Travel Through The World of Music At Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum

My expectations weren’t very high when I visited Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). I imagined a small collection of dusty drums and pan flutes along with a guitar or two donated by famous musicians. Boy, was I ever mistaken.

The MIM is actually a mammoth museum whose collection and quality rival that of a Smithsonian Institution. Founded by Robert J. Ulrich, the former CEO and chairman of Target Corporation, the museum’s mission is to represent the musical instruments of every country in the world-and Ulrich apparently had enough dough to not only send curators around the globe to collect more than 15,000 instruments, but to also document the traditions and history that surround them via videos.

Galleries, which are organized into geographical regions, take visitors all over the world to learn about that magic of music. Instruments include the 40-stringed zither, a xylophone from the Philippines called the gabbing, a 12-foot-tall octobass (a string instrument that takes two people to play), a gamelan orchestra from Indonesia (pictured at the top) and a collection of strange-looking harmonicas. Also on display are costumes traditionally associated with the music, including a whirling dervish outfit from Turkey and a dragon dance costume from China.

There’s also a mechanical music gallery with instruments that “play themselves,” including player pianos, tiny mechanical birds and other automated instruments that use barrels, cylinders, discs and other technologies to operate. And then there’s the artist gallery, a shrine to music legends such as Elvis Presley, Dick Dale, Carlos Santana and Taylor Swift, where you’ll also find the piano John Lennon used to compose “Imagine.”

But it’s not only the collection that is impressive. It’s also the technology available to each guest via a special audio guide. Instead of a run-of-the-mill guide that forces guests to follow along on a cookie cutter tour, MIM’s guide synchs up with whatever display you’re standing in front of. This allows you to choose to browse things you find interesting, and also ensures that your experience doesn’t bother those around you (if you take your headphones off you’ll notice everyone is essentially walking around a the museum in complete silence).

Before you leave, be sure to stop in the experience gallery, where you can test your chops by strumming and banging instruments from all corners of the world, including a Burmese harp and Chinese gongs. And in the event you can’t make it to Phoenix but just want to learn more about world music, check out MIM’s YouTube page, where you can hear and see many of these instruments being played.

[Photo credit: Annie Shustrin]