12 Music-Themed Museums in the U.S.

Travel Lists

Destinations and traveling between them have inspired some of history’s greatest lyrics, and it’s hard to separate some cities from the musical genres that launched there. Memphis would not be the same without soul, nor would Detroit without Motown.

These 12 museums scattered around the U.S. honor and explore some of music’s greatest performers and eclectic instruments, as well as the birthplaces of several groundbreaking movements in music.

1. Seattle, Washington: EMP Museum


Photo By EMP|SFM

Originally the Experience Music Project Museum, today the EMP Museum delves beyond music into the greater genre of pop culture. Music is still one of the leading exhibit themes at this museum that calls the stunning Frank Gehry building at the base of the Space Needle home. Permanent installations include the Guitar Gallery, which traces the history of the instrument, as well as Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana exhibits. There are a number of interactive music exhibits as well, including a sound lab equipped with instruments, so you don’t have to lug your extremely heavy air guitar across the country to get in a little jam session.

2. Memphis, Tennessee: Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Photo by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. & the MGs and Isaac Hayes were just a few of the big names to get their big break after recording at Stax Records in Memphis, helping to launch Memphis Soul. The artists who recorded at this studio throughout its history are remembered through more than 2,000 artifacts at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music . Don’t miss the Hall of Records where 912 singles and 292 full-length albums on display.

3. Los Angeles, California: Punk Rock Museum
L.A. might not be the birthplace of punk, but it had (and continues to have) its fair share of acts contributing to the genre. The Punk Rock Museum , located in the KGB Studios in downtown L.A., honors Los Angeles’ punk scene and beyond through art and live performances.

4. Phoenix, Arizona: Musical Instrument Museum

Photo by Charvex

Housing more than 15,000 musical instruments from countries around the world, the aptly named Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix spotlights instruments, as well as the musical genres they contribute to. The Artist Gallery features memorabilia, images and concert footage of musicians from Johnny Cash to John Lennon. You can also try your hand at a variety of instruments in the interactive Experience Gallery.

5. Beaufort, South Carolina: Kazoo Museum

Photo by the Kazoo Museum

Yes, it’s true. There is a whole museum dedicated to the kazoo. It’s located in Beaufort, South Carolina in the Kazoobie Kazoos Factory, one of the largest kazoo distributors in the world. The Kazoo Museum features a collection of nearly 200 kazoos and kazoo-related items. Tours of the Kazoo Factory are also available.

6. Cleveland, Ohio: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Photo by Derek Jensen

Whether you are a music junkie or not, you know about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Located in Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been inducting artists since 1983, but it didn’t open the doors of its museum for another decade. The history of rock and roll is preserved and honored throughout the museum’s seven floors of exhibits and four theaters. Don’t miss the Cities and Sounds exhibit that explores the geography and history of rock and roll, from Memphis to London.

7. Detroit, Michigan: Motown Museum

Photo by Hanhil

At Detroit’s Motown Museum you can tour Hitsville U.S.A., the original studio and headquarters of Motown Records. It’s there that musicians like the Supremes and the Temptations hit record on some of their most famous songs. While no longer a functioning studio, photographs and memorabilia pay tribute not just to the record company that once occupied the space, but also to the birthplace of the “Motown Sound” and the artists that contributed to it.

8. Kansas City, Missouri: American Jazz Museum

Photo by American Jazz Museum

The interactive exhibits at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City serve to preserve and spotlight the history of jazz and its greatest performers. Besides the operational jazz club at the museum, one of the most impressive features is Kansas City-native Charlie Parker’s Grafton saxophone on display.

9. St. Louis, Missouri: National Blues Museum
While Kansas City has its jazz, on the other side of the state you can find the blues. The forthcoming (summer 2015) National Blues Museum, located in St. Louis, will “celebrate the genre as the foundation of all modern American music” through artifacts on display, a theater and the promise of public programming.

10. Vermillion, South Dakota: The National Music Museum

Photo by Vermillion SD

Vermillion, South Dakota is probably not on your list of musically-relevant locations, but with the National Music Museum (NMM) and its displays of 13,500 instruments from around the world calling the city home, it probably should be. This massive ode to musical instruments opened in 1976 on the campus of the University of South Dakota where it remains today.

11. New York City, New York: National Jazz Museum
The National Jazz Museum’s mission is to “preserve, promote and present jazz by inspiring knowledge, appreciation and celebration of jazz locally, nationally and internationally.” With an emphasis on the history of jazz in Harlem, the museum honors some of New York’s most esteemed jazz icons from Billie Holiday to Fats Waller.

12. Memphis, Tennessee: Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum

Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki

Located on Beale Street, Memphis’ main tourist thoroughfare, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum chronicles the city’s rich musical history and “offers a comprehensive Memphis music experience from the rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the 1930s, through the explosion of Sun, Stax and Hi Records and Memphis’ musical heyday in the 70s, to its global musical influence.” Hundreds of songs, 40 costumes and 30 instruments fill the museums’ seven galleries and help tell the history of soul music in Memphis.

Chicago-based journalist Lauren Kilberg is a frequent Paste contributor.

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