Perception…Something To Think About…

November 13, 2009

A friend sent me this email the other day:


Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule. 

  4 minutes later: 

 The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

 6 minutes: 

 A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again. 

 10 minutes:

 A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

 45 minutes:

 The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

 1 hour:

 He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

 No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest 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 Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the seats averaged $100..

This is a true 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 people’s priorities. The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?


I’ve been working with multiple points of view in my manuscript and this email made me take a step back and look deeper.  It’s more than just who would tell the story the best at this point – for this plot element.  It’s also HOW they would tell it.  Maybe I want my character to be patient and reflect on his surroundings.  It’s probably not best to put him in a subway on his way to work.  He might just miss a free show by a fabulous musician. 

The same is true for writers in general.  Where do you write?  What mood are you in?  We’ve discussed listening to music as we write on OPWFT before.  All of these things are factors in not only your perception of your characters and what they would do and say, but also the characters themselves.  What are they faced with, and how do outside influences affect their decisions, or their word choice and facial expressions? 

It’s not only where they’re going, but what’s going on around them, that makes them true to life.




  1. Great and thought provoking post Jamie. While I’m not sure if a metro station was the best placed for this experiment (would have been interested to see how the results compared in a location like a street corner or park) it does have me wondering whether or not I would stop. Given that I’ve been late for work because I’ve stopped to photograph chalk drawings,I hope the answer is yes.

    Found a video of it on YouTube. There’s something almost beautiful about the one woman who stops and watches him, holding her plastic bag as the crowd surges around her.

  2. Jamie,
    This post is awesome! It made me think of the metro station in Sweeden or Norway where they replaced steps with piano keys and now so many more people take the stairs…Like Kath said, I wonder if I myself would have stopped. I remember in the metro stations in London and Paris there were violinists and guitar players…and it did sound so amazing to hear that music echoing off the drab surroundings.

    For me, my writing place of comfort is in my living room in my chair. I call it my “million dollar writing chair”, har, har, since I’ve basically written all my books there. It’s an oversized chair and ottomon…one I can lay on, sit on, have the dog and the cats join me, etc with my laptop and my “other world” friends…it really is amazing the places I’ve been in that chair without even leaving.

    I think we should have a group post on this one…where we write!!

  3. I found it interesting that several children wanted to stop and listen. This does say something about how differently they perceive things from adults.

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