Music listening in the subway

“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 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Bell's subway experiment
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, and 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 most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $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?”

Another way to look at music and language…

Front Psychol 2013 Dec 6;4:855
High school music classes enhance the neural processing of speech

Tierney A1,2, Krizman J1,2,3, Skoe E1,2, Johnston K4, Kraus N1,2,4,5,6,7
1Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA; 2 Dept. of Communication Sciences, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA; 3 Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Research Group, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA; 4 Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, Chicago, IL, USA; 5 Institute for Neuroscience, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA; 6 Dept. of Neurobiology and Physiology, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA; 7 Dept. of Otolaryngology, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA

Should music be a priority in public education? One argument for teaching music in school is that private music instruction relates to enhanced language abilities and neural function. However, the directionality of this relationship is unclear and it is unknown whether school-based music training can produce these enhancements. Here we show that 2 years of group music classes in high school enhance the neural encoding of speech. To tease apart the relationships between music and neural function, we tested high school students participating in either music or fitness-based training. These groups were matched at the onset of training on neural timing, reading ability, and IQ. Auditory brainstem responses were collected to a synthesized speech sound presented in background noise. After 2 years of training, the neural responses of the music training group were earlier than at pre-training, while the neural timing of students in the fitness training group was unchanged. These results represent the strongest evidence to date that in-school music education can cause enhanced speech encoding. The neural benefits of musical training are, therefore, not limited to expensive private instruction early in childhood but can be elicited by cost-effective group instruction during adolescence.

Triple Special Issue of Empirical Musicology Review: Music & Shape

The Triple Special Issue on ‘Music and Shape’ in Empirical Musicology Review consists of 9 target articles and 17 commentaries, which have been developed in response to a conference held in London in July 2012 on ‘Music and Shape’.

You are invited to explore the following three broad themes:

Pedagogy and Performance ( articles on the relationship between the shape of gestures and sonic events in vocal lessons of South Indian Karnatak music; the use of musical shaping gestures in rehearsal talk by performers with different levels of hearing impairment; and what it means for professional DJs to shape a set on their turntables.

Motion Shapes ( articles discussing how motiongrams can be used to sonify the shape of human body motion; how pianists’ shapes of motion patterns embody musical structure; and how mathematical techniques can be used to quantify shapes of real-time visualizations of sound and music.

Perception and Theory ( articles on cross-cultural representations of musical shapes from the UK, Japan and Papua New Guinea; the evolutionary origins of tonality as a system for the dynamic shaping of affect; and how shaping and co-shaping of ‘forms of vitality’ in music gives rise to aesthetic experience.

New Research in Music Therapy: Disorders of Consciousness

You might be interested in this freely accessible article on some of the very latest research into Music Therapy with people with disorders of consciousness: Neurophysiological and behavioural responses to music therapy in vegetative and minimally conscious states, by Julian O’Kelly, L. James, R. Palaniappan, J. Fachner, J. Taborin, W.L. Magee, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

To view and download the online publication, please click here:

The paper has relevance to other conditions where complex disability or illness impact upon our ability to discern behavioural responses to music. It’s one of the first to be published in a series of papers sharing the research topic of “Music, Brain, and Rehabilitation: Emerging Therapeutic Applications and Potential Neural Mechanisms”

This article is an open access publication, so it’s freely accessible to any reader anywhere in the world.