In Sunday’s Washington Post, Gene Weingarten asks an interesting question: what would happen “if one of the world’s great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?”  As it happens, Weingarten and the Post arranged to perform this experiment with the aid of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, playing his $3.5 Million Stradivarius.  The article is well written, delving into the philosophy of aesthetics, and the importance of context, and tentatively concluding that “we can’t look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people’s sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty.”  Bell comes off well too””modest enough, and wise enough to the ways of the mainstream media, to have as his sole condition for participation be that the word “genius” not be used to describe him or his work, and to be concerned that by playing in the L’Enfant station of the Washington DC Metro he might be an unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the passersby.  Certain segments of the Internet are giving it a lot of attention, and some people are, unsurprisingly, in an uproar, but there’s no reason to be either surprised or dismayed by the results of the experiment.

Skill at a task, such as the performance of music on a violin, is subject to diminishing returns.  I, who have had my hands on a violin for no more than 20 minutes total in my life, could become dramatically better with a single lesson, but the more I work the less improvement I see for each hour of practice time – the better you get the harder it is to get better.  This means that the difference in quality between people at different levels gets smaller as you go up the ladder, and Joshua Bell, even if we declare that he’s the world’s greatest living violinist, is realistically not that much better than a good subway musician.  This doesn’t diminish Bell’s accomplishments””the ground between him and those musicians is extraordinarily difficult to cover””but it means that from a practical standpoint having Bell as the variable in your experiment doesn’t change the equation all that much.

Apply the same logic to the Strad that Bell was playing.  I believe the people who say that they are the best violins ever made, but modern violin making is awfully good and the divide between the good violin and the Stradivarius is pretty narrow.  Again, if you’re Joshua Bell and you’re trying to be the best the small edge that a Strad gives you is worth worrying about, but treating the violin as a variable in the subway experiment changes the results of the equation very little.

Furthermore, in order to perceive the small differences we’re talking about you need a decent acoustic space and you need to be paying attention.  Presumably the subway platform is a pretty substandard venue and will seriously detract from the quality of the sound, making those key differences hard to hear.  And to a large extent the kinds of subtleties that distinguish a Joshua Bell from a Joe Professional Musician are not the kinds of things that jump out and grab your attention – you have to be looking for them.  This is why college students use kegs of Milwaukee’s Best for chugging and save the Sam Adams for occasions when they want to savor the taste.  Commuters would have to decide they wanted to listen to Bell before the would be able to hear that he’s a world class musician, and they have other things on their minds.

Consider also the fact that most of the classical music that people hear consists of recordings of professional musicians, and many of them have heard recordings of Bell himself although they probably don’t know it.  Hearing music played at a skill level approximate to what you are accustomed to is not surprising or attention-grabbing.   He probably would have garnered more attention if he had played badly, since that would have been surprising.  Heck, even the guys who sing along with the automatic accompaniment on their 1990s era Casio keyboards generally sing pretty well.

So for starters, there’s no reason to think that having Joshua Bell play the DC Metro is going to produce different results from having your average good subway musician play there.  It’s a cute gimmick, and given how it seems to have surprised and dismayed some people perhaps worth undertaking.  I won’t even go into how using Bell for this experiment smacks of Classical Music Chauvinism, although Weingarten does a much better job than most reporters do at avoiding that temptation.

Given that adding Joshua Bell into the experiment shouldn’t make a difference, what do we say about the fact that so few people stop to appreciate a first-rate performance of some first-rate music when they encounter it on the subway platform on a routine basis?  Are we cold and soulless?  Is it that we value getting to work on time more than we value art, and if so does that say something bad about our society?  Are we uneducated and thus incapable of recognizing great art when we see or hear it?  I don’t think so.  In fact I would suggest just the opposite””our lives are so full of art that we can afford to pass it by when we have something else going on.  Maybe that guy playing the guitar at the 116th Street station won’t be there the next time I pass through, but in the meantime I have my iPod for the train ride, internet radio all day, architecture each time I step into the street, graphic design when I look at advertising posters, my iPod on the way home, maybe some other subway musician if my train doesn’t show up, television or radio or a movie or a book when I get home.  And if I want to go out in the evening I can go to a concert or a play or a movie or a gallery or a poetry reading or a nightclub.  Everywhere I look people are wearing beautiful clothing.  The food that I eat is prepackaged and sometimes prepared for me, so it’s usually good and sometimes outstanding.  Sure, some of this art is better than others, but the overall average quality is better now than it has ever been in human history, and its availability is vastly greater.  Why be late for work to hear a violinist in a lousy acoustic space playing music I can hear on the radio even if from the few moments I hear as I approach he sounds like he’s probably pretty good?  I live in a society so rich with art that I can afford to miss this opportunity and get my art someplace more convenient.

21 Responses to “Why the Joshua Bell Experiment Tells Us Nothing”
  1. David Fenton says:

    While I agree that using a garden-variety violinist wouldn’t change the results, I think you seriously under-rate the difference in quality between your garden-variety violinist and a virtuoso of Bell’s ability. Granted, it wouldn’t change the results, but it’s something that’s pretty darned easy to hear, even for those without experience with either the violin or classical music in general.

    Secondly, I find it extremely telling that all your examples of musical alternatives are *recorded* — you give no examples of LIVE MUSICAL PERFORMANCES as alternatives for the people who’ve got “art” in their lives already.

    I think that’s just bloody sad.

    While recordings are a great way to experience the *music*, a live performance is a *social* interaction where you hear both the music and experience the personality of the musician, and if you’re lucky, you get to interact with the live person who makes the music. Sadly, that’s an experience that fewer and fewer people seem to be having, even as they load up their iPods with the most wonderful variety of music running the gamut from World Music to classical, to every variety of so-called “popular” music. I think it’s fabulous that people have access to such a huge variety of music, and that they seem to be eager to consume it.

    But I don’t see recorded music as a substitute for the complete experience of live music, in whatever setting, a club, a street corner, a concert hall.

  2. Michelle says:

    There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog: http://www.SawLady.com/blog
    She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters… I thought you might find it interesting.

  3. steven cartwright says:

    I’m reminded of an old song (Judy Collins did a cover of it with Richard Stoltzman) about a high-priced pop star who pauses to listen to a man on the street playing a clarinet. In the words of the song, “He was playin’ real good, for free.” (It’s a lot more haunting when she sings it.)

  4. andrea says:

    Comment from Roy
    Time: April 9, 2007, 12:47 pm

    There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog: http://www.SawLady.com/blog
    She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters… I thought you might find it interesting.

    gee “michelle,” couldn’t you have come up with a more original plus for the saw lady’s post? or did the saw lady cut off your cohones, so you don’t have the guts to post unanonymously?

  5. The experiment and responses (including Galen’s) are all very interesting, and tell us a lot more than nothing, even though they may not tell us what we think they should.

    One of the interesting premises in the article that I haven’t seen any comment on is the comparison of what happened in DC to what would have happened in a European city. The assumption, which I find hard to argue with, is that a similar performance in a European city would have drawn more of a response.

    One could argue, as the article does, and Galen does (sort of), that Americans have other things that they prioritize more highly than unplanned moments of beauty.

    But I haven’t seen anyone comment on the fact that Bell played European music – great music, to be sure – instead of playing music that directly related to the city he was playing in. Many Europeans have been brought up to take pride in their music (a pride they may sustain or reject as they get older) in a way that doesn’t really happen – at least not to the same extent — in this country.

    He wore a Washington Nationals baseball cap, and played music from thousands of miles away.

    Actually, now I’m wondering if people ignored him because they knew the Nationals were going to be really bad this season.

  6. I wonder if we are missing the obvious: that music in that space simply does not speak to contemporary Americans. I love Bach as well as anyone, and I will go a ways to hear it played well, but you want to hear Bach in a church. Whatever Joshua Bell can play, it is best experienced in a concert hall.

    Maybe the whole experiment just proves that the sort classical music that will engage contemporary commuters in a subway station has yet to be written.

  7. I’m not surprised to see this experiment being poo-pooed here. We’re a callous bunch of careerists after all, with little real interest in sublime beauty or classical music in general! Ha!

    As artists, we’re supposed to live lives of incredibly emotional honesty and openness. To mock an experiment that attempts to point out how closed, how busy, how inurred to the chaos and inherently unemotional our lives are – and the Chaconne for western ears is an extremely intense emotional experience often bringing people to tears – is as interesting as the horror that was exposed in the experiment. It is interesting and it is telling.

    For me, this experiment was VERY interesting as I’m sure you guys can tell. It was an angelic intervention into hell. What can one expect from people who are comfortable in hell? Urban life IS hell.

    Some dead guy once said that Existence is Suffering. The sublime art of Bach at least allows us a momentary window into a reflective corner of a mind that would not relent to this chaos – who persisted and delivered a message of redemption. If we allow it. If we can tolerate the terror of beauty; the real cost of allowing ourselves to be open.

    It is that cost – that people aren’t willing to pay. The cost of being an emotionally open person. (I’m talking about the commuters). Notice in the article the responses of the children.

    Poo poo away… I think you’re missing the point. And you can jump on me for being harsh. But that’s my take. Take it or leave it…

  8. Lanier says:

    Speaking of guitarist around 116th St., there’s a phenomenal singer/guitarist who can often be found at 103rd on the 1 line. He’s well worth pausing for.

  9. Graham Rieper says:

    “But that’s my take. Take it or leave it…”

    I totally take it.

  10. Taisu says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to definitively state what this experiment revealed. If the people who conducted this experiment spoke to each and everyone person who passed by, they might be a little closer, but still…people will draw their own conclusions as to what kind of implication this experiment has on U.S society. Given that, here are a few of my ideas:

    Context is important. As was pointed out by the reporter, Mr. Bell looked like run of the mill street musician. The audience was mostly government workers on their way to work. The vast majority passed by without taking notice. The question is why? Why did they not stop and take notice? I think it’s a mix of both what Mr. Brown pointed out and the reporter, but for slightly different reasons. I don’t believe most people have a high understanding or appreciation for classical music. True, they probably hear it a lot, but contrary to Mr. Brown, I don’t believe they can distinguish good from pretty good, pretty good from excellent, or excellent from world class. When someone is bad, it’s obvious, and if that’s the case, they’re either not a street musician or a very, very young one. There’s bad and good. My college roommate, who was an econ major, was dragged to several concerts by myself and endured hours of classical music being played on my computer when I was studying for music history exams. And yet to this day, he still claims that he wouldn’t be able to tell good from world class. He is one of many, I’m sure. So, my point being, I don’t think people took notice in part because they didn’t understand how truly incredible Mr. Bell’s performance really was.

    Another reason was because these people were on their way to work. They were pre-occupied. When someone is pre-occupied, they often do not notice their surroundings that much, especially when it is part of a routine. When I drive to my job, there might be a Porshe that passes by, but I’m sure I didn’t notice on numerous occasions. And I’m sure there are people who consider Porshe’s to be world class vehicles and engineering marvels. What struck me was how the reporter said that all children attempted to stop and listen, and that got interpreted as children having a higher appreciation for art/music. On that, I would disagree. Those children are not pre-occupied as their parents, as children tend to live more in the moment, and also are naturally curious. I doubt any child will stop to listen, and then compliment Mr. Bell on his lyricism or technique.

    I will say that I do think that our society has become callous to the arts. And this is not necessarily the consumers fault. Yes, there is lots of available music and art out there, but that’s exactly what caused the callousness…it’s art inflation. Anytime you step into a high fashion department store, there’s techno-catwalk music playing which that company has spent good money on researching exactly what type of music will get the consumer to buy more. There’s more art than there are people to consume it. Hence, why only pop music makes airtime on media outlets such as MTV and the like, as they have to sell something that will immediately generate revenue i.e. young women singing in their underwear. Whether someone likes a song or movie or art nowadays is a split second decision, and not something that can be nurtured over time, which is why someone like Mr. Bell can play in that subway station and barely get noticed. Classical…violin…no words…not much exposure to Joe Schmoe…I don’t recognize the song, don’t really care anyway…that’s the mindset of many passerby’s, I’m guessing.

    But that’s not anybody’s fault, when it comes down to it. It’s the price we pay as a society for industrialization. Beauty becomes only skin deep, and there’s not enough time to develop a sense for true beauty nor recognize it when it comes along.

  11. Anonymous says:

    A petrified culture incapable of response unless the protocol of response is provided for them.
    The protocol of response in this case is indifference, unless of course a spectacle is provided to distract them.
    This is what television commercials attempt to do.

  12. T.D. Lake says:

    I remember stepping off the Subway in New York near Chinatown and hearing a band better than any in Dayton, just a guitar, drums and a vocalist, and people were walking by as if nothing was happening.

    The truth is, people that are talented collect in New York City because they may be able to get an opportunity at a larger career than they would in a small city like Dayton. So the intensity of the competition is very high. The best violinist in Dayton is not comparable to the best violinists in New York City.

    Obviously, Joshua Bell is a virtuoso, and has spent years getting to where he is today. I’m sure that at the level he plays at, that he is considerably better than the typical street violinist in New York City. However, I can tell you that most people’s ears aren’t that good and probably couldn’t hear the difference between the performances.

    A lot of people don’t understand Scarlatti, and he wrote 350 years ago, and those people probably couldn’t tell the difference between an inspired performance of Scarlatti and a below average one.

    What the experiment shows to me is this: Someone in the classical community, maybe Bell himself, wants to know how Bell stacks up with the plebians. That to me is a good thing, because it shows that the classical community is considering the fact that the plebians might be on to something.

    I’m a democrat at heart; I believe that the audience has a right to enjoy themselves. If they enjoy themselves at the Knitting Factory… then great. If they want to hear the old warhorses, then great. If they want avant-garde, then great. As New York City itself shows, you may not reach a huge audience, but just about any kind of art will get played and consumed by a small group of people.

    Joshua Bell just happens to reach a very wide audience comparably, and he does it because of factors that range from his own resources to his playing ability.

  13. Seriously, now, folks – wouldn’t the experiment have been a whole lot more interesting if Bell had played, say, “Mikka S.” by Iannis Xenakis?

  14. Elaine says:

    I tend to think of playing on the street as an opportunity to share something or make somebody’s day a little better. The idea of giving money to someone playing on the street because you feel that person is talented is, in my opinion, kind of like giving money to a stripper because you think s/he is “hot.” However, after listening for a while, and if the experience was an enjoyable one, I find nothing wrong with the members of the audience expressing their appreciation for the chance to listen to music with money.

    Of course, if (and I have found this to be the case once in a while) I hear someone playing on the street and do not like that person’s playing (lack of talent or lack of taste being the big reasons), I would not stop and listen and would not give that person any money.

    The Washington Post experiment was an empty one for me too, but I’m sure that it will do wonders for the sales of Joshua Bell’s new recording.

  15. Doug Palmer says:

    There are Bach violin works that bring tears to my eyes, but I gotta get to work!
    Perhaps if they gave $75,000 grants to listeners.

  16. Thought you should all know about an upcoming project scheduled for September 2007 in downtown New York City.

    Chance Encounter is a 30-40 minute site-specific musical work to be performed in public spaces and street corners by composer/vocalist Lisa Bielawa, and performed by Grammy-award winning soprano Susan Narucki and Brooklyn-based ensemble The Knights. On Friday, September 28th at the Seward Park Public Library in downtown NYC, Chance Encounter will be staged to integrate common urban elements such as taxicabs, subway stairs, and store entrances; Bielawa\’s work moves through public spaces, alternating amongst musicians. Lisa & Susan have spent the past year collecting hundreds of utterances made in public- from the airport in Anchorage, Alaska to kids playing in Central Park— and are in the process of creating free-form arias and songs that animate the particular mood of each collective topic. Chance Encounter is made possible in part with public funds from the Fund for Creative Communities, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts and administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Creative Capital.
    To learn more about Lisa’s ongoing research and chance encounters with the public each and everyday, visit her Chance Encounter blog at http://www.lisabielawa.net/chance_section
    To learn more about the project in general, visit http://channel.creative-capital.org/project_837.html

  17. Stefanie L. says:

    To expand upon what Doug said…I don’t think it’s fair to make sweeping judgements on the status of art/beauty/skill appreciation based on the reaction of a population that is very much engaged in another activity (ie getting to work). I love Mahler, but if I were driving down the highway and one of his symphonies came on the radio, I’d have to change the station.

  18. Bill Compton says:

    Hi Jim. Photos i received. Thanks

  19. Michael says:

    As a street violinist myself, I can tell you the most attention (and tips) are gathered at any major college campus, on a Saturday night, in a major commercial district frequented by most of the students.

    getting the greatest numbers of listeners.most attention, smiles, music majors and beautiful women hanging around (all at the same time ) are:

    Vivaldi’s Spring first mvt. (with a lot of double stops)

    The Godfather Theme

    Pacabel Canon in D

    Brahm’s Hungarian Rhapsody #5

    Theme from Cats

    Fiddler on the Roof selections

    Mozart’s Turkish Rondo ( again, lots of double stops)

    Result: much more excitement than Bach in a subway in front of Wall Streeters!

  20. Kittymama says:

    The two hugest reasons this means nothing about either art or context: 1. Regular rush hour commuters already know there’s likely to be music and they are likely not to have time to stop and listen. 2. Americans are ignorant about and can’t stand classical music, for the most part. That’s not an insult, and I include myself (though I like soloists much better than I like orchestras) — it’s just the way it is. I agree it would be different if we lived in some mud pit and were starved for pretty things, but that theory doesn’t account for Bell nevertheless having a job and fans among a small proportion of a society that for the most part couldn’t care less.

  21. street musician says:

    “Sure, some of this art is better than others, but the overall average quality is better now than it has ever been in human history, and its availability is vastly greater.”

    Actually the average quality of art is worse than it has been since caveman times because the “arts” have degenerated into an exercise in nepotism and advertising. People from rich families go to music school, have every advantage and then get a high-paying job playing badly in a symphony. Pop “artists” are more likely to be well-advertised than to have any actual musical merit. Most of the people who are supposedly professionals actually play and sing badly out of tune (but not so badly out of tune that the person who wrote this article or most of the people making most of the money can tell). There are musicians who get it, but the vast majority of the ones getting paid do not. They are earnest but utterly lacking in talent. And the writer of this article is correct when he says that most cannot tell the difference between good and great but he’s wrong when he says that most can tell the difference between excruciatingly bad and great.

  22.