Utrecht & The Museum of Musical Instruments


Utrecht is bang in the middle of the Netherlands. It is the heart of the railway network and is a town that seems to be fighting to become a city and a city that is fighting to stay a town, all at the same time.

The railway station at Utrecht is huge, which is not surprising since it is connected to almost every part of the Netherlands. It is made larger by the shopping complex that forms part of the station complex. The mall is huge and has all kinds of shops. If you have the time, it is easy to spend an entire day at the mall and not realize where the time has gone. Unfortunately, we did not have the time and so couldn’t window-shop much.

On Saturdays Utrecht has its city market. The market starts outside the station complex and is quite large. It is a nice place to pick up souvenirs and other bargains.

Utrecht has one of the oldest churches in the Netherlands. Its high tower serves as a great reference point from anywhere in the city. Apart from this it has a profusion of museums. We visited only the Museum of Musical Instruments.

The museum takes you through the development of musical instruments in Europe through the ages. What struck me most was the use of the punched card in these instruments long before computers were even dreamt of.

Take the Steinway piano on display. A motor creates a vacuum inside the instrument. The cylinder with 88 holes is connected to each key on the keyboard. The music is “recorded” on a piece of paper. This is done by punching a hole at a paper which runs over the cylinder. When a hole on the paper matches a hole on the cylinder, the vacuum is lost and the key plays. The piano is built in such a manner that the key on the keyboard also depresses. It is amazing to watch the “Ghost Piano” play itself.

This concept is used in a lot of musical instruments and clocks on display in the museum.

Apart from the pianos that adorned the homes of the rich nobles and kings of yesteryears, the museum also had a lot of musical clocks. Especially interesting were a set of clocks that the King of England would present to visiting kings and queens. Apart from just a clock, their would have moving scenery, accompanied by music.

On clock was particularly memorable. The clock face was on the bottom of the entire structure. The top two-thirds of the structure had a tree with some birds on it, under the tree were some rocks. When the clock struck the hours, the birds would flit from branch to branch and a waterfall would start up.

The tour ended with a look at the very first “radios”. These would be found only in the homes of the fabulously rich. Instead of being punched on paper, the music would be punched on cards. Yes, punched cards. These would be run through a reader which would play the music. Larger versions of these would be put on wheels so that they would be dragged through the city streets with the music playing. The FM was born. These monstrous “radios” were also setup in bars and dance halls of Europe.

The tour of the museum lasts an hour. There is a guide tour and the guide informs in both languages, Dutch and English.

Utrecht deserves a day. If you are visiting the Netherlands I would suggest you put aside a whole day, preferably a Saturday so you can get the market too, for Utrecht and its many museums.

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