The Musical Instrument Museum: Another Trip Around the World

The Musical Instrument Museum: Another Trip Around the World

Written by Jeff Weiner

The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), located in Phoenix, Arizona, features 350 exhibits with instruments from around the globe. It is considered to be the foremost musical instrument museum in the world. I wrote about it in previous Copper articles in Issue 168 and Issue 169.

For the last six years, I have been a volunteer giving tours to adults and school groups at the museum. In addition to participating in MIM’s museum guide training and certification process, docents gain further knowledge from interactions with the museum’s curators. Also, my involvement at MIM has inspired me to do additional research into various aspects of music.

Five of the MIM’s 10 main galleries are geography-oriented for the following regions:

  • US/Canada
  • Europe
  • Africa/Middle East
  • Asia/Oceania
  • Latin America

In Issue 169 I took you into some of my favorite exhibits in those galleries. I continue that discussion and visit some others here, and conclude with a look at an exhibit in the museum’s Artists Gallery.


Entrance to the Artist Gallery at the MIM. Courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum.


The US and Canada: Jazz Evolution

The Musical Instrument Museum has a large exhibit dedicated to the jazz genre, which is divided into four areas. In Issue 169, I covered one of these, Early Jazz, from Buddy Bolden in New Orleans in the 1890s to Jelly Roll Morton and his prolific career which began shortly thereafter. A major influence on jazz in the 1920s was Louis Armstrong, who made two important contributions to the genre. Prior to Armstrong, most of the improvisation in jazz was done by the group as a whole. He was the first one to make extensive use of solo improvisation. Also, Armstrong “loosened up” the music; he made it swing.


Louis Armstrong. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.


The next area in MIM’s jazz exhibit focuses on swing music and the big band era. Big bands began to emerge in the 1910s but didn’t reach their peak until the mid-1930s, and dominated jazz until the end of World War II. Duke Ellington had a profound impact on the big band era and more generally on our musical heritage. He was a bandleader and piano player for over 50 years and wrote or collaborated in over 1,000 compositions. Some of his songs are standards: “Sophisticated Lady,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Solitude,” among many others.

Another section of the exhibit explores the smaller ensembles that emerged after World War II. This began with bebop, a style developed by a younger generation of jazz artists who put unprecedented focus on musicianship. A major characteristic of big band music is danceability, resulting in relatively slower tempos. Bebop is usually fast-paced, which makes additional demands on the skills of the artist. Again, musicianship is very much on display with bebop music. Two of the artists who were at the forefront of the development of bebop were alto sax player Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Miles Davis and his trumpet playing contributed to the bebop era but he is not viewed to be a major contributor to the form. However, he later assembled a nonet of musicians with the intention of giving jazz a more relaxed tempo and a lighter ambience. He incorporated elements of classical music into jazz and initiated the cool jazz era with an album titled Birth of the Cool. Davis later collaborated with legendary tenor sax player John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans to create what many believe to be the definitive cool jazz music.

In the mid-1950s, a trend developed away from cool jazz and more in line with the sound and tempo of bebop. This was hard bop, and Art Blakey and his group, the Jazz Messengers, are often credited with fathering this style of music. Since then, jazz has been combined with rock and roll and other genres of music under the banner of jazz fusion. My introduction to jazz was Miles Davis’ jazz fusion album Bitches Brew, released in 1970.

The US and Canada: Bluegrass

Bluegrass music originated in the Appalachian mountains of the US and has its roots in the English, Scottish, and Irish music brought to this country by the settlers of that region. There are also country, blues, jazz, and gospel influences. The genre’s name is derived from a group called The Blue Grass Boys, led by Bill Monroe. Accordingly, Monroe is viewed to be the “Father of Bluegrass.” A traditional bluegrass band consists of all-acoustic stringed instruments: fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass. Monroe provided the vocals and played the mandolin for The Blue Grass Boys. Their recordings of 28 songs for Columbia Records in the late 1940s serve as a defining statement for the genre. “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Molly and Tenbrooks” are iconic Monroe-written songs that were included in that session. Legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt were important early members of Monroe’s band.


I had the opportunity to exchange a few words and shake hands with Bill Monroe in the 1990s. The Blue Grass Boys were performing at a supper club in upstate New York. There was a warm up band and Monroe made an appearance between acts, circulating through the audience. He was old and somewhat frail by then (he died in 1996 at the age of 85) and another mandolin player was included in the group. Monroe narrated and played a couple of songs but left most of the session to the other mandolinist. I will never forget the stage persona of his group, all wearing dark blue three-piece pinstriped suits, ties, and big white Stetsons!

Europe: The Symphony Orchestra

The earliest instance of a symphony orchestra is often credited to the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi for the performance of his opera, L’Orfeo, in 1607. Early symphony orchestras were smaller than those today, typically 30 to 40 instruments. The composer credited with creating the forerunner to the modern symphony was Allessandro Scarlatti, who founded the Neapolitan School in the latter part of the 17th century. Joseph Haydn wrote 108 symphonies and is viewed to be the father of the symphony.

Today the number of instruments in a symphony orchestra varies, typically in the range of 75 to 100 instruments. These are divided into four main groups:

  • Strings: violin, viola, cello, bass, and harp
  • Woodwinds: flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon
  • Brass: trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba
  • Percussion: timpani, xylophone, cymbals, and piano

The actual instruments in a specific orchestra may vary from what’s shown above. An instrument group may be subdivided into sections and each has a principal player, responsible for leading the group/section and playing solos.

MIM has adopted the Sachs-Hornbostel system for categorizing musical instruments. All music is based upon vibrations and the essential premise of this system is to ignore what causes vibrations and base categories solely on what vibrates within the instrument to create music. Accordingly, “percussion” is not a category here since that term is focused on what causes vibrations, not what vibrates. These are the categories of the Sachs-Hornbostel system:

  • Chordophones: strings (e.g., violins)
  • Aerophones: air (e.g.,. trumpets)
  • Membranophones: skin (e.g., bongos)
  • Idiophones: whole instrument (e.g., cymbals)
  • Electrophones: electronics (e.g., synthesizers)

An additional instrument type is the corpophone where the human body is used to make music. An example here is hand clapping.

MIM has an exhibit featuring a three-dimensional model of an actual symphony orchestra, consisting of approximately 60 percent strings (chordophones), 30 percent woodwinds/brass (aerophones), and 10 percent percussion (membranophones/idiophones/piano). It should be noted that a symphony orchestra classifies a piano as a percussion instrument because hammers strike the strings to make them vibrate. With the Sachs-Hornbostel model, a piano is a string instrument because strings vibrate to create the music.

It is clear that the most important symphony orchestra instrument type is the chordophone. Not coincidentally, the same is true for rock and roll and country music bands. Putting aside singing (where our vocal cords vibrate), chordophones are the dominant instruments in Western culture. The second most important instrument type in a symphony orchestra is aerophones, which are also the dominant instrument type in most jazz bands, where saxophones, trumpets, et al. usually take center stage. In Western culture, we love our chordophones and aerophones.

The same is not true for other cultures. As examples, there are areas in Africa where membranophones are the primary instrument type. In Indonesia, idiophones in the form of gongs and xylophones dominate their gamelan ensembles.

Africa and Middle East: Iraq, The Cradle of Civilization

While war and political unrest have dominated its recent history, Iraq has a rich musical tradition and has spawned some of the most profound musical innovations in the history of our world. Sumer, the oldest known civilization, was part of Mesopotamia in an area that is now south/central Iraq. Cuneiform, the oldest language known to mankind (even older than hieroglyphics!) was invented by Sumerians. While the history of music goes back tens of thousands of years, the earliest known musical transcription is a Cuneiform clay tablet that was found in Iraq. This is a portion of a song from 4,000 years ago. (The oldest complete song is a hymn, also immortalized on a Cuneiform clay tablet found in nearby Syria and dating back 3,600 years.)


Cuneiform tablet containing the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkai, the oldest surviving substantially complete work of notated music in the world, according to Wikipedia. Courtesy of Wikipedia/public domain.


For hundreds of years, Baghdad was an important center for Arabian classical music. This is complex music influenced by Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, and Indian cultures. This form of music is called al-maqam al-Iraqi. The intended effect on the audience is tarab, where the soul is transported to exaltation. There is considerable vocal and instrumental improvisation in maqam. The instruments typically used are the joza, a four-string bowed instrument that can be viewed as an early version of the violin, the oud, a plucked lute with 11 or 13 strings, the santur, a zither containing 92 strings, the ney, an end-blown flute, the daf, a frame drum, and the tabla, a pair of drums similar in shape to bongos.

The aforementioned oud originated in Iraq about 4,000 years ago. Most experts agree that the oud had a profound impact on the history of musical instruments. Via the Silk Road network of trading routes and other means, the oud traveled to distant places and, along the way, was modified in accordance with local cultural and musical traditions. As an example, when it got to Western Europe, the oud had evolved into the lute. There’s an interesting theory that the name “lute” was derived from the oud. In French, “l” means “the” and the theory goes that l’oud (i.e. the oud) ultimately became lute. With that in mind, the oud is viewed to be the origin of most of the plucked stringed instruments in the world today: guitar, banjo, mandolin, et al. The oud is still an extremely popular instrument throughout the Middle East.

There is a widespread belief in the Arab world that the person who invented the ud was Lamech (from the bible), a fifth-generation direct descendant of Cain. The story goes that his son had passed away and Lamech decided to hang the body from a tree. After a while, the shape of the skeletal remains inspired him to invent an instrument of similar shape, the oud. (Ugh!)

A discussion of musical traditions in Iraq is not complete without mention of the Kurds. There are approximately 30 million Kurds living in an area with no national boundaries. When the Ottoman Empire was disbanded after World War I, the region indigenous to the Kurdish people was divided among Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Accordingly, the Kurds have a cultural identity but no physical borders. Music is a key element in keeping the Kurdish identity strong.

Asia and Oceania: Sitars

The sitar is the dominant instrument in Hindustani music. While the sitar continues to evolve, most experts agree that the modern instrument emerged in the 18th century towards the end of the Mogul empire. The evolution to that point is hotly debated. There is general agreement that the Persian “setar” was a forerunner to the sitar. The similarity in the names of those two instruments is a proof point of sorts. It is debated whether the Indian veena was also an element in the genesis of the sitar. A counter-argument to a veena/sitar relationship is that the veena belongs to the chordophone’s zither family whereas the sitar is a lute.


A 17th century sitar. Courtesy of domain.


The modern sitar typically has 18 to 21 strings. These fall into three categories: 

  • 5 – 7 playable strings: These are strung over the frets.
  • 1 – 2 drone strings: These run next to the frets.
  • 11 – 13 sympathetic strings: These run under the frets.

The playable and drone strings are plucked by the sitarist. The sympathetic strings are much thinner and run very close to the neck of the instrument. They are typically never touched by the sitarist; their vibrations are induced by the vibrations of the playable and drone strings.

These are some of the elements that give the sitar its unique sound:

  • A combination of playable (fretted) and drone (non-fretted) strings.
  • Sympathetic strings.
  • Curved frets.
  • A curved bridge.
  • An optional second resonator attached to the neck of the instrument.

Another important characteristic of the sitar is its physical beauty. When I bring museum guests to the India exhibit, I often point out that many of these instruments can be viewed as physical works of art and could rightfully be shown in an art museum irrespective of the music that they produce. It is an elegant instrument, with a deep, pear-shaped gourd body and a long wooden neck. Sitars are often decorated with floral or grape carvings and inlays with colored and black floral or arabesque patterns.

The sitar was little known in the Western world until the Beatles went to India to study with the virtuoso, Ravi Shankar. (Many people don’t know that Ravi Shankar is Norah Jones’ father.)

The recently-departed David Crosby had introduced Beatle George Harrison to Shankar’s music and that led to the trip to India. Harrison applied the education he got from Shankar to classic Beatles songs such as “Norwegian Wood” and “Within You Without You.” That led to other rock groups using the sitar. The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones played the sitar on “Paint It Black.” Traffic’s Dave Mason played it on “Paper Sun.” The sitar can also be heard extensively on Donovan’s album Sunshine Superman.


Latin America: Cuba

Many years ago, I discovered Wendo Kolosoy, “Father of Congolese Rumba,” and still listen to his music on occasion. I had thought at that time that the rumba originated in Africa and later found its way to Cuba and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. In the six years I have been volunteering at MIM I have learned a great deal about music, including the fact that the rumba originated in the African slave community in Cuba and ultimately found its way to the rest of the world. While the Spanish who controlled Cuba suppressed the free expression of music developed in the Cuban slave community, the rumba began to emerge with the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. It was introduced into the Congo in the 1930s via radio broadcasts of Cuban music. Congolese rumba is more akin to a related Cuban style called son than it is to Cuban rumba.


One of the school tours that we offer at MIM is the Ensembles Tour, where the unifying theme is music groups. I like to start that tour at our Cuban Dance Bands exhibit by defining the word “ensemble.” That word comes from French where it means “together.” I typically have the class watch a video of a Cuban music group on a stage in a large square with people dancing and others watching, clapping, or otherwise moving to the music. My essential point is that there are multiple things happening “together.” First, there are the musicians, then add the dancers, and finally add the others enjoying the moment.

Cuba has an incredibly rich and varied musical tradition and “together” is a critical element. Street musicians abound in Cuban cities and people can be seen literally dancing in the streets. Others can be seen clapping or otherwise moving to the music. In Havana, street musicians are actually licensed and many have permanent locations where they perform. Elements of social interaction, public celebration, inclusiveness, and resourcefulness are on full display. Music is ubiquitous in Cuba. Live music can be found nightly in a myriad of bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs.

“Together” is an important element in another Cuban music style, the conga. While the rumba can be characterized as something akin to a neighborhood party, the conga is more a festive carnival procession. Who hasn’t participated in a conga line where your hands are holding the waist of whoever is in front of you and somebody is doing the same to you from behind? What a great together experience! The essential movement of a conga line is simple. 1, 2, 3, kick with one leg. 1, 2, 3, kick with the other leg. Lucille Ball’s husband, Desi Arnaz, is often credited with bringing the conga to the US. Bandleader Xavier Cugat also helped to popularize it.

Back to my Ensembles Tour, I like to discuss with students that Cuban music is a product of various cultures coming “together.” Unfortunately, this does not include the indigenous Cuban population who were all but eradicated via conquest and oppression by the Spanish and, also, the new diseases that were brought into Cuba by Europeans. It is estimated that only about 500 indigenous Cubans remained and that just a vestige of those cultures continues to exist on the island. The primary influences on Cuban music are, of course, African and Spanish, with the Spanish guitar being a key element of the latter. French ballroom dancing was an important influence in Cuba’s elegant danzón music. As Cuban music has continued to evolve, influences from the US, Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries have emerged.


Many people are surprised that the Chinese have made important contributions to Cuban music. As slavery began to subside in the 19th century, the Spanish had a dire need for cheap labor to work the sugar plantations and brought over 100,000 Chinese indentured servants to the island to work next to the remaining slaves. These people brought their music with them. MIM has on display an instrument called the corneta china, i.e., Chinese cornet. A couple of years ago, I conducted a tour for a Cuban-American cultural group from Miami and every one of them was familiar with the corneta china. Cultures coming together to create some of the world’s best music!

Back in the US: Woodstock

There are people who will tell you that anyone who claims to remember being at Woodstock probably wasn’t! Well, I was there and I (mostly) remember it. It is fairly well known that the 1969 Woodstock festival did not take place in Woodstock. There were some issues as the date neared and it was moved to Bethel, New York, about 60 miles from Woodstock. The road to the festival was one lane in each direction and had never encountered the level of traffic generated by the approximately half-million people who attended Woodstock. Due to the very slow going, we parked by the side of the road about two miles from the festival and walked the rest of the way. It was a hot, muggy summer day (foretelling the torrential rain that was to come) and there were local people selling water from their front yards.

The first night was folk night and we got to see Richie Havens, Sweetwater, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, and Joan Baez. I had gotten to know and was a big fan of Richie Havens from my days as a regular at the Cafe Au Go Go in NY’s Greenwich Village, where Havens was the house folk singer. He and I had engaged in a couple of brief conversations and I saw him perform many times. I was thrilled that “my buddy,” Richie Havens, was chosen to be the opening performer at the Woodstock festival.


Well, it rained that night. It came down in buckets. We brought sleeping bags but no tent and were going to sleep under the stars. However, when your sleeping bag gets soaked…so we very reluctantly decided to go home. I was devastated that I wouldn’t get to see the Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and so many other incredible groups. We hiked to our car, drove off, and didn’t get very far before it was gridlock. There were still loads of people coming in and we weren’t the only ones leaving. At around 2:30 a.m., I shut the engine (the car was still on the road!) and we went to sleep. Around 6 a.m. there was a tap on the window. It was the police. They had cleared the road and we could leave.

MIM’s Woodstock exhibit features instruments and artifacts from Santana, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, and members of the Who and Creedence Clearwater Revival. There are also videos depicting Santana, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane. It should be noted that the museum cannot arbitrarily exhibit an artist. Cooperation with the artist or whoever owns the rights to the artist is required.


From the MIM's Woodstock exhibit. Courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum.


The Musical Instrument Museum is rated on TripAdvisor as the number one attraction in the Phoenix area and one of the top museums in the United States. Having had the opportunity to volunteer and give tours these last six years, the museum has become a second home for me. I find myself regularly reminding myself how fortunate I am that I get to hang out at MIM.


Header image courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum.

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