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Travel Logs April 2012

Music the World Around at the Musical Instrument Museum

By Richard Bauman

Though it’s called the Musical Instrument Museum, it’s more like a library of music. It doesn’t just reveal the history musical instrument, but also brings together the music, instruments and people of the world.

The last place you might expect to find a museum dedicated to musical instruments -- their history and use -- is in the Arizona desert. But in the northeastern part of Phoenix, that’s exactly what you’ll find. The Musical Instrument Museum, open since April 2010, stands alone, literally, amongst the sand and sagebrush at the corner of N. Tatum Blvd. and E. Mayo Blvd.

It has more than 3000 different instruments on display in a dozen galleries in a two-story, 192,000 square foot building. There are musical instruments from every continent and region of the world.

Though it’s called the Musical Instrument Museum, it’s more like a library of music. It doesn’t just reveal the history musical instrument, but also brings together the music, instruments and people of the world.

You’ll see examples of large instruments such as raft flutes from the Solomon Islands, so named because they are huge and look like bamboo rafts, tiny ukuleles from Hawaii, and thousands of other out of the ordinary music-making devices from all parts of the world.

The price of admission includes use of a set of earphones and a small radio receiver. As you move from exhibit to exhibit your earphones come alive with the music of that exhibit. You not only see the instruments of that region, but you are able to hear the music they produce, and watch them being played via flat panel monitors.

Most of the museum’s galleries are on the second floor: Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania and Latin America, are on the north side; on the south side are the Europe and United States/Canada galleries. You can visit all of the galleries or just those that depict regions of interest to you.

The musical history of the United States and Canada comprise one of the museum’s largest galleries. It’s expansive and explores the conglomeration of music styles in North America. For example, there are regions of the U.S. where bluegrass and country music flourish, and other parts where polka dancing and music are the musical mainstay. But musical styles aren’t confined to particular regions. You can hear country music in Los Angeles, and symphonies in Nashville.

Many exhibits also share the history of a music style. For example, bluegrass became a music style of its own only after World War II. It was a hybrid of old-time Appalachian music, country music and church hymns.

One of the largest exhibits in the U.S./Canada gallery is dedicated to Steinway Pianos. You can see the care and craftsmanship that goes into each Steinway piano, and some of the 12,000 pieces that go into each grand piano. It’s easy to see why Steinway pianos are the favorite instrument for many pianists.

Did you know there’s more than one kind of bagpipe? There are numerous examples of this ancient instrument displayed in the World of Bagpipes exhibit in the Canada gallery.

There are also fine examples of early harpsichords in the Canada gallery.

There are two additional galleries on the lower level. You won’t want to miss the Experience Gallery and the Artist Gallery.

The Artist Gallery focuses on numerous different musicians, their instruments and others who contributed in some way to advancement of music. John Lennon bought an upright Steinway piano in December 1970. It is on display, in a protective glass box, at the MIM. Lennon probably composed many songs on it, but perhaps the most meaningful one is “Imagine,” released in 1971, which is a plea for world peace, based on a poem by his wife, Yoko Ono.

Other artists featured in the gallery include Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Dick Dale, Carlos Santana and George Benson. Each artist’s exhibit has music clips featuring their favorite instruments, and some information about their contribution to music.

The Experience Gallery is the “fun” gallery at the museum. In all of the museum’s other galleries it’s strictly hands off the instruments. The Experience Gallery is the please “touch me” venue. It is a room containing dozens of musical instruments ranging from tiny ukuleles to a 7-foot- diameter Chinese gong, along with numerous examples of harps, guitars, xylophone-type instruments, rattles and drums — to name a few.

Whether you’re a toddler, senior, or someplace in between, you are encouraged to handle and play the instruments: go ahead pluck the strings of a harp, play drums from Africa, and ring out a tune on a wooden xylophone — not to mention tapping the Chinese gong and in the process creating a “mighty sound.”

The Musical Instrument Museum was the idea of Robert Ulrich, former president and CEO of Target. From fuzzy notion to opening day, April 24, 2010, it took just four-and-a-half years — and millions of dollars — to bring the MIM to the Arizona desert.

A lot of thought and planning went into the museum, and it shows. The exhibits are fascinating, the hallways are wide and the galleries are spacious. There’s an abundance of natural lighting that perpetuates the open feeling. Handicap access is excellent. In addition to the galleries, the museum has a coffee shop and top-rated restaurant. There’s also a 299-seat theater where concerts and other performances occur on a regular basis.

The Musical Instrument Museum is at 4725 E. Mayo Blvd. (Southwest corner of Tatum Blvd. and E. Mayo Blvd.). It’s open Monday thru Wednesday: 9:00 a.m.– 5:00 p.m., Thursday and Friday: 9:00 a.m.– 9:00 p.m., Saturday 9:00 a.m.– 5:00 p.m., Sunday 10:00 a.m.– 5:00 p.m. For additional information and current admission prices, call (480)-478-6000 or visit the MIM website at:

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