Detecting quality

by Russ Roberts on April 16, 2007

in Music

The other day in DC, a musician hung out at a Metro stop, playing the violin and entertaining the rush-hour commuters on the way to work.

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside
the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of
the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most
elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever
made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post 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?

What happened? Did a crowd gather? Was Joshua Bell ignored? How much money did he collect in the open violin case at his feet that usually housed the $3.5 million Stradivarius he was playing?  Find out here. (HT: Brandywine Books)

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Al April 16, 2007 at 3:40 pm

I thought this story was ridiculous, and I am a musician myself (though not nearly the same caliber as Joshua Bell).

I commute through Le'Enfant Plaza every morning and a third of the commuters are wearing earplugs or earphones. I wear earphones so I don't have to listen to other people's ill-behaved and ill-supervised children.

Even if this weren't the case, you don't order caviar at a baseball game, you don't hang a Picasso in a grocery store, and you don't have Joshua Bell playing in the subway.

That being said, he should have tried Union Station. I think they actually allow musicians there . . .

Python April 16, 2007 at 3:51 pm

I'm not sure how the story would have panned out if he was playing in a park, for example, or even in the subway as people were getting off work.

The comparison to how much people would have paid for tickets is ridiculous. How many times have we each turned down a lot of free/cheap stuff because we were busy, or in the middle of something? I turned down free baseball tickets just last week because I didn't have enough time to plan. Expecting people to stop in the station and listen to 14 minutes of the most beautiful music is a stretch.

"Where were you Johnson? The meeting started 10 minutes ago!!!" "Well boss, there was this guy with a violin, and…"

M. Hodak April 16, 2007 at 3:57 pm

Interesting stunt. Stupid experiment.

An interesting aspect for an economist is how high the Gini coefficient is for classical musical performers, not unlike other artists. A handful great performers like Bell can earn upwards of a million dollars per year (and much more in popular genres). A few almost great can maybe get by with a job in an orchestra. Those that don't get a seat in the pit might hope for $40 an hour busking at a metro station. The other 99 percent become Post Office supervisors and such. Is this fair? WaPo doesn't seem to care, for a change.

Mike April 16, 2007 at 4:02 pm

Or maybe Josh Bell is overrated?

hummbumm April 16, 2007 at 4:39 pm

More interesting is that they were denied permission to play at the Metro, and it took over 3 days to get that permission denial to wind its way through the bureaucracy, but the private Mall operator gave an okay in 6 seconds. this is why he palyed where he did, on private property outside the metro boundary.

M. Hodak April 16, 2007 at 8:13 pm

Also, I wonder if he might have gotten a better response in NY or SF, where everyone isn't a government bureaucrat. I'm not saying everyone who works in Washington is brain dead. I'm just saying…

Ray G April 16, 2007 at 8:25 pm

Does it make anyone feel better that my 5 year old likes Brahms? Well, the dances anyway, they're fast enough for his frenetic little brain to enjoy.

I don't know that a classical musician would have ever been a show stopper, in any era. The "average Joe" is who he is by definition, and regardless of college education, professional status, or whatever, most people are just average stiffs with average tastes.

But for those who believe that the venue was at fault, placing a well known, easily recognized pop-artist in a similar situation would have drawn much more of a crowd. That wouldn't be exactly the same thing; pitting pure celebrity against the artistic allure of music itself, but the point is that people would find time to stop if they really wanted to.

happyjuggler0 April 17, 2007 at 3:09 am

I read this story about a week ago and immediately thought the same thing Python did, namely: what moron decided to have him play during *morning* rush hour instead of late afternoon rush hour? And then had the audacity to pontificate about what is wrong with people who insist on getting to work on time?

The problem isn't with society, or at least you can't prove it by this article. The problem is with the half assed way the experiment was set up by the Washington Post. Of course it is entirely possible they would've gotten the same result with the late afternoon rush hour, but I am far from sold this would've been the case. Personally I think they had an agenda and it would've ruined their "eye opening" story if it had turned out differently. Of course I am also a world class cynic….

Eric Crampton April 17, 2007 at 4:09 am

Happy Juggler: I think the point is that you want to have the experiment when people are under time constraints. Otherwise you get a pooling equilibrium where everyone will stop and listen regardless of quality because they have nothing better to do. At high time cost, people will only stop if perceived quality is high. That people didn't stop suggests either that they cannot discern quality, or that their funtion mapping time costs to propensity to stop and listen asymptotes too quickly.

Ray April 17, 2007 at 8:22 am

Slow down and smell the roses! You miss a lot of beautiful life that you'll never regain with your fixation on (what?).

cpurick April 17, 2007 at 8:37 am

I really think it hurt the experiment to conduct it at a location where people would be on their way to work. No matter how good the music, they all had previous commitments. Thus we're not seeing how many people value quality music; we're seeing how many people value it enough to compromise their plans.

In a leisure setting, like a shopping mall on the weekend, interest would probably be more reflective of the quality of the music. I've been at malls where piano salesmen can draw a crowd at a keyboard — I'm sure Joshua Bell would do much better in such a setting.

Al April 17, 2007 at 9:46 am


I think your comment is spot-on. I would prefer to sell each Metro Station to a different owner and let them have food vendors, musicians, or even happy jugglers.

If I ran a station, the first thing in there would be a good coffee stand and a fricking RESTROOM! Then again, I would sell the actual train system to Halliburton . . .

Henri Hein April 17, 2007 at 2:56 pm

Python, Hodak, HappyJuggler: You guys are hard! The Post people did something interesting and tried to make the best of it. I was surprised and intrigued that they even went so far as to track down people that were there to interview them.

It is noteworthy that almost all the interviewees were government employees. From personal experience and anecdotal evidence, my impression is that private employees are much more flexible with their schedule.

Person April 17, 2007 at 3:00 pm

Disclaimers: I'm a violinist, albeit one who hasn't played in seven years. (At the time, my instructor had recently started me on Paganini Caprice No. 17, Op.1)

I don't think all music is equal.

Nevertheless, I have to say this to all those who claim the experiment is biased on grounds of being during rush hour:

If this music really has some objective quality, people WOULD stop to listen to it, because it would be precisely analagous to finding a diamond on the sidewalk: obviously good quality, in obviously too poor a place to normally find it.

Ray_G especially missed the point. If you have to be *told* it's good quality, to appreciate it, it's not really good quality. In fact, they have a name for it: THE PLACEBO EFFECT. What you call "Average tastes", I call "unbiased tastes". In fact, they've done this experiment with wines: when the snobs around you can't tell you what wine you're drinking, even experts can't identify the good ones.

And I must confess to a little Schadenfreude at Bell's insecurity at lacking validation. JOIN THE CLUB, kid.

Python April 17, 2007 at 9:39 pm

One time, on vacation, I was in Beijing in the underground tunnel that leads to the subway. Strangely, for a few moments, there was no one in the long corridor except my wife, me, and a handicapped old-timer playing a stringed Chinese instrument. It was beautiful. The acoustics, the scene – to me was breathtaking. I stopped walking and looked at the guy, trying to understand the senses that were rushing to my head. My wife, who had grown up amongst such things, basically pushed me onto the escalator. During that trip, I saw many more like him but in busier settings; and the Chinese basically pushed right past them, very few dropping coins.

I want to clarify that I think it was a cool "experiment" for the Post to do, but I don't think their conclusions or moralizing was accurate.

Fine music, played in a busy subway station while you are in a hurry is no longer fine music. I can hear better music at home from my MP3s without the bureaucrat bumping my elbow. If I am running a marathon and you offer me Dom Perignon out of a paper cup, I'm not going to appreciate it as much.

Put another way, I can view "copies" of Van Gogh's work at a good art store that are nearly the same quality as Van Gogh's actual work. When I go to the museum I pause, reflect, and admire his work. At the art store, I walk right past the copies and head to the dogs playing poker :-) . It's not that I've dismissed his quality or was ignorant to it, it's just that I want to admire it in the context that fits the occasion.

True, if Bono was singing down in the the subway, I'd stop to listen. But the world's best drummer, violinist, cellist, whistler, chicken plucker, probably not.

The Epicurean Dealmaker April 19, 2007 at 1:56 pm

Charles Green has a post on this topic over at Trust Matters:

A few comments of interest there as well.

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