Musical Instrument Museum Hits Right Notes

Tim spent part of October and November in the Southwest. This is the second and last column from the trip.

PHOENIX – Phoenix is a great place in some ways, but I’ve spent so much time visiting relatives there that I’ve driven as far as Santa Fe and Tombstone looking for things to do – never knowing that one of the most interesting things was just a few miles away.

A musical friend was aghast to learn that in repeated trips to Phoenix my wife and I had never visited the Musical Instrument Museum.

“You’ve got to go,” he said. “You could spend a week there.”

In our defense, the museum is only three years old. But in that short time it’s established an international reputation as the best of its kind on the planet. That may be because it’s the only one of its kind on the planet.

I had no idea what to expect, but I definitely didn’t expect to see a guitar Eric Clapton played on classic Cream recordings that I spent hours struggling to learn as a kid. Or two of Carlos Santana’s guitars, or the Steinway piano John Lennon used to write “Imagine.” They alone would have been worth the price of admission.

But to say that MIM is a collection of instruments owned by famous people is like saying the Louvre is a collection of tapestries.There are some 15,000 instruments (roughly 6,000 are on display at any given time), from seed pods and gongs to high-tech wizardry. (A mechanical jazz “orchestra” plays instruments from saxophones to xylophones with no human musicians at all.)

The collection includes instruments from almost every country in the world. It has displays on how they’re made, a gallery where visitors can play them. It’s 200,000 square feet, cost $250 million and is the only museum in the world devoted entirely to the world’s musical instruments. They cover the spectrum from the classical to the bizarre – a Zambian thumb piano, a cello as tall as a grizzly bear, a guitar made from a Castrol oil can.

Five galleries allow visitors to see the instruments and hear the music from developed continents like Europe and the Americas to places so small and obscure you aren’t likely to have heard of them and would have trouble finding them on a map. Cape Verde, for example, a remote archipelago with so little going for it that a majority of its countrymen now live other places. Those who stayed play music, though, and they and their instruments are duly represented at MIM.

Most of the tours are self-guided. When you pay the admission fee ($18, with discounts for teens and children), a guide hands you a wireless receiver and headphones. As you approach each video display, you hear its audio accompaniment on your headphones. There’s no remote, no buttons to push, absolutely nothing in the way of digital frustration. Nirvana for technophobes.

The receiver, according to MIM President Carrie Heinonen, “automatically tunes to more than 300 sites around the museum, providing a soundtrack to the video offerings that bring to life the cultural traditions represented in song and dance. MIM is truly the most remarkable museum you’ll ever hear.”

As they pass from gallery to gallery, visitors hear the music of the world – from didgeridoos to Irish pub music to symphony orchestras. Videos show people playing music, singing it, dancing to it. Videos of Third World dancers made our jaws drop. Michael Jackson and Fred Astaire had nothing on these guys.

If you get weary walking from exhibit to exhibit (and you will), you can take in a special exhibit on “Women Who Rock,” featuring artists from Billie Holiday to Taylor Swift. Or make a reservation for a live performance in a world-class concert hall.

You don’t have to be a musician or a music buff to enjoy this museum. There’s something for everyone. The costumes alone are worth a visit, and who can’t enjoy the primal pleasure of banging a gong? Singer Tony Bennett was quoted as saying that everyone should visit MIM, which he called his “favorite museum in the world.”

I left there with a better appreciation of the role music plays in our lives. It’s existed longer than recorded history and is with us from birth to the grave. It transcends language and cultural barriers. It moves us in ways nothing else can. It’s “the language of the soul,” as visitors are reminded in multiple languages on everything from gallery walls to T-shirts.

Heinonen, who has worked in museums for more than 20 years, says that “until I came to MIM, I’d never actually heard someone say they’d been transformed by a visit to a museum. I hear it here on a regular basis, and I’ve experienced it myself.”

One visitor likened the experience to “walking into the soul of mankind.”

A long, exhausting walk. And worth every weary, aching muscle.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the Idaho Statesman and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

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