Penny For Your Thoughts

by asluthier

by asluthier



It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the one about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

A Most Interesting Story

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best 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 his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

The original Washington Post story is here.  It has video.  It’s worth reading.

—Beetle Blogger



  1. Euripides said,

    January 8, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    When I was in Rome, I came across a violinist at the end of the tunnel of the subway. She was a magnificent artist with the violin. I stopped, sat down, and listened to her for about a half hour. Then again, I also stop and look at the stars, planets and moon every night. Yes, there is beauty in the world. We just need to stop and appreciate it.

  2. Stephanie said,

    January 8, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    I have had a lot of these same thoughts myself lately. So much that God has given to us that we miss everyday because of what we call “priorities” and because of our “busyness”. Sad.

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s a great reminder to slow down and take in the beauty.

  3. Pearl said,

    January 8, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    That would so be my kids. They would probably sit down on the grungy metro floor to listen. America is one of the hardest working countries in the world, but we’ve forgotten how to relax and play and experience life apart from work. I had the opportunity to live in Chile for a few years when I was a teenager. The Chilean people are extremely industrious throughout the year, but every summer the big cities are vacated as the country’s citizens head to the beaches for three months of vacation. Three months! Can you believe that? We’re lucky if we can squeeze a vacation day here or there each year. And even then, who knows how much we’re actually enjoying our vacations.

    Thanks for sharing this. It is a beautiful story.

  4. beetlebabee said,

    January 9, 2009 at 12:11 am

    The accompanying news story said that Joshua Bell earns in excess of 1,000.00 per minute. The value we place on things, isn’t it interesting?

    He was actually quite nervous. In a theater setting, you know everyone there is there to appreciate you, but here, in the subway, without the proper setting of name, fame or glory, it’s a different ballgame.

    I think I would have liked to have been there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: