Octobasse in the Musical instrument Museum of Phoenix, Arizona

The Musical Instrument Museum: Travel the World through Sound without Leaving Phoenix

The Musical Instrument Museum, also called the MIM, is one of the world-class museums in Phoenix that might even justify visiting Phoenix in the summer for. Unique in the world and truly global, the museum showcases about 6,000 musical instruments from over 200 countries representing all continents.

Set up as a collection of immersive, interactive exhibits, the MIM cultivates a deeper understanding and appreciation of music of different culture in the world, the instruments, and their players and makers. If you visit Phoenix, no matter the main reason, you need to include the Musical Instrument Museum in your itinerary.

How to Visit the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix

Most people take about three to four hours exploring the exhibits during a first visit. However, you can easily spend a day there – with a break for lunch. If you don’t have that much time, you can walk through it briefly experiencing everything and spending more time only at the ones of more interest to you. Personally, depending on when I visited, and who I went with, I spent a full day, leaving at lunch and returning after, to about two hours, on a fourth or fifth visit. Either way, you’ll enjoy your time there.

Though quiet when you enter, as soon as you take your audio device, you’ll be surrounded by music in each gallery. Besides the music, the displays of instruments, dance costumes, and recordings of cultural events add to a well-rounded experience.

First Impressions

Even before entering the museum, look at the building’s architecture for a perfect example of how seamlessly its elements integrate into the mission of the museum. You might not even realize it, but the setup adds to the experience, blends in with the concept of music, local surroundings, and global reference. You’ll notice the piano key pattern across the museum’s walls, while the main building’s curve will remind you of a grand piano. If you look closely, you’ll find other references to music, global geography, and local topography.

But the real adventure in the world of music starts when you enter the building.

As soon as you turn towards the main staircase, you are surrounded by musical instruments. A pipe organ dominates the front wall, while large instruments from different parts of the world hang overhead.

You’ll notice two galleries on the right, where an octobass stands in the center of the larger room, dominating the area. An extremely rare instrument, the octobass is a three-stringed instrument, standing almost 12 feet tall. Upon seeing it, it’s hard to imagine it being playable. But it’s not strictly a display instrument. A closer look reveals pedals and levers players use to press down the strings.

The octobass in the Musical instrument Museum of Phoenix, Arizona
The octobass dominates the orientation gallery.

After spending some time in this gallery, head up the stairs for a trip through the world.

Explore Geography and Cultures through Music

The whole second floor is dedicated to the geographical galleries, offering an opportunity to travel the world inhabited by humans. Watching music, dances, and musical instruments from all corners of the globe, you’ll learn to appreciate the diversity and similarity of people. As different as we all are, as many languages as we speak, music connects us all.

No matter where we live, music has always been and is part of every civilization. We turn to music when we are happy, we turn to music when we are sad. We express the whole range of human emotions through this universal language, and when we listen to different civilization’s versions, we realize that we are not so different after all.

The Musical Instrument Museum
View from the top of the stairway.

Once on top of the stairway, look around, then start traveling the world through its music.

A trip through the world needs a system. Even those of us who don’t like to plan need a base structure when going from one place to another. The layout of the museum helps by breaking down its galleries by geographical regions.

Turn right to start your travels in Africa.

Start your world travels in Africa and the Middle East

As soon as you enter the Africa and Middle East Gallery you are surrounded by music. You hear African drumbeat through your headphones before even looking at the exhibit, where you see the instruments being played, and a recording on screen of the cultural event you are witnessing through sound.

The gallery is divided by regions of Africa. You’ll walk through the sub-Saharan, North African and Middle Eastern nations, learning about their culture through their music and dance customs. Music is the oldest and most basic form of culture. Every culture in the world started their storytelling through music. By understanding the music of different people, we understand their culture, even if we don’t speak their language.

Africa exhibits at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix
Instruments from Africa

Instruments were made of everything, from household objects to different plants, wood, animal The first instruments I noticed in this region are made of simple household objects, showing the ingenuity of people. They didn’t need elaborate instruments to make music. Though as I advanced through the exhibits, I noticed more sophisticated ones.

Musical instruments from Morocco on display at the MIM Phoenix
Musical instruments from Morocco

From the larger gallery dedicated to Africa, you walk over to a smaller one showcasing exhibits from the Middle East. After exploring this part of the world through its culture and music, you have an opportunity to take a break and relax in a small alcove.

Next, a walkway crosses the open area with the stairway, into the larger galleries showcasing culture and music from Asia.

Walk over to Asia and Oceania

The Asia galleries start with Central and South Asia. As soon as you enter this side, everything seems more colorful. The exhibits showcase bright-colored costumes along with the instruments.

The first exhibit I notice every time I walk to the Asia exhibit showcases a bright, colorful costume used by the nomadic tribes of Mongolia for certain ceremonies. It has always been one of my favorite exhibits in the Mim. The drums and other instruments along with the recording, tell stories from the lives of these tribes.

Exhibit in the Asia Gallery of the Musical instrument Museum of Phoenix
Travel to Asia through the exhibits at the Musical Instrument Museum

You’ll walk through exhibits of colorful drum sets, some set up as a stage with puppets in the center, and a dragon costume, among other things take us through much of China and its surroundings.

You’ll even have an opportunity to see a pair of Tibetan double-reed pipes, called Rgya-gling – I can’t pronounce it, but learned their name from the museum display.

A pair of Rgya-ling, double-reed pipes from Tibet on display at the MIM
A pair of Rgya-ling, double-reed pipes from Tibet

After exploring Asia, including Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, you’ll reach Oceania.

From there, pass onto Latin America.

Sail over to Latin America

Actually, you don’t need to sail or fly across the ocean; just take a few steps and you’ll land in the next gallery, dedicated to Latin America. Colorful, and fun, it is another one of my favorite galleries, showcasing musical instruments and dance costumes from all over Latin America. We noticed both Hispanic and Indigenous exhibits.

exhibit from the Latin America Gallery of the MIM
One of the Latin American exhibits

The Latin America gallery is the last one on the east side of the upper level. Across the corridor you’ll find the galleries for Europe, the United States and Canada. Before heading over, this is a good time to take a break, walk to the end of the corridor, and look outside; or walk downstairs to the snack bar to grab a drink. The number of exhibits you already saw might be overwhelming otherwise.

Though to keep with geography, you could enter the galleries through the Americas, I prefer to start with Europe, to keep a historical perspective.

Move on to Europe

Growing up in Europe, and living in the US, I find these galleries more familiar, but nevertheless interesting. Here, though I recognize most instruments. In this gallery some of the instruments are works of art, like the piano with elaborate paintings on it from Italy.

piano in the Italy exhibit at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix
This piano is showcased in the Italy exhibit of the Europe gallery

Hungarian Instruments at the MIM

During my first visit I remember standing with tears in my eyes in front of the Hungarian instruments on display, while watching our national dances and music I recognized and missed.

Hungarian traditional musical instruments at the MIM
Hungarian Instruments at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix

When I learned to play the violin, I heard the expression “kintornázik”, meaning she’s playing the kintorna. I never knew what it looked like until now. I had to live in Phoenix for years and visit the Musical Instrument Museum to learn what a kintorna was. The old cousin of my violin might have sounded like my first attempts at the modern one… at least that’s when I heard the expression. Obviously, for those who knew how to use it, it must have sounded much better. Visiting the museum multiple times over the years, I have seen it both open and closed. The carved lid is beautiful, but seeing it open gives you a better idea of how it was used.

Kintorna: The Hungarian wheel fiddle on display at the Musical Instrument Museum
“Kintorna” – the Hungarian wheel fiddle, played historically for street music and dances.

The plucked zither, called citera, is a well-known Hungarian instrument used in our folk music. The one on display has horse heads as ornaments. Horses have always been important in Hungarian culture.

Citera, a well-known Hungarian instrument used in folk music. On display at the MIM Phoenix
The “citera” is a well-known instrument in Hungarian folk music.

Hungarian culture is not contained within the borders of Hungary. Transylvania in Romania, and areas of the Czech Republic have large Hungarian population. So, it was no surprise to see a “cimbalom”, a Hungarian hammered dulcimer, made in Budapest, in the Czech Republic exhibit. According to the sign, the Hungarian Cimbalom was introduced in Moravia in the 1930s.

A Hungarian "citera" - zither, on display in the MIM
Hungarian Cimbalom at the MIM

Opera Music: The Magic Flute and the Papageno costume

The first time I visited the museum with my daughter, she recognized the Papageno costumes and instruments used in the Magic Flute in the Austrian exhibit. We have the book and we’ve used it as a bedtime story for years while she was young, and eventually watched the opera. On display by the costume, we saw specific instruments played in the opera. On the screen, an artist was playing the music.

The Magic Flute exhibit at the MIM
The Magic Flute at the MIM

Coming home to the United States and Canada

Finally, we walked through the United States/Canada Galleries, where we encountered the familiar, but also a few new things. Displays highlight the musical culture that helped shape this continent.

In this Gallery, in the American band exhibit, we saw the world’s largest playable sousaphone. I know, before seeing it, I didn’t know what it was, either. It’s a large tuba, with a flared bell that faces forward, named after John Philip Sousa, American bandleader and composer from the turn of the 19th – 20th centuries.

We came full circle when we ended up back “home” at the Arizona Native American exhibit.

Native America exhibit at the MIM
Arizona Native American Exhibit
The US Southwest exhibit at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix
US Southwest Exhibit

We Traveled the World Without Leaving Town

While we often travel out of the town, and the country, this time we didn’t need to get on a plane. We didn’t even need to drive much. By visiting the Musical Instrument Museum in our own town, we traveled through all the countries and continents of the world, while learning about the music of people everywhere.

More Exhibits

As far as you traveled through the geographical galleries, before leaving, visit the ones downstairs. The first gallery houses temporary exhibits, where you can find different exhibits depending of the time of your visit. Past it, you’ll find the Artist Gallery, where you can learn about contemporary artists and their music. You’ll see displays of their instruments and sometimes stage costumes.

One of the best parts of visiting the MIM is the chance to try out the different instruments in the Experience Gallery. You can play a harp, different size guitars, and other string instruments, and a wide array of percussion instruments, from wooden drums to the largest Asian ones. This is the gallery to relax in, and enjoy some extra time with the instruments.

Musical Instrument Museum Phoenix - Travel the World through Music

If You Go

You’ll find the Musical Instrument Museum in North Phoenix, by the Desert Ridge Marketplace, at the intersection of I-101 and Tatum Boulevard. For your GPS, its exact address is4725 E. Mayo Blvd.,
Phoenix, AZ 85050

If you are visiting Phoenix, I recommend putting the Musical Instrument Museum as one of the must-see sites of the city. You will be grateful you did.

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