In the 2-and-a-half-minute video below, sent in by Lisa G., a decorated concert violinist named Joshua Bell plays in a Metro station at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. for 45 minutes. Over 1,000 people walk by without turning their heads, 27 give money, and 7 people stop to listen for a minute or more (source).  Lisa G. summarizes:

Bell recalls that an awkward moment ensued every time he was done with a song because no one applauded or even acknowledged his existence because to these passengers he was just another street performer begging him for a dollar.

What makes Joshua Bell worth listening to?  The experiment points to the importance of context.   How do we know that we are listening to a master musician?   One important clue is where they are playing, and how expensive it is to have the opportunity to listen.   In a concert hall full of seats paid for with large bills, Bell’s talent is authenticated by the arbiters of taste who are the gatekeepers of the venue. Concert-goers do not necessarily know whether or why Bell is any good. They rely on the arbiters to determine who is worth listening to. And listening to who it is that is worth listening to provides them with expensive, and therefore scarce, cultural cred. They have seen Bell in concert (“oh and it was glorious!”); have you?

But in the Metro, Bell is no one. The context of the Metro fails to authenticate Bell’s music. Everyone can listen, thus hearing offers no distinction at all. And almost no one cares.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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