Only one curatorial department at the Metropolitan Museum exhibits objects originally meant to appeal as much to the ear as to the eye. It is the Department of Musical Instruments, which holds approximately five thousand examples from six continents and the Pacific Islands, dating from about 300 B.C. to the present. The collection, which is unsurpassed in its comprehensive scope, illustrates the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras. The instruments, selected for their technical and social importance as well as for their tonal and visual beauty, may be approached in a number of ways: as art objects, as ethnographic record, and as documents of the history of music and performance.
Although the greatest strength of the department lies in its encyclopedic nature, categories that are particularly well represented include European and American keyboards, wind instruments from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth century, and instruments of all sorts from non-Western societies. Fifty highlights from the department are presented online, organized by instrument type and, within types, alphabetically by the name of the country of origin. The basic instrument types, or classifications, are aerophones (which generate sound through the vibration of air), chordophones (through the vibration of strings), membranophones (through the vibration of a stretched membrane), and idiophones (which are made of naturally sonorous materials that require no additional tension to produce sound). A fifth type—electrophones, which generate sound electronically or through amplified means—is represented among the highlights by a single guitar.