of a large moving crowd shows a level of cluelessness about the reality of people’s lives that boggles the mind. Added to that is that the DC Metro has far less frequent trains that run for shorter hours than other larger urban centers like New York or Chicago, creating an “inconvenience” during commuting hours that is considerably more critical. Not only that, but unlike many older urban train systems, the Metro has strong anti-loitering policies that encourage traffic movement. By equating willingness to sacrifice for a chance concert with appreciation of beauty, the reporter created a completely spurious correlation.
I feel sorry for Joshua Bell that he was part of this game, not because people didn’t stop in listening to him, but because he and his historic violin were used to sneer and make fun of people in the press. It’s especially disturbing because Bell has gone on to be a strong participant in Music Unites, a charity dedicated to supporting disadvantaged emerging musical talents and bringing music of all different styles to people and students in under-served communities — a charity that believes in the exact opposite of what the Post was presenting about people.
The Washington Post was my newspaper growing up, one of the best in the world. It’s been sad for me to see how frequently it’s fallen into this sort of journalism in the last few years. Regardless, as we can see from the videos in Part 1, people are often exposed to musical beauty on the train systems, they often appreciate it in its many forms and that appreciation is perhaps more honest than people who have ponied up hundreds for the status of saying they’d been at an exclusive concert. The relationship between humans and musical sound is long and complex and profound, as documented in the book This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin. To say that the people in the train systems are not touched by music is to truly ignore the beauty that occurs in those places every day.