At the MIM Travel the World through Music without Leaving Town

At the MIM Travel the World through Music without Leaving Town

Wanderer Writes

The site Wanderer Writes presents personal travel stories and memoirs, tips and guides to destinations around the world, based on the author's first-hand experiences. The posts tend to focus on little-known places and less traveled roads through popular destinations while highlighting different cultures, history, and nature.

The MIM, Musical Instrument Museum, is one of those places that might make even Phoenix a summer destination. Or maybe not. With temperatures above 110 degrees on a regular basis, I don’t encourage anyone to visit Phoenix in the middle of the summer. Still, if you have to be here for any reason, this is the place to spend a great day. Not to mention “travel the world” by learning about music all over.

Visiting the MIM, the only museum of its kind in the world, you’ll virtually walk through the whole 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.

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 version, we realize that we are not so different after all.

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More than 6800 Instruments from All Over the World

It is overwhelming the first time you walk through the MIM. You’ll see over 6800 instruments, and that’s only what is on display. The museum’s inventory is even larger than that. You’ll have a chance to travel through space and time, from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, and watch ancient and modern instruments on display.

The centerpiece of the first room I entered is the largest double bass I’ve ever seen. If you’re wondering what a double bass is, you’re not alone. I thought it a cello at first since it looks and is played like one, but it is the larger. In order of size, the stringed instruments in an orchestra are the violin, viola, cello, and bass. Yes, there are four.

The bass on display here stands from the floor to ceiling in the center. Built for a giant to play? Was it ever used? Just enjoy it, then walk around the room to learn more about the instruments on display.

The MIM Phoenix

Then walk upstairs and start your travels.

Traveling the world needs a system, just like planning any trip. 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. These galleries helped me connect the cultures and their music geographically.

Visiting Africa and the Middle East

I walked through the sub-Saharan, North African and Middle Eastern nations, learning about them through their music and dance customs.  Music is the oldest and most basic form of a culture. Every culture in the world started their storytelling through music. By understanding their music, we understand their culture, even if we don’t speak their language.

Africa and middle East Gallery at the MIMAfrica and Middle East Gallery at the MIM

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.

Instruments from Morocco at the MIM Phoenix Instruments from Morocco

Walking over to Asia and Oceania

Moving on the Asia and Oceania Gallery, I noticed that they grouped the exhibits in five sub-galleries, featuring East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, Central Asia and the Caucasus. I stopped in front of the exhibits and listened to the explanation on my headphone.  Turning on the music and dance recordings, I watched the musicians and dancers use the instruments on display.

Mongolia in the MIM PhoenixVisit Mongolia

I lingered in front of a bowed instrument since I played the violin years ago. I love the horsehead decoration on this bowed spike lute.

Bowed Lute played in Mongolia at the MIMBowed Spike Lute played in Mongolia at the MIM

Moving on to Europe

I was on a more familiar territory here, in the Europe Gallery. I recognized the instruments specific to regions.

Hungarian Instruments at the MIM

I stood with tears in my eyes when I noticed the Hungarian instruments on display, and watched our national dances and music, music I recognized and missed.

Hungarian Instruments at the MIM PhoenixHungarian Instruments at the MIM 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, the Hungarian ancestor of my violin that might have sounded like my first attempts at the modern one… at least that’s when I heard the expression. But I hope it sounded better. It looked beautiful.

At the MIM“Kintorna” – the Hungarian ancestor of the fiddle…

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. For those who don’t know, horses are very important for Hungarians.

Citera - Hungarian plucked zither at the MIM PhoenixThe “citera” is a well-known instrument in Hungarian folk music.

Then, I spotted a “cimbalom”, a Hungarian hammered dulcimer, made in Budapest, in the Czech Republic exhibit. They introduced the Hungarian Cimbalom in Moravia in the 1930s, the sign said. A piece of my people’s history I learned here…

Hungarian Sitar at the MIMHungarian Cimbalom at the MIM

Opera Music: The Magic Flute and Papageno

My daughter recognized the Papageno costumes and instruments used in the Magic Flute in the Austria exhibit. We have the book and we’ve used it as a bedtime story for years while she was young, and even 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 at the MIMThe Magic Flute at the MIM

Moving on to Latin America

Another familiar row of exhibits greeted us in the Latin America Gallery.  Frequent visitors to Mexico, we understand the culture there.  Still, it’s a joy to walk through these exhibits featuring music and dances from not only Mexico but the Caribbean, South America and Central America.

Latin America at the MIMLatin America

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 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.

Arizona Native American Exhibit at the MIM Arizona Native American Exhibit US Southwest Exhibit at the MIMUS 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 continent of the world, while learning about the music of people everywhere.

Musical Instrument Museum Phoenix - Travel the World through Music


Emese Fromm is the editor and the main writer for Wanderer Writes. Some of her travel articles have been featured in publications like Matador Network, GoNomad, DesertUSA, MapQuest Travel, among others. She loves to travel the world with her family, trying to find the less-traveled path anywhere she goes (sometimes she succeeds).

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