I spent this holiday season on the road.  I started in Colorado for a White Christmas and then traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to ring in the New Year.  A dear musical friend of mine suggested I visit the Musical Instrument Museum.  This is a must-see museum in Phoenix. I’ve been to Phoenix many times over the last 5 years, and didn’t know this museum existed (it opened its doors in April 2010).  I had no idea what I had been missing.

What Makes It So Awesome

The building itself is aesthetically beautiful, and seems to fit into the Arizona landscape.  The neutral colors, along with spacious hallways, create a warm and inviting atmosphere. The central staircase curves its way down to a map of the world laid into the floor.  My orientation tour guide (a retired high school band director of 30+ years) advised us to stand on Italy. Then, told us to raise our heads to the tall ceiling, and say something into the acoustic sweet spot.  I didn’t try it during the tour but I did sneak back later and try it.  She was right – what a sound!

At the entrance to the must-see museum, they give you a headset that synchs with whatever display you are facing.  Next, you encounter the 6500 instruments that are on display at any given time of the 16,000 in the museum’s collection.  These instruments are collected from all over the world. They are organized by regions of the world: Middle East, Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, Europe, and North America.  The must-see museum strives to give equal representation to music from all around the globe, which makes it so unique.

The Exhibits

Most exhibits in these spacious rooms have both sound and video, so not only can you hear the instruments that are on display being played, but you can also see them being played by the people of that geographic region in their cultural context.  Some of the videos show traditional dancing and on display are the traditional costumes worn in those dances.  A sign in the display area lists the different songs, instruments, and artists that you will see/hear on the video screen and your headset.

You can hear the audio snippets (between 1 and 5 at any given display), which play in a continuous loop as many times as you like. Or, you could leave the display, and come back again later if you so desire without having to rewind a tape or play with your headset in any way since sensors automatically allow you to hear the display you are facing.

In addition to the geographical areas, there is also the Artist Gallery dedicated to specific artists, who have donated items to the must-see museum.  The Mechanical Music Gallery contains music boxes, barrel organs, and self-playing pianos with video showing the process of making the paper rolls fed into these players. The makers of which were described as the software engineers of their day, since they used binary codes and notation.

At certain times during the day you can hear the amazing large “dance organ” displayed in that gallery that features many different instruments.  In the Experience Gallery, patrons can test out instruments that are displayed in the other galleries.  I even got the chance to try playing the harp for the first time.  There were gongs, banjos, various drums and a beautiful Korean metallaphone.  There was even a theremin to try. A theremin is an electronic instrument which generates its sound from electric currents.

So, Why Go?

There is so much to learn, see, and hear that even two visits were not sufficient for me.  I didn’t even make it to the special exhibition in the Target Gallery (the must-see museum was started by a former CEO of Target).  I was struck by the beauty of the instruments, the dedication of the artisans who create these instruments, the passion of the performing artists and the commonalities in the instruments found all over the world.  Having grown up on Irish music and always associating harps and bagpipes or Uilleann pipes with Ireland I was shocked to learn that the harp is Paraguay’s musical symbol and that many traditions feature bagpipes.

As the MIM states in its orientation video, “Music is the instrument of the soul….If we do not feed the music, some portion of us will starve….If not for music, the soul would have no language.”  If you are an educator in the Phoenix area, it is definitely worth a field trip.  If you are a lover of music and beauty, you might just need to add MIM to your bucket list alongside your visit to the Grand Canyon!

(Hear the Mystery Guitar Man, an amazing musician and film maker from Brazil, play 90 different MIM instruments in 2 minutes or read some of the Frequently Asked Questions about the must-see museum!)