In Washington DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, a man with a violin started to play. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that over 1,000 people went through that station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was a 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 little boy. His mother tagged him along, hurriedly, but the child stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard and the boy continued to walk by, turning his head to watch the violinist the whole time. This action was repeated several times by other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played only 7 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk by at their normal pace. He collected $32.17 that morning for his efforts. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it, and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.
No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a 1713 Stadivarius violin worth 3.5 million dollars.
Three days earlier, Joshua had played to a full house at Boston's Symphony Hall, where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.
A writer for the Washington Post named Gene Weingarten set this up as "an experiment in context, perception and priorities - as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"
This is how Weingarten described the crux of the experiment:
Each passerby had a quick choice to make,
one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional
street performer is part of the cityscape:
Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt
and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed
by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet?
Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite?
Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good?
Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you?
What's the moral mathematics of the moment?
(The Washington Post won a Pulitzer in the feature writing category for Gene Weingarten's story about his experiment.)