The Musical Instrument Museum is a sound visit


Here at Scoring Notes, our reviews are typically about music notation software and related technology. But on a recent trip to Phoenix, Arizona, I visited the Musical Instrument Museum, and enjoyed the experience so much, that I just had to write about it here.

The Musical Instrument Museum

The Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM, is relatively new, having opened in April 2010. According to the history published on the museum’s web site, “Realizing most musical museums featured historic, primarily Western classical instruments, MIM’s founder Bob Ulrich (then CEO of Target Corporation) was inspired to develop a new kind of museum that would focus on the kind of instruments played every day by people worldwide. A focus on the guest experience shaped every aspect of the museum’s development.”

Having now been a part of that guest experience, I can enthusiastically report that the museum’s mission has been accomplished. With a collection of more than 8,000 instruments from more than 200 countries, rich and immersive audio-visuals, interactive elements, comfortable amenities, and easy accessibility, it easily exceeded my expectations, and I’m very happy to recommend a visit for anyone, from the music neophyte to the most credentialed professional musician.

Starting out

The day started with a magnificent Arizona sunrise.

I mention it because even if it’s a beautiful day, you won’t be sad to to give up outdoorsy time to visit the museum!

Our group consisted of my wife, my aunt, uncle, and myself. I’m the only professional musician of the bunch, and we all had an equally fun time.

Excited for our visit!

My aunt needed a wheelchair, and the staff could not have been more accommodating and helpful. They were very happy to check her walker and loan her a wheelchair at no charge for her visit.

It was lunchtime, and we were hungry, so the museum’s cafe — aptly named Café Allegro — was the first stop. The options were plentiful; sandwiches, salads, soups, grilled items, and grab-n-go meals were all available, and at reasonable prices, which is much appreciated especially since it’s a captive audience. There was plenty of seating both indoors and outdoors, and with the beautiful winter desert weather, we sat outside.

Café Allegro at the Musical Instrument Museum

The museum also has a coffee bar, called Beats, for quick pick-me-ups during your visit.

Everything tasted great. All fueled up, we were ready to begin our experience. The museum offers tours, included with your admission, but we opted for a self-guided stroll, which was perfectly fine. The museum is well-organized on two levels.

It was a good thing we had that lunch; I would have needed a lot of energy to play this octobass!

This three-stringed monster uses modern wound metal strings and is tuned C0, G0, D1, giving it a low range two octaves below the cello and one octave below the modern double bass with a low C extension and playing range (sounding pitch) as follows:

The galleries

You’ll notice in the photo above that I’m wearing a headset with an attached receiver. These are provided to all guests, and they greatly enhance the experience. Nearly every display has one or more accompanying video or audio presentations playing on short loops. As you approach each display, the audio magically appears in your headset without any fiddling or button-pushing required. Once I got the hang of it and figured out approximately how near I needed to be to each display to hear the audio, it was effortless.

Even if you don’t generally wear these devices when visiting a museum, given the nature of this one, I strongly encourage you to do so, so that you can hear examples of many of the instruments on display and learn more about their history.

The ground level is sorted into various galleries. Since it was our first visit, we did not purchase admission to the special exhibition, which varies, but I can imagine that on a return trip, it would be worthwhile.

Artist Gallery

Instead, we started in the Artist Gallery.

This ingenious way of organizing instruments is sorted by the artist that played the instrument(s), rather than by the instruments themselves, so even if you have a favorite artist but don’t know the name of the instrument they played, you’ll have no trouble getting oriented.

The variety of musicians and instruments on display was incredible. I was delighted to discover a display about Wu Man, the celebrated pipa player.

Although the Musical Instrument Museum focuses, as the name says, on instruments, I did seek out, and found, several examples of music notation exhibited, which is sure to delight the Scoring Notes audience, as it did me. Check out this pipa notation!

There was a display that prominently featured the Kronos Quartet and some of the instruments played by their collaborators over time, with each one labeled with the name of the instrument, its origin, the composer who used it, and the name and date of the composition in which it was used.

While I was checking out the highfalutin music, my aunt and uncle were enjoying hearing Roy Orbison, and seeing the guitar he played (along with his handwritten lyrics to “Oh, Pretty Woman”.

More music notation spotted! This time by Rafael Méndez, the legendary Mexican trumpeter, from his composition “El Gitano”.

Having learned about the virtuoso theremin performer Clara Rockmore, I was delighted to see a display devoted to her, along with the actual theremin that she played. (Later on in our journey, we got to try out our own theremin skills!)

Clara Rockmore’s theremin, along with the violin part to Saint-Saëns’ “Le Cygne”, performed on theremin

More music notation spotted: A display devoted to Sting and The Police:

On a video, Sting sings “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”; below, the lead sheet for “Every Breath You Take” by Andy Summers

There’s no wonder the Artist Gallery is the largest of the galleries of the ground floor; there was so much to take in.

Mechanical Music Gallery

We moved onto the Mechanical Music Gallery, an outstanding collection of “instruments that play themselves”. It was a humbling reminder that, before the dawn of synthesizers and computers, humans have been inventing ways to take themselves out of the process of playing music, and leave it to the machines instead.

Scoring Notes readers are probably familiar with the term “piano roll”. As used in Dorico and any DAW, it displays MIDI notes for pitched instruments in a continuous sequence, with the vertical position of note events indicating their pitch.

But have you ever seen an actual piano roll?

Even if you have, the display of the entire operation of the piano roll in context, from the editing desk and the tools used was a site to behold. The pre-eminent manufacturer of these rolls, QRS, employed arrangers to not only arrange music for player pianos, but also to play the actual arrangements in time into what was essentially a recorder to transcribe the arrangements onto a roll of paper 25 feet in length. Then the arranger would review his recording — which looked much the same as the piano roll editor in music software — and create a master roll for duplication and publication.

J. Lawrence Cook was the most prolific piano roll artist in history, producing an astounding tens of thousands of different roll recordings during his career. This is where the audio-visuals of the museum were helpful in understanding the context of a particular instrument.

Look at the mechanical intricacies involved!

Examples of variations on this concept abounded in the gallery, including a calliope, dance organ, and cabinetto — a mechanical reed organ from 1890’s London:

The pièce de resistance, however, was the museum’s orchestrion. The largest instrument in its collection at just over 25 feet long and nearly 10 feet tall, this imposing machine is demonstrated twice daily for the benefit of all museum-goers. I didn’t want to miss it!


Having heard an instrument played “live” by a machine, it was time to now test out some instruments ourselves.

Experience Gallery

Onward to the Experience Gallery!

Right when we arrived in this hands-on gallery, a gaggle of schoolchildren stormed in. We heard their teacher announce “3 minutes” and took the opportunity for a bathroom break instead of competing with the cacophony.

MIM has commissioned a variety of instruments for these spaces, including large communal drums, a gamelan, African marimbas, and more.

The Experience Gallery is suited for children of all ages (photo from MIM web site)

Once the coast was clear, we got to try out a number of instruments that you might not encounter everyday. Remember that theremin?


Maybe you always wanted to try your hand at ukelele:

Or the harp…?


The Experience Gallery includes instruments from all of the major world regions represented by MIM’s Geographic Galleries — our next stop.

Geographic Galleries

The Geographic Galleries are where MIM’s mission really shines. Collectively they contain thousands of instruments representing all the world’s countries and many territories.

These galleries, located on the upper level of the museum, focus on major world regions: Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Latin America, Europe, and United States / Canada. Many of the instruments displayed are rare examples.

With the museum’s closing time looming, we spent most of the rest of our visit in the European and US / Canada sections, which collectively cover about half of the footprint of the Geographic Galleries.

We saw pianos both old…

A Broadwood piano from 1790. Frédéric Chopin played one of these at his last performance in 1849.

…and new:

Vintage and modern Steinway pianos deconstructed: The Steinway exhibit displays the inner workings of a Steinway grand piano and features the historic first piano made by company founder Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg in 1836.

Orchestra aficionados will enjoy this progression of instruments, spanning from the baroque to the modern eras:

There was this fanciful miniature glass-blown artistic interpretation of a combination of classical, modern, and folk instruments…

…along with a more realistic and instructive display, in which different sections of the orchestra were highlighted in synchronization with musical examples piped into your headset featuring the highlighted sections. Modeled on musicians from the London City Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, this impressive showpiece was commissioned by MIM:

An orchestral score complemented the instruments; the example on view had a local connection: a 2008 composition by Mark Grey commissioned and premiered by the Phoenix Symphony, displayed alongside a baton and autographed copy of the recording. (I resisted the urge to look too closely, but it appeared to be set in Finale.)

Nestled in between the galleries for Europe and the United States / Canada was the STEM Gallery. STEM, for those not in education, is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This small but informative exhibit checked the fundamental box of explaining how instruments actually make sound — by causing matter to vibrate, which in turn vibrates the air, creating a sound wave that is received by our ears and processed by our brains as music. Pretty incredible stuff if you stop and think about it — and what better place to do so, than in a museum devoted to musical instruments!

A display devoted to electronic music included some of the pioneering synthesizers of the 1970s, such as a Moog, a local and rare prototype known as the Coupland, and an ElectroComp 101:

As the museum’s closing time of 5 pm approached, we didn’t have time to explore the rest of the world’s galleries very thoroughly, but I look forward to doing so on our next visit. And I do hope that there are many more visits to the Musical Instrument Museum in my future!

Getting there

The Musical Instrument Museum is located in the northern part of Phoenix, near the Loop 101 (Pima Freeway), at 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix, AZ 85050. View a map of the building or take a virtual tour through MIM’s galleries.

Parking is free, and the parking lot entrance is located on Mayo Blvd., just south of Loop 101.

If you need additional assistance in planning your visit, contact MIM’s Guest Service Team at +1 480-478-6000 or

The museum is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, except for Thanksgiving Day. Café Allegro offers lunch from 11 am to 3 pm, and the Beats Coffee Bar is open the entire time that the museum is open.

A one-day pass is $20. Teens aged 13-19 are admitted for $15; children aged 4-12 are admitted for $10; children aged 3 and under are admitted free.

The special exhibition, which changes regularly costs an additional $7; it can also be accessed separately for $10.

Tickets can be reserved in advance, or purchased when you arrive.

The museum is very accessible, with complimentary wheelchairs, scooters & walkers; assistive listening systems, transcripts & captioning available. Trained service animals are welcome.


  1. David Toub

    My wife and I went there last year before a red-eye flight back to Philly, and we just didn’t have sufficient time to see everything, that’s how large it is. Some of it is broader rather than deep, but that’s ok. I definitely would recommend allotting most of a day to experience it. I’ve been to various music museums in Brussel, Carlsbad etc, and this really tops them all in terms of breadth.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Great to hear about your visit, David! I look forward to returning sometime.

  2. Bob Zawalich

    I would say that this is the best review of a museum that I have ever experienced. It felt as though we were there with you, and there was a great mix of detail and overview, and the pleasure you all felt by being there was palpable!

    How often do you think, “I am going to read that again”? This one I read again.

    Thanks for taking us along.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Much appreciated, Bob — I’m glad you enjoyed this.

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