There’s a greatly discussed social “experiment”, in which a very talented professional violinist by the name of Joshua Bell played his instrument on a subway platform in Washington. Only a few nights prior he had played the exact same ridiculously expensive violin in a Symphony Hall concert which had sold out in minutes. He spent approximately 45 minutes on the platform during which time exactly 1097 people stopped to listen for at least a few moments. Out of those who paused only 27 gave him any money and only seven stopped for any length of time. The pieces he played were classics, recognized masterpieces, and they were played by one of the greatest violinists of the time, on one of the most lauded violins in existence, yet almost nobody cared. It is said that he made only a bit more than half of the price of one of the seats at the Symphony Hall he’d filled just three days earlier.
One popular interpretation of the outcome of this “experiment” is that it shows the importance of the context or setting of any particular experience in how much we appreciate or enjoy it. Any suggestion that this contrived situation with a sample size of one (n =1) and no controls could be considered an experiment is patently ridiculous on its face, however I will ignore that, and instead focus on the implausibility of the explanation. There are several other just as likely explanations. Another possible reason that so few people stopped to listen and give any money is that in the real world very few people actually like to listen to the violin. The number of people who actually like and appreciate the violin, particularly as a solo instrument, are so outnumbered by those who have no opinion or actively dislike it, that the outcome of this “experiment” was virtually guaranteed. In addition to these “violin haters” a large portion of people (myself included) are seriously turned off by the imposition of music of any kind in a public space upon those who did not ask for it, and now have no choice but to listen to it. I do not care if the music or instrument selected is my most or least favorite, I simply find it unfair, and seriously uncool to force others to listen to something if they have no say in its selection. These “public space music haters” will never give money to any musician playing in a public space, and I believe there are a much larger number of these then is generally thought. Additionally, many many people on the subway are in a hurry to get where ever it is they are going; some find the subway disgusting and just want to get the hell out as fast as they can, others are late to work, or about to miss the next train, or have an emergency, etc.
A violin concert is a collection of a nanosubet of people, many of whom are quite wealthy and can afford to pay hundreds of dollars to listen to someone play the violin. A subway platform is a collection of a huge swath of ordinary and diverse people, who have a variety of incomes. Many more are poor than are rich and almost none actually like the violin. Probably in many cases out of 1000 people on the subway at any given time at best ten to 100 people like the violin or have no opinion and many of those are in a hurry or fall into the public space music haters group. The real world is much more similar to the subway platform. It really doesn’t matter how good or bad the violin player is, it only matters that he/she is playing the violin (in a public space with people in a hurry), an instrument almost no one (compared to the total number of people in the world) actually cares for. This is in no way to suggest that the violin is a particularly bad or good instrument or that people are right or wrong in their opinions of it. It is simply the way the world is today.