Visit an Online Collection of 64,259 Musical Instruments from Across the World

The study of musi­cal instru­ments opens up vast his­to­ries of sound rever­ber­at­ing through the cen­turies. Should we embark on a jour­ney through halls of Europe’s musi­cal instru­ment muse­ums, for exam­ple, we should soon dis­cov­er how lim­it­ed our appre­ci­a­tion for music his­to­ry has been, how nar­rowed by the rel­a­tive hand­ful of instru­ments allowed into orches­tras, ensem­bles, and bands of all kinds. The typ­i­cal diet of clas­si­cal, roman­tic, mod­ern, jazz, pop, rock, R&B, or what­ev­er, the music most of us in the West grow up hear­ing and study­ing, has result­ed from a care­ful sort­ing process that over time chose cer­tain instru­ments over oth­ers.

Some of those his­toric instruments—the vio­lin, cel­lo, many wind and brass—remain in wide cir­cu­la­tion and pro­duce music that can still sound rel­e­vant and con­tem­po­rary. Oth­ers, like the Mel­lotron (above) or bar­rel organs (like the 1883 Cylin­der­pos­i­tiv at the top), remain wed­ded to their his­tor­i­cal peri­ods, mak­ing sounds that might as well have dates stamped on them.

You could—and many an his­to­ri­an has, no doubt—travel the world and pay a per­son­al vis­it to the muse­ums hous­ing thou­sands of musi­cal instru­ments humans have used—or at least invented—to car­ry melodies and har­monies and keep time. Such a tour might con­sti­tute a life’s work.

But if you’re on a bud­get or your grant doesn’t come through, you can still tour Europe’s musi­cal instru­ment muse­ums, and two muse­ums in Africa, from the com­fort of your home, office, or library thanks to MIMO, Musi­cal Instru­ment Muse­ums Online, a “con­sor­tium of some of Europe’s most impor­tant musi­cal instru­ment muse­ums” offer­ing “the world’s largest freely acces­si­ble data­base for infor­ma­tion on musi­cal instru­ments held in pub­lic col­lec­tions.”

The enor­mous online col­lec­tion hous­es, vir­tu­al­ly, tens of thou­sands of instru­ments from over two dozen regions around the globe. (There are 64,259 instru­ments in total.) Find an Ital­ian Basse de Vio­le (above) from 1547 or an ornate Egypt­ian darabuk­ka (below). And, of course, plen­ty of iconic—and rare—elec­tric gui­tars and bass­es.

You can search instru­ments by mak­er, coun­try, city, or con­ti­nent, time peri­od, muse­um, and type. (Wind, Per­cus­sion, Stringed, Zithers, Rat­tles, Bells, Lamel­la­phones, etc….) Researchers may encounter a few lan­guage hurdles—MIMO’s about page men­tions “search­ing in six dif­fer­ent lan­guages,” and the site actu­al­ly lists 11 lan­guage cat­e­gories in tabs at the top. But users may still need to plug pages into Google trans­late unless they read French or Ger­man or some of the oth­er lan­guages in which descrip­tions have been writ­ten. Refresh­ing­ly con­sis­tent, the pho­tographs of each instru­ment con­form to a stan­dard set by the con­sor­tium that pro­vides “detailed guide­lines on how to set up a repos­i­to­ry to enable the har­vest­ing of dig­i­tal con­tent.”

But enough about the site func­tions, what about the sounds? Well, in a phys­i­cal muse­um, you wouldn’t expect to take a three-hun­dred-year-old flute out of its case and hear it played. Just so, most of the instru­ments here can be seen and not heard, but the site does have over 400 sound files, includ­ing the enchant­i­ng record­ing of Sym­pho­nion Eroica 38a (above), as played on a mechan­i­cal clock from 1900.

As you dis­cov­er instru­ments you nev­er knew existed—such as the theramin-like Croix Sonore (Sonorus Cross), cre­at­ed by Russ­ian com­pos­er Nico­las Obukhov between 1926 and 1934—you can under­take your own research to find sam­ple record­ings online, such as “The Third and Last Tes­ta­ment,” below, Obukhov’s com­po­si­tion for 5 voic­es, organ, 2 pianos, orches­tra, and croix sonore. Obukhov’s exper­i­ments with instru­ments of his own inven­tion prompt­ed his exper­i­ments in 12-tone com­po­si­tion, in which, he declared, “I for­bid myself any rep­e­ti­tion.” Just one exam­ple among many thou­sands demon­strat­ing how instru­ment design forms the basis of a wild­ly pro­lif­er­at­ing vari­ety of musi­cal expres­sions that can start to seem end­less after a while.

via @dark_shark

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a Musi­cian Impro­vise on a 500-Year-Old Music Instru­ment, The Car­il­lon

Musi­cian Plays the Last Stradi­var­ius Gui­tar in the World, the “Sabionari” Made in 1679

Sovi­et Inven­tor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment That Could Be Played With­out Being Touched (1954)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Biplab Poddar says:

    Thanks for shar­ing this. I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on the f# minor noc­turne! they’re beau­ti­ful pieces. Afte com­ple­tion of this, I would go for gui­tar lessons.
    Don’t get me wrong, you have to be strong and con­fi­dent to be suc­cess­ful in just about any­thing you do – but with music, there’s a deep­er emo­tion­al com­po­nent to your fail­ures and suc­cess­es. If you fail a chem­istry test, it’s because you either didn’t study enough, or just aren’t that good at chem­istry (the lat­ter of which is total­ly under­stand­able). But if you fail at music, it can say some­thing about your char­ac­ter. It could be because you didn’t prac­tice enough – but, more ter­ri­fy­ing­ly, it could be because you aren’t resilient enough. Mas­ter­ing chem­istry requires dili­gence and smarts, but mas­ter­ing a piano piece requires dili­gence and smarts, plus cre­ativ­i­ty, plus the immense capac­i­ty to both over­come emo­tion­al hur­dles, and, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, to use that emo­tion­al com­po­nent to bring the music alive.
    Before I start­ed tak­ing piano, I had always imag­ined the Con­ser­va­to­ry stu­dents to have it so good – I mean, for their home­work, they get to play gui­tar, or jam on their sax­o­phone, or sing songs! What fun! Com­pared to sit­ting in lab for four hours study­ing the opti­cal prop­er­ties of min­er­als, or dis­cussing Lucret­ian the­o­ries of democ­ra­cy and pol­i­tics, I would play piano any day.

    But after almost three years of piano at Orpheus Acad­e­my, I under­stand just how naïve this is. Play­ing music for cred­it is not “easy” or “fun” or “mag­i­cal” or “lucky.” Most­ly, it’s real­ly freakin’ hard. It requires you to pick apart your piece, play every lit­tle seg­ment over and over, dis­sect it, tin­ker with it, cry over it, feel com­plete­ly lame about it, then get over your­self and start prac­tic­ing again. You have to be pre­cise and dili­gent, cre­ative and robot­ic. And then – after all of this – you have to re-dis­cov­er the emo­tion­al beau­ty in the piece, and use it in your per­for­mance.

  • says:

    While I agree with your opin­ion on learn­ing and stick­ing with music is a chal­lenge, it is also just like any­thing else. Yes, music has it’s hard­ships and effects your emo­tion­al well-being. How­ev­er, so does play­ing / mas­ter­ing cook­ing, sports, becom­ing a doc­tor, etc. Futher­more, to become GREAT at ANYTHING is “freakin’ hard.”

    Any­ways, I got read­ing this, then read your com­ment and it inspired me. Great arti­cle.

  • John Ngugi Gachugu says:

    I real­ly need an assis­tance to own musi­cal instru­ment. Am all pas­sion­ate to music… Please help me

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