Cognitive Daily

This story in the Washington Post has been getting a lot of attention. The reporter convinced world-famous violin virtuoso Joshua Bell to play for 45 minutes in a busy Washington subway station, as an experiment to see if passersby would recognize his amazing talents and reward him appropriately. His take was a lowly $32, not counting $20 from a disgusted fan who recognized Bell and couldn’t believe others weren’t being more generous.

But there are questions as to whether the experiment was a good one. Why play in a subway entrance, where people are rushing to catch trains or off to their destinations? Why not in some place where people congregate, like a park, or even the platform itself, where people have time because they are waiting, not moving to and fro? Subway performer Natalia claims the problem is that Bell wasn’t “busking” — he didn’t interact with his audience and instead “buried his head in his instrument.”

Busking aside, I wonder if we can get a better sense of what Bell might have earned had he been performing in a better spot. I’m thinking that a simple poll could help us get a better answer:

Then it’s a matter of arithmetic to figure out how much money Bell could have made if all 1,097 passersby had time to stop and listen.


  1. #1 Jerry
    April 11, 2007

    If I actually stood and listened for 5 minutes, I would give the guy some money. I seldom find myself both interested enough and with enough spare time to listen to a street musician for more than 30 seconds or so, though.

  2. #2 Craig Pennington
    April 11, 2007

    Well, only if you assume the self-reported frequency matches behavior.

  3. #3 Alejandro
    April 11, 2007

    If we want to calculate how much money could he have made, wouldn’t a better question be “how much money do you leave in the average” instead of “which percentage of the time to you give at least $1”?

  4. #4 Janne
    April 11, 2007

    I posted this argument elsewhere too, but it may be worth repeating:

    We hear world-class music everyday, everyhwere, everytime. Our radios, music players and shows play nothing but the very best in any genre; world-class once-in-a-lifetime performances by the likes of Bell are used as background sound filler in nature documentaries.

    So when he plays, he’s not exceptional. He’s merely about par for the music we get exposed to every day. For anybody not intimately familiar with music performance he is simply not actually bad.

    The busker you link to has an excellent point. You can’t compete with the quality of the musical performance – even a virtuoso is competing in vain with their own recordings made in optimal acoustic environment, rerecorded until it’s perfect, then mixed and remastered by consummate professionals. What a street player can do is to establish a connection on the street, to play to the people coming by at any one moment, to do musical theater. A set of skills orthogonal to instrumental ability.

  5. #5 Scott Belyea
    April 11, 2007

    I think Natalia misses the point. As I read the article, the point was whether the quality of the music and the playing would attract people. I agree that there can be an “extra-musical” aspect to really successful busking, but that was not relevant to this experiment.

    My major disappointment is that they did not appreciate what seem to me obvious advantages to doing this in the afternoon rush hour rather than the morning.

    Of the pieces I heard on the video or which were mentioned, the most interesting choice was the Bach Chaconne. A masterpiece, no question, but not what you’d call “easy listening” or obvious busking material. I would have thought that this would have garnered a few “wait a minute …” reactions. It would sure get my attention.

    I have a suspicion (but it’s not more than a suspicion) that a factor is that many people often use music as background or “fill.” I’d guess that such folks might be less likely to react to Bell; almost axiomatically, background stuff doesn’t really draw your attention. If it did, it wouldn’t be background, and perhaps that’s all that Bell provided for some people.

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    April 11, 2007


    You’re absolutely right– that’s a key assumption. I have a couple ideas about how to control for that, but I still think we’ll probably get some over-reporting.

    You can show the Milgram experiment to a classroom full of students, and all of them will self-righteously proclaim they’d never stoop to torturing someone on the orders of a “scientist.” But of course they would!

  7. #7 Allison
    April 11, 2007

    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an extra-talented street performer. The times when they haven’t been down right bad are too few to recall. I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to have a beautiful instrument and an oustanding performer sitting outside the entrance to Pioneer Place with the silver guy who stands really, really still.

    The article did remind me of the story of the experiment where the seminary students are told they are in a hurry or that they have plenty of time – and their different reactions to an “injured” person on the way. Our very morality changes when we’re in a hurry, why not our ability to appreciate music?

  8. #8 Alexei Polkhanov
    April 11, 2007

    Hmm, what you’d think if I admit that ALL music to me is and always was just an annoying noise. Am I “dysmusic” like in dyslexic ?


  9. #9 Chris
    April 11, 2007

    Just to play devil’s advocate, I’m pretty sure part of the point of the experiment, and the reason for doing it in this place and during the morning rush hour, was to see if people would choose beauty over rushing to work and all that entails (like being on time to work). The woman who recognized him, whom we have no reason to assume was any less rushed, stopped and stayed there for a few minutes, even staying to speak to Bell, because she recognized him, and therefore realized that listening was a truly unique opportunity.

    Janne, Theodore Adorno is rolling over in his grave. I will say, however, that if you’re familiar with Bell’s work, you know that his studio recordings seem to be done half-ass, so catching him live really is a treat. Plus, if you think that listening to Bach played on an exceptional violin by a master who is a few feet in front of you is the same as hearing it played in an elevator, you really need to have your hearing checked.

  10. #10 Dave Group
    April 11, 2007

    The previous posters have made some good points. I would also like to add that many people would probably not recognize exceptional music as distinct from the flood of mediocre, or even bad, stuff we are exposed to every day.

    This study reminds me of when Kosinski’s award-winning novel Steps was submitted under another name to a few dozen publishers; most rejected it.

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    April 11, 2007

    I think what I’m trying to get at here is not necessarily whether people would recognize Bell’s virtuosity, but that most people would be able to tell that he is a competent violinist, not a beginner.

    When I lived in New York (and presumably still today), homeless people used to march through subway trains, “performing” by singing almost unrecognizable pop tunes, carrying an old paper coffee cup to collect donations. It was bad, and most people just tried to ignore them. Refusing to donate to that person (who might still be worthy of charity) is different from snubbing an obviously trained musician.

  12. #12 sasha
    April 11, 2007

    “If you have at least 5 minutes to listen to a truly talented street performer, how often do you give at least $1?”

    The problem is that whether you have 5 minutes to spare for listening is somewhat subjective. You may have an appointment you’re hurrying to, so you don’t actually have the 5 minutes, but if the musician is good enough, you could decide to be a few minutes late and give yourself the time to listen. Alternatively, maybe no one would mind if you were 5 minutes late to your next destination, so you could stop and listen, but you’re cheap, so you tell yourself you don’t have the time because you’d feel bad listening without paying.

    and I’m not sure if it was mentioned in the article, but it did come up in the chat the author did the next day: it’s not only that people didn’t give Bell money, a fair number didn’t even notice that he was there at all.

  13. #13 The Ridger
    April 11, 2007

    Of course they didn’t notice him. Half of them never saw him and figured it was somebody’s iPod or something. Those who did see him were in the AM RUSH for crying out loud. I ride the Metro everyday. Nobody stops at the entrance. I can’t imagine stopping to listen to a violinist and risking missing my train and starting the chain reaction which would make me late to work. And if I had by some chance a day where that could happen, or if I’d been very lucky with the bus into the station and gotten there early, I can easily imagine people shoving into me – let alone any kind of crowd. On a day as cold as that one, to get money would involve gloves and coats and more lost time. Had he been on the platform he would probably have done better.

  14. #14 Ted
    April 11, 2007

    It’s been a number of years since I rode the underground and metro, but as a courtesy, I left money often (at least $1 usually, in 1980’s dollars). I can recall at least six times — mostly each time I spent some time in their presence vs. in transit.

    Is this similar to sending money to my local NPR on an annual basis? I appreciate their music and interviews so I send them $75 a year. It’s a self imposed tax to quality.

  15. #15 brian
    April 11, 2007

    the poll results don’t mean ANYTHING. i was surprised how many people voted never..but what people vote for in a poll on the internet is not necessarily what they would do on the street. i do however agree he could’ve made more had he played in an area like a park where people are hanging around for a bit. the platform probably wouldn’t work because the metro security wouldn’t let him just sit there playing.

    to janne, i don’t know what radio station you listen to, but i completely disagree about bell being on par with what we are exposed to everyday. the reason i don’t listen to the radio and one of the reasons i don’t watch much tv is that you are constantly bombarded with crappy music. sure theres some good stuff here and there..but that doesn’t sound like the average.

  16. #16 dee
    April 12, 2007

    I suggest you try putting Vanessa May in a seductive outfit with her electric violin in the subway and try again.I am ready to bet a fortune on her making over 10 times the amount of money Joshua Bell did. My theory is A, she’s good looking B, her style is profoundly different and C, sex appeal sells in subways. Vanessa may not be as good a violinist as Joshua but you try any new, unknown, good looking (sexy), female, music graduate and put her to the same test see what happens. oh and make the music a little more funky. Then dress Joshua in some outstanding suit make him communicate with the passers by even if it was with the odd smile and wink you will see his takings double oh and ditch the Strat nobody will notice the difference anyway he runs the risk of it being stolen or damaged.

  17. #17 Thomas Zeilin
    April 12, 2007

    I agree move him to a better position where people have the time to listen the subway is to rushed and 90% of the passers-by have no time to sit and appreciate good music I also partially agree with Dee’s comment especially the bit where he communicates with the people passing. Standing engrossed in his Violin works in concerts not in subways.

  18. #18 Jenny
    April 16, 2007

    Had he been on the platform he would have been knocked silly by the throngs of people trying to get to work on time. It was not just a Metro station – it was L’Enfant Plaza, one of the busiest in the city.

    I ride the Metro to work almost every day. I also have my iPod on the whole time, just like half of the rest of the Metro riders. Wouldn’t have even heard him.

  19. #19 Jongpil Yun
    May 5, 2007

    I’m a guitarist and enormous fan of string instruments in general. Whenever I see someone playing, I stop and listen (except in a few rare cases where say, my job is on the line). Of course that’s kind of a bias.

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