The world’s music: at the MIM

The keyboard goes to a mechanical-action pipe organ made for the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix by Michael Rathke in 2009. This amazing organ has transparent sides so viewers can see how the instrument operates.

The keyboard goes to a mechanical-action pipe organ made for the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix by Michael Rathke in 2009. This amazing organ has transparent sides so viewers can see how the instrument operates.

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The Musical Instrument Museum is housed in a low, modernistic building that blends with its desert surroundings.

Our weeklong road trip came to an end in Phoenix It had been filled with music in Nashville, Memphis, Austin and San Antonio. So it only made sense to end the adventure at the Musical Instrument Museum.

“Music is the language of the soul.”

With this quote to start our our visit, we went looking for all the ways people around the world express themselves in music.

For me, it was the piano and the hammered dulcimer, an Appalachian instrument I’ve been studying for the past couple of years. Here, I played a Steinway grand. And found all sorts of relatives to the hammered dulcimer — even if an instrument like my own was elusive.

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People have created all sorts of way to make music, haven’t they?

In the MIM, I spent a few hours not only pondering my own musical interests, but the idea that music is such an innate creation all over the world, in all different ways, with all sorts of instruments. I saw a zither made with glass bottles and violin-like instruments carved with tiny detail. Musical instruments were small enough to fit in a child’s hand or tower over the tallest man.

A work of art even when it's silent, this was created by Paul Reed Smith Guitars, whose studio is on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

A work of art even when it’s silent, this was created by Paul Reed Smith Guitars, whose studio is on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

While the instruments themselves were, for the most part, untouchable, the MIM gives visitors audio guides that turn on as they approach the video monitors running in endless loops. You can watch African dancers, listen to Native American song, watch Dizzy Gillespie play that horn or Taylor Swift sing while playing a white grand piano.

La Primera costume, drum and video of a traditional dance in Majorca, Spain on St. John the Baptist feast day.

La Primera costume, drum and video of a traditional dance in Majorca, Spain on St. John the Baptist feast day.

The videos are quite interesting. Some feature tiny snippets of musical performances. Several describe how instruments are made. The Steinway and Martin Guitar videos had me transfixed.

Several displays illustrate how musical instruments are made, including Martin guitars and Steinway pianos, as well as D'Addario strings.

Several displays illustrate how musical instruments are made, including Martin guitars and Steinway pianos, as well as D’Addario strings.

Until I came here, I never saw a Steinway grand sitting all alone waiting for someone to come, sit down and play. But there it was in the lobby so I sat down.What a thrill. What gorgeous sound. A little, simple Beethoven was all I played but the music rang out and gave me chills. And I was the one playing.

Exhibits are separated geographically and with 10,000 instruments in the collection, it’s going to take a long while to see everything and listen to all the snippets of the world’s music. We spent the better part of an afternoon taking in ancient song and modern recordings from every genre. And we still hadn’t seen or heard Latin America or Asia. Europe and the United States/Canada displays take up about half the exhibit space on the upper level.

While most of the displays celebrates the artistry of unknown musicians, there are nods to musicians we know and love, including Roy Orbison whose Grammy for 'Oh Pretty Woman' is on display

While most of the displays celebrates the artistry of unknown musicians, there are nods to musicians we know and love, including Roy Orbison whose Grammy for ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ is on display

If music is your passion, you need a two-day ticket. It’s the only way to see everything on both floors, including the Artist Gallery (which features well-known and well-regarded artists), as well as the Experience and Mechanical Music galleries.

There are introductory tours and performances, too. Clearly there’s too much for one afternoon. So three cheers for the two-day pass. I’ll certainly get that the next time I’m in Phoenix. I missed so much and want to see it all again.

P.S. Ever heard the sweet sounds of a hammered dulcimer? Here’s a video from Ken Kolodner, performing with his son Brad. A big fan myself, I discovered plenty of its cousins at MIM.  Thought I’d share them with you here.

 Ⓒ Photos and text by Mary K. Tilghman
Video of Ken and Brad Kolodner used by permission.
Thanks, too, to WAMU’s Bluegrass Country.

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