Phoenix’s Amazing Musical Instrument Museum
A Museum of Musical Instruments in Arizona
By Judy Karnia
One of the most unique and enjoyable museums in the world sits not in the middle of a European capital but in the desert on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona.
The Musical Instrument Museum not only delights your vision but also engages your senses of hearing and touch. Be prepared to get lost for hours being enveloped within all of the music of the world.
MIM states that its “immersive exhibits foster an appreciation of diverse cultures and the craftsmanship and traditions of instrument makers from the past to the present.”
The museum features a truly global perspective and concentrates on instruments that are played every day around the world. It also includes artifacts and videos to present a full story of each region’s culture.
The brilliant design of MIM entails giving each visitor a headset and receiver. As you move through the exhibits, you automatically hear samples of the featured music. Most of the displays include a video screen and a plaque, describing each music sample.
When you get within 2-3 feet of the plaque, the music enters your headphones. This may be the only museum where you overhear guests singing or humming or catch them dancing when they think no one is watching. It is difficult not to join in.
The flow of Musical Architecture
Walking into the museum, the spaciousness and curving shapes brings you immediately into the flow of music. The central corridor provides soaring views of the entire museum.
The sandstone walls evoke the surrounding desert but are soothing to see and touch. The polished floors draw you seamlessly from hallway to gallery. Music from the grand piano greets you as guests show off their skills, whatever level that might be.
The galleries themselves lead you to meander through each exhibit. The interior walls zig-zag so you can see only a few exhibits at a time with the promise of more just around the corner.
These walls also extend only two-thirds of the way to the ceiling to reinforce the spacious feeling of the galleries.
Elegant marble staircases lead you up from the rotunda. Inlaid into the rotunda floor is a map of the world made up of stones from each represented region.
All of the smooth white and tan surfaces make you feel cool and relaxed. Time seems to stand still and you will not realize how much time you have spent here until you walk back out into the harsh sunlight.
The second floor of MIM houses the global galleries divided into each region: United States/Canada, Latin America, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia/Oceania. Each gallery consists of exhibits from each country within the region.
A map accompanies each exhibit to help those of us that are geographically challenged.
A range of instruments gives visitors a glimpse into the musical history and culture of each country. Signs in front of each exhibit explain the history of that country’s music. More than 4300 instruments await your perusal.
They range from very simple to intricately complex, from a log hollowed out and made into a drum to the electronic equipment of a modern rock band.
There are instruments crafted centuries ago and throughout history to the present day. A vast variety of percussion, stringed instruments, and horns expand your horizon of music.
Musical Artifacts and Costumes, Too
Each exhibit also includes artifacts and costumes found in the country. These add to the aesthetic appeal of the exhibits while also providing more education.
Each exhibit teaches about each country while entertaining you enough that you don’t realize how much you are learning.
The headphones mentioned earlier come into play among most of the exhibits. As you approach the video screen, music flows into your ears.
Typically three to five selections rotate on the screen. The small sign below the screen gives the title, artist, and year recorded.
Selections range from a local townsperson playing a simple lyre to an orchestra on a stage.
The videos often depict dancers and performers, from local villagers joining in a traditional dance to choreographed professionals on stage.
Interspersed among the countries are exhibits focusing on a certain type of music or instrument. Who knew there were so many different types of brass horns or bagpipes? You can compare the subtle differences that develop in various countries and marvel at how similar instruments arose in widely separated areas.
Native American, Jazz, and Rock
The United States/Canada Gallery is unique in that its exhibits are not divided by country but by types of music. It includes Native American music, jazz, country, rock, and more.
In the marching band section, a few band uniforms decorate the area and videos entertain with on-field performances. The immense Taiko drum calls to me to practice my only musical skill.
Sprinkled throughout the galleries are exhibits that demonstrate how instruments are constructed. A set-up of a typical workspace includes the separate parts that make up the instrument and shows how the craftsmen create a particular instrument.
A video features a craftsman talking about the instrument and creation process.
Main Floor Galleries
On the main floor, the Artist Gallery features individual musicians from around the world. From rock to jazz to country to salsa, more than thirty artists shine with their special talents.
You can see Roberta Flack’s 1922 Steinway piano, a drum from the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, and Johnny Cash’s black outfit.
My favorite display is the one featuring Elvis, including outfits, guitars, and photos. The videos take you back to his early days when his good looks and controversial moves made the audience scream. There is even a video made of him entering the army in 1958.
Next door is the Mechanical Music Gallery housing instruments that “play themselves.”
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe and America, mechanical instruments were very popular. They utilized punch cards, electromagnets, and paper rolls to play music.
They were often very decorative as well, some with dolls or full scenes in 3D. The Decap orchestrion fills the entire back wall of the gallery. It plays twice daily and the museum makes an announcement when it is about to kick off.
The room fills with visitors watching the keyboards, drums, horns, and cymbals play all on their own.
As you enter the next gallery, the music may not be as melodious as visitors try their skills in the Experience Gallery. Strum a guitar or harp, hit a gong or drum, try out the theremin.
After gazing on all those cool instruments throughout the museum, you finally get a hands-on experience.
The extensive exhibits of MIM are so difficult to view in one day that you will want to return. Another reason to visit repeatedly is the Special Exhibits Gallery. These rotating exhibits generally stay for a year, starting each November.
They add fresh insight into some area of music or type of instrument. Treasures: Legendary Musical Instruments, opening November 12, 2021, will showcase beautifully crafted instruments spanning six thousand years.
You will likely need a break during your excursion in MIM and the café offers a relaxing spot. The outdoor patio features fountains, desert landscaping, and tables shaded by umbrellas.
Special events add even more to MIM’s splendor. The three-hundred-seat theater boasts a superb acoustic structure with comfortable seats and not a bad view in the house. More than two hundred artists visit from around the world.
A perfect setting only enhances the amazing talent on stage. MIM also presents cultural weekends with performances and hands-on activities for all ages.
The Musical Instrument Museum provides entertainment and education for people of all ages and interests in a gorgeous setting. MIM demonstrates how widespread and intricately interlaced music is in the lives of all people. And how entertaining music can be.
The museum is open every day, from 9 am till 5 pm.
4725 E. Mayo Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85050
Judy Karnia lives in the Old Town area of Scottsdale, AZ and has traveled throughout the United States and parts of Europe. She most enjoys exploring new museums, art galleries, and parks. Having grown up in inner-city Chicago, urban areas feel most like home. After 27 years as a veterinarian, she has embarked on a new career as a travel writer, forest therapy guide, and life coach.