The Mystery of the Percieved Value of Joshua Bell

by Joe Pelissier on March 15, 2013

On a cold January morning, a man started to play the violin in a metro station in Washington DC. He played six Bach sonatas for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, thousands of people passed through the station, mostly on their way to work.

After three minutes a young man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed down, stopped for a few seconds and then hurried on.

A minute later, the violinist received his first tip. A woman threw a dollar in the basket and without stopping walked past.

A few minutes later, a middle-aged man leaned against the wall to listen. But he looked at his watch and he too hurried on. He was frightened of being late.

The one who paid the most attention was a three-year old boy. His mother nagged him to hurry up but the child kept stopping to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother grabbed his arm even though the child continued to look back at the musician.

Several children did this but all the parents, without exception, forced their children to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed. About 20 gave him money but only as they walked past. He collected $32.

When he finished playing and silence returned, no one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition of who he was.

He was Joshua Bell, an award winning international violinist. On a violin worth $3.5 million he played some of the most intricate pieces ever written.

Two days before playing in the subway, tickets to a Joshua Bell concert in Boston had sold out with an average price of $100.

This is a true story. It was part of a an social experiment organized by the Washington Post about perception, taste and the priorities of people.

In a commonplace environment and at an inappropriate hour how do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

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?

For me, it’s also about the power of perceived value. A virtuoso violinist playing on the underground has a very low perceived value by those whole whizz past.  Equally, an unknown violinist who announces he is to play at Carnegie Hall, will suddenly have a very high perceived value.

Perceived value may be a fickle concept but it nevertheless remains an extraordinarily powerful one.

If your product or services were a performing artist, where do you think they would be on a scale of perceived value? Lost underground or highly visible?

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