We all know that a musical instrument’s purpose is not to remain behind a museum glass window. Nevertheless, doing this allows us to study them, reproduce and perform music composed from the same period and it enables us to understand their role in music, as well as what role music plays in different cultures. A lot of instruments are works of art or of technical skill that are well worth admiring. Here are some places where you can immerse yourself in the fascinating world of musical instruments.

El Museu de la Música, Barcelona

Barcelona’s Music Museum is located in the same building as the Auditori and the Escuela Superior de Música de Barcelona, designed by Rafael Moneo. They finished installing the musical instrument collection in the new building in 2007 as the last step of the “City of Music” project aimed at creating a large space dedicated to music. 

The collection has a long history beginning in 1921, when the Barcelona city council received a donation of musical instruments from the city’s elite in order to start a new museum of theatre, music and dance. Throughout the century more and more musicians made donations and the museum was rehoused several times. In 1969 the main collection had 966 instruments, then in 1991, it published its first complete catalogue, which contained 1,300 instruments. Today, the museum holds 1,700 instruments. of which 500 are on display, and it also has a wealth of important historical archives on the subject of Barcelona’s musical culture, all donated by musicians and their heirs, including Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados and Miquel Llobet. The collection includes personal items such as documents, sheet music, letters, photographs and manuscripts, providing a valuable resource for studying the work and lives of various composers and performers.

Throughout the years, the museum’s guitar collection has expanded so much that it is now considered one of the best guitar exhibitions in the world. The most remarkable pieces are two guitars by Antonio de Torres, who is considered the Stradivarius of guitar-making, from the Llobet Collection. According to experts, both were made in Seville, one in 1859 with a “pure and bright” sound, the other in 1862. You can also see a guitar from the Baroque period (dated between 1650 and 1700), a guitar made by Juan Pagés from Cádiz and others from Italy, France and South America. As well as guitars, you’ll also be able to spot a few curious-looking lyres, lutes (with examples from the best luthiers of the 16th and 17th centuries), mandolins and citoles which provide a visual timeline of plucked string instruments.

Another remarkable exhibit is the display of keyboard instruments, including clavichords, harpsichords and pianos. Again, the extensive range of items gives an in-depth look into the history of these instruments. Amongst the most noteworthy pieces is a Lorenz Hauslib “clavi-organ” from 1590, which combines mechanisms from the organ and harpsichord resulting in a very unique sound. Very few remain today and remarkably the museum’s clavi-organ is still usable. There is also a harpsichord from Christian Zall, a Carl Rönisch piano made in 1905 by Isaac Albéniz and a Chassaigne Frères piano from the start of the 20th century which belonged to Frederic Mompou.

Stradivarius at the Royal Palace of Madrid

The “Royal Quartet” is a rare set of stringed instruments made by the famous Antonio Stradivari which you can see on display at the Palacio Real de Madrid. The set was initially a quintet it was made for King Charles II but it was later offered to King Philip V, however in the end the order was never delivered. Many years afterwards, Charles the III wanted the quintet for his son, he arranged this with Paolo, one of Antonio Stradivari’s sons who had taken charge of the workshop and had continued the business. The decorated quintet, two violins, two violas and a baroque cello, arrived in Madrid in 1772 for Prince Charles’ (the future King Charles IV) Royal Chamber orchestra. During the of the War of Independence in 1814, the two violas went missing. The contralto viola was found in 1950 and is the only Stradivarius piece whose original decoration is intact. The viola is dated 1696, whilst the baroque cello was made in 1694 and the violins in 1709. It is the cello that has been modified the most, including shrinking it down to suit changing musical trends. The most recent adjustment was made in 2012 when the neck snapped. Carlos Arcieri, one of the best luthiers in the world, undertook the meticulous work of repairing the instrument back to its original splendour.

One of the most intriguing facts about this set of instruments is that they have remained a set and remained affiliated with the Spanish royal family. The finishing details are also impressive; a series of rhombuses and dots line the perimeter of the soundboard and the hoops and pegs are shaped like Renaissance scrolls, engraved with floral and animal motifs. You can delight in the quartet’s sound in special concerts that are held once a year or, in the rest of the year, delight in their beauty with a visit to the Palacio Real. In addition to the Royal Quartet, there is another Stradivari cello from the 1700s which also belonged to Charles III but is not related to the previous one. That said, this cello is one of Stradivarius’ best works.

Madrid is also home to another jewel from the Stradivari workshop: the Boissier violin made in 1713. It belonged to Pablo Sarasate, who left it in his will to the Conservatorio Superior de Música who have now owned it since 1909. The other Stradivarius, which he owned and played more often, he gave to the Conservatoire de Paris. The Boissier violin was also known by the name “red” during Sarasate’s time, probably because of the intense shade of the varnish which was used – it is named “Boissier” after the Swiss collector who owned it during part of the 19th century. It belongs to the golden age of Stradivari manufacturing and is a fine specimen because of unique varnish that was used to bring out the maple wood’s grain and due to the great condition in which it has been kept. Ana María Valderrama won the International Pablo Sarasate Violin Competition in 2011: you can watch the young violinist play this marvellous instrument in this video.

Interactive Music Museum, Malaga

This museum is a very modern museum with an aim to create new experiences for visitors. Every room has signs saying “please touch” and they encourage visitors to actively participate in the exhibition. Through the museum’s design and exhibits, visitors are invited to reflect on the meaning of sound. At the heart of the museum is passion, more specifically the passion of Miguel Ángel Piédrola Orta who at the age of four received a bandurria (a Spanish instrument similar to a mandolin) from Francisco Domínguez’s workshop in Malaga. Since then, he has continued to collect instruments, studying and discovering culture through them. He founded the museum in 1991, when he had gathered 1,000 instruments.

In a diverse collection which spans the globe, there are items from the beginning of musical history up until the recording and electronic devices we see today. There are also instruments found by archaeologists such a percussion instrument made from bone or a natural horn. There are popular and folk instruments from Western Europe (such as the mandolin, bandurria and guitar alongside the more peculiar lute and hurdy-gurdy), as well as band instruments. One jewel that can be found at the museum is an Erard harp from 1819. There are also several Erard pianos, one from the Muzio Clementi factory and some from factories based in Malaga. The remainder of the instruments on display are equally varied in character and origin; there are African instruments such as the balafon (a wooden xylophone) or the sansa (sometimes called a “thumb piano”), instruments from Asia including items which reveal the rich musical culture of India, and instruments from Oceania. From the Americas, there are panpipes, quenas (traditional Andean flute) and a charango (a Andean relative of the guitar), made from armadillo shell.

Museums in Urueña, Valladolid

The Urueña Music Museum can be found in a small village in Tierra de Campos. The collection belongs to musician and composer Luis Delgado and is housed in a specially designed building. 500 of the 1,200 instruments are on display and reveal how extraordinarily diverse musical instruments can be. Many of the instruments are still in use and are played in concerts, recordings and conferences.

The museum is divided into four categories, first, there are medieval instruments placed in the care of specialist craftsmen: these are unique works of art which are the result of in-depth study done by luthiers and musicians. There are instruments brought from abroad, followed by donated instruments and performers’ original instruments, which were donated by visitors and important figures from the musical world. Lastly, there are those originating from the 18th, 19th and 20th century which are beautifully designed and decorated.

You will also find the Joaquín Díaz Foundation in Urueña. This is a traditional music museum which also houses instruments and has sound and document archives. Completing this museum trio in this small but intriguing village is the Bell Museum, which although not an obvious must-see, has my ringing endorsement!

Translated from Spanish by Melanie Webb.