How much is masterpiece music performed by an internationally acclaimed virtuoso worth to an audience of a thousand people? .

About $32, according to the Washington Post.

In January 2007, the newspaper conducted an experiment about the influence of context on people's perceptions and priorities—and their ability to "recognize beauty." As part of the experiment, Joshua Bell, one of the world's best violinists, played incognito inside a Washington DC subway station.

During his continuous 45-minute performance, Bell played six pieces by Bach, Shubert, Massenet, and Ponce—some of the most powerful music written for a solo violin. His instrument: a 1713 Stradivarius worth about $3.5 million dollars. Two days prior, Bell had performed at a sold-out concert in Boston, where the tickets averaged $100.

But back in DC, 1,097 people went through the subway station. Only seven stopped and listened for a while. About 27 gave money but continued to walk past the musician. There was no applause at the end, and the total sum collected during the performance was $32.17.

What Is Beauty?

The Washington Post had its story. Headlined "Pearls Before Breakfast," it was filled with descriptions of the musician, the music, the instrument, and even the acoustics of the briefly infamous subway station. The goal was to assure the reader that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the performance.

The article went out of its way to prove that, if there is such a thing as sublime beauty, it was fully present in Bell's music. Yet very few people were interested enough to pay it any attention, let alone money or time.

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.

Olga Taylor is a freelance writer and a former vice-president of marketing and business development for Quartesian LLC. Reach her via