Joshua Bell is one of the most talented violinists in the world. I think Lorenzo Laroc – in his own way – is as well. This is not really about one vs. the other though. It’s about this now old meme floating around regarding a lesson someone thinks they’re teaching about common folks’ attention to beauty in our world. I’ll place the whole urban legend story at the bottom of this note. But the short of it is Joshua Bell went to play his violin in the typical location of a street musician. Few stopped. The moral or message the researcher or sponsor of this social research seems to be trying to push is that we don’t easily recognize beauty in our midsts.

I’d like to suggest that the researcher has not only proceeded from a false premise, but his conclusions are off as well. The false premise comes from the simple idea of confirmation bias or more simply the idea that sometimes we simply find what we seek. His premise appears to have been people would likely not notice. Yes, you can argue he was just asking the question “Would people notice or not?” But his selection of some basic violin music, however wonderfully played, may not really answer the question as to whether we recognize beauty around us. We hear a lot of classical music around us. Some enjoy it in and of itself on their various music devices. Others hear it as background to commercials, elevators, public ambient music. As human creatures, we become quickly accustomed to things around us. Perhaps only those especially interested in classical music might happen to stop. Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely discusses this a bit in his book Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. (Ariely doesn’t discuss music in particular; more about how we react to things around us in general.)

Now, let’s instead take another example. Lorenzo Laroc. Laroc is also an accomplished violinist. However, Laroc has an intense rock and roll style using an electric violin. It’s new. It’s exciting. It stops a great many right in their tracks. I know this because I’ve seen him play many times at the entrance to the No. 6 train out of Grand Central Station, New York City. Where not a lot of people stop for hardly anything. In fact, in NYC, you can do just about anything at any hour day or night. Laws notwithstanding, there’s few rules people care about except for maybe one… Don’t Get in the Way. In this environment, people stop for Laroc. At least, in the beginning. As much as we may appreciate him, we don’t stop as much over time. Some of us have purchased his CD so we don’t have to stop on our busy way to work. Laroc seems to understand that he’s hitting a lot of the same audience and moves on as well. This is all common sense stuff, right?

Why have I bothered to write this up? Only because it’s just a little pet peeve of mine when I come across false memes. I feel compelled to hold up a mirror to them for the few who might actually listen. For some reason, people like to pass around the story below because maybe they feel it tugs on some heart strings as well as the violin. (Yes, that was really bad. Couldn’t help it.) The reality is nothing is wrong with us at all. We recognize beauty just fine. We’re just not easily distracted when we’re in a clearly defined task. Unless there’s something truly novel going on. If there’s any lesson here at all, maybe that’s it.

Here’s Lorenzo, and then the story…

And now the story, verified by Snopes by the way.

Subject: Joshua Bell

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 top 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 a 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?