Who says turning 39 means having to always be an adult? The question runs through my head as I unabashedly bang a large drum in the experience gallery here at the Musical Instrument Museum, an incredible modern institution in north Phoenix. I smile, my beating getting louder as I attempt to accompany the group of teens plucking at banjos a few feet away. I fail, and so move on to a xylophone and then a huge gong, the vibrations of which I can feel through every fiber of my body. This is fun. Pure, unadulterated fun.

This is the happy Jonathan face I make with a big drum!

I have traveled to Phoenix, Arizona at least a few times a year for more than a decade. Two of my best friends live here, and in fact I once lived here while working at Arizona State University. But despite my many journeys, my love of museums and culture, and my boundless curiosity at unique things cities have to offer, it took until today, my 39th birthday, to visit this place. Thinking about it now, I have no excuse. The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is just too amazing for me to have ignored until now.

Opened in 2010, MIM is the largest institution of its kind in the world. More than 7,000 artifacts are on display at any given time, though the collection is more than double that, featuring relics from upwards of 200 countries and territories. Are you interested in the musical instruments and traditions of China? Look no further. What about those of Uruguay, Lithuania, or Mozambique? Yep, they are represented as well. Care to see a collection of fascinating harmonicas or an exhibit on the manufacturing of hand carved violins? Again, you’ll not be disappointed.

How’s this for a cool harmonica?

Most of the museum is organized geographically, each country having at least a small exhibit of its music on display. Even the Europe gallery – one with the most recognizable instruments – is full of surprises. This hairy bagpipe, for instance, comes from Latvia, not Scotland. Or what about a violin with keys? It comes to the Musical Instrument Museum from Sweden.

Hairy bagpipe

A violin of sorts with keys. Pretty spiffy!

Moving through other continents, instruments become more foreign to me, but all are fascinating. Most shocking, it seems that drastically different cultures all developed similar musical instruments independent of each other. All have a drum of sorts, horns of a kind, and most have even engineered string instruments. How they utilize these instruments, though, is vastly different, and here is where MIM shines brightest. Upon purchasing your ticket, you’ll receive a GPS-activated headset. Throughout the museum are monitors playing clips of instruments being played, or of music styles being showcased, or even – especially in the case of the United States gallery – famous musicians plying their crafts. As you approach a monitor, your headset will automatically turn the sound on for you, allowing visitors to hear all the wonderful sounds of the varied musical instruments without the museum devolving into a cacophony of competing sounds.

Just one of easily hundreds of screens in the museum

Surprises lurk in unexpected places. From instruments used by famous musicians to drums taller than I am to an orchestra made from recycled garbage, be sure to at least glance in all the different corners; these things and more will dazzle you!

This was perhaps my favorite surprise exhibit.

The Musical Instrument Museum isn’t cheap; adult admission is $20. However, one can easily spend several hours here wandering the exhibits, watching a concert, or taking a free lesson. (On the day I went, there was a banjo lesson by those teens who outplayed my drumming, and a handbell instructor allowing passers-by to try a large set of beautiful brass bells.) Add in the Experience Gallery and it is a fun, interactive day for anyone who likes music.

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2 thoughts on “The Most Musical Museum

  1. I’ve only been there once but loved every minute of it and have both recommended it and would happily go back the next time in the area.

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