What happens when a maestro plays the subway?

This piece in the Washington Post is one of the most interesting articles I have read in a newspaper in a long, long time.

The Post arranged for Joshua Bell, a world famous violinist, to bring his $3.5 million violin to a subway stop, open up his case for donations, and see how people respond. The story even shows you hidden video. Before you read the article, take a guess at what you think happened.

One intriguing part of the article described how Bell’s parents decided that they should start him on formal violin lessons:

…he got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.

I cannot tell you how far that description of Bell at age 4 is from anything I have observed in my own children. The closest parallel is that my oldest daughters could recite the lyrics to the Kid Rock/Sheryl Crow duet “Picture” when they were two. If you know the lyrics, you will understand how that got me into some trouble more than once.

Thanks to Andrew Brock (who also blogs about this story) for bringing this article to my attention.


most people would walk by and ask- are you THE Joshua Bell?- clearly he should get record donations, but no matter- high art for the masses is a good idea


I guess the fund-raising was not successful, because:
1. people don't carry large amount of cash. do we carry check books anymore?
2. can he be trusted? really he's Josh Bell plays?
3. people usually don't make long stops at subway stops. thus have little time to know about the charity.
4. if it was an unadvertised event, i doubt it could be successful.
However, after the newspaper report, i guess that charity got much more attention and dollars!

Josh Millard

It's a bit of a setup, though:

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by.

It was the middle of the morning rush hour. Buskers are a commonplace occurance, and life goes on. Burying a coy twist below the threshold of most folks' expectations and then building a tsk-tsk write-up about it seems like awfully weak stuff.

Hell, this is a good blog; you guys get a pile of traffic from people coming here on purpose, and yet you've seen very well what the reader-to-comments ratio is.

There's a (somewhat wooly and navel-gazey) backroom conversation about the ubiquity of this particularly story, over at Metafilter.


I'd be interested to know the ins and outs of insuring a $3.5M violin during such an endeavor.


What's so bad about "Picture"? Infidelity and neglect, followed by redemption and reconciliation. There are worse songs to know by heart.

Josh Millard

Also, a quick analysis on Bell's (lack of) busking acumen (tremendous musical talent notwithstanding) from NYC busker/blogger Sawlady.

Josh Millard

NYC busker/blogger Sawlady on Bell's busking technique as useful context for the outcome of the experiment.


As someone from the south who hasn't used public transportation that much, I've occasionally stopped and listened to street musicians when I've traveled to larger cities - there have been many who I thought were quite good. Sometimes even when I haven't stopped I've appreciated their playing. Although there is no way to find out, I wonder how many people that day thought to themselves, "Hey, that guy's really good!"


I passed this article onto my parents and my siblings. We are all huge classical music fans and I would like to believe we would have all done what the postal worker did: stop in our tracks. Kudos to him for recognizing the talent. I think the article speaks a great deal on how life in the US is all about 'making that dollar' and less and less about beauty.

Having spent minimal time in a metro corridor, I do remember it being quite noisy in NYC, DC, etc... how could someone ignore the sound of classical violin in an enclosed area like that?


On the one hand, it's amazing to me that such a renowned musician wouldn't even be noticed by more than a dozen people, even at rush hour when everyone's busy running through.

On the other hand, I live in a big city where there are always people begging for money in one way or another. I think that there was a very good point made in the article - that more people may have noticed him, but if they had looked and stopped to listen, they would have felt guilty about not leaving money. So I'm sure there were people who noticed and found it to be very good, but didn't have the money to part with then, or didn't choose to.


well if he tried that in Canada and wanted to really make some good money he would have had to at least play "Turkey in The Straw" or some other classic ...honestly l rarely notice street muscians unless l am with my son ..than it is at least a 10 minute stop and $10 for the fun ....


I read this last night and LOVED the article - thanks for blogging about this and bringing it to the masses.

In fact, I loved the article so much that the status on my GMail right now is:

One of the best articles I've read in a long, LONG time: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html?hpid=topnews

Sounds really similar to Levitt's opening :-)


I think the most valuable outcomes from the busking was the ink the charity received and I agree with the earlier poster that good classical for the masses is a good thing.

Josh Millard

Bloody posting lag. Apologies for the dupe.


I'm re-posting this comment here because I'm not sure if you check comments on old posts....

"I love your blog, and I read regularly, but I don't comment often. If you'd mentioned soccer, I might have something to say to this post, but that's not the reason I' m commenting.

As a budding social scientist, I feel like there is something you can do about your comment numbers. Analyze the comments you do recieve on your posts. You already did a crude sort of survey by asking people about commenting, now look at the data you have and run some statistics on them! Maybe it has to do with the time you post your topics? The topics themselves? Do the same people comment over and over, or do you get new commenters everyday. Are people turned off by the TypeKey sign in, or are they just lazy?

When you post some of these statistics, maybe I can be coaxed into commenting again. ;)"


I think the article is out of line by quoting all these sources criticizing those who ignored Joshua Bell. Where's the other side of the story? The people who ignored him are doing so based on prior experience, and they are optimizing in the long run, because, quite frankly, when is a street musician ever actually worth listening to with the opportunity cost of time spent at work? Before I was in grad school, I listened to an iPod when I commuted to work, because Josh Bell was never playing on the MBTA.

Let me put this another way -- the Washington Post could have just as well have done an experiment in which a crumpled-up $1000-winning lottery ticket was discarded on the Metro floor in the same spot. Would it be a surprise if no stopped to examine it, because in the long run, the public's prior expectation is that no one would treat a winning lottery ticket such fashion?(Much like the joke about the economist who claims that a $20 bill left on the sidewalk doesn't exist.) Similarly, no one expects a world-famous musician to play on a subway, and its rational for most to ignore him. Bottom line, it's unfair to say that the reaction to Bell is solely the result of a culturally ignorant and overworked population.



Lyrics to Picture:

"Been fuelin' up on cocaine and whiskey,
wish I had a good girl to miss me...."

That would be funny to hear kids singing.

I hear buskers every day in San Francisco and most are bad. They know one song and butcher even that one. I would definitely notice a good one. (then again, I'm a musician and notice sounds that others don't seem to.)


Two of the Interviewees seem to think that there would have been a different result in other countries.

I wonder if this is true at all...I bet not.



The author of the article is the WP Magazine's humor columnist Gene Weingarten, and he did a chat about the article today online. He discussed the logistics of setting up the experiment and responded the posters' comments on the article. A few people who wrote in were actually in the video and hadn't stopped. The transcript is here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2007/04/06/DI2007040601228.html

In response to a few of the previous posters, I would suggest that the article's purpose was not to criticize the people who didn't stop. The author really didn't seem to make any moral judgments about the people who passed. Instead, the article set up the event, described what happened, and discussed its meaning. I don't think the author went in trying to prove a point. He just wanted to see what would happen.


A couple of the posts above reference the fact that people have come to expect lower quality work (and therefore don't stop to listen or leave tips) from subway performers. I spent most of my summers in college in Aspen, Colorado, where there is a large music festival and academy held throughout the summer. Many of the musicians from the festival play as individuals or small groups at night all around town, and people do tend to stop and listen (and leave tips), far more so than in larger cities where I've been. I think there may be a few factors at work, but the main ones, in no particular order, are:
1. Expectation that the musicians may be of notable calibre, and thus more worthy of stopping to listen to.
2. The fact that Aspen's residents tend to have (far) more money than the average mid-level commuter.
3. The desire to be seen as being culturally literate and altruistic by the others listening to the music.
4. The desire to promote continuation of the students' performances at night.

It would be interesting to see if any of these characteristics applied to the 37 people who tipped Joshua Bell.