Studio Bell Calgary – Canada’s National Music Centre

Canada’s National Music Centre was built to celebrate Canadian music in all it’s forms. In the five floors of Calgary’s Studio Bell, you’ll find a huge collection of musical instruments, artifacts, music memorabilia, and three Canadian music halls of fame. You’ll also find hands-on activities where you can learn to play and record live music. It’s easy to spend several hours exploring. We recommend you start at the top floor and work your way down. Here are some highlights.

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Related: If you’re planning to visit Calgary during the Calgary Stampede, check out our post This Ain’t my First Rodeo, but it Might be Yours.

An image of Geddy Lee's Beautiful Bass Guitar Exhibit at Studio Bell in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Studio Bell has temporary exhibits like this one featuring Geddy Lee’s big beautiful bass guitar collection. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

What is Studio Bell Calgary?

Calgary’s Studio Bell is the first national museum dedicated to celebrating the vast array of music in Canada. Even the 160,000-square-foot building looks like a musical instrument. Designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, the building is built to resemble the style of a musical instrument using nine curved interlocking towers. It’s unique and beautiful.

An image of a quote by Geddy Lee about his bass guitar collection.
Canadian bass icon, Geddy Lee likes a guitar with a bit of history. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Bass Exhibit

We recommend you start at top floor of Studio Bell Calgary and work your way down. The first thing we noticed when we stepped off the elevator was Geddy Lee’s bass guitar collection. The exhibit runs until January 2, 2020 and it’s fascinating. Geddy Lee is best known as the lead vocalist, bassist, and keyboardist for the Canadian rock group Rush. The collection on display includes rare vintage basses and significant guitars from Lee’s 40-year career. It’s an impressive collection from one of the world’s top bass guitarists.

An image of the Idols and Icons Gallery at Studio Bell in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Exploring the memorabilia of the Idols and Icons of music was fascinating. Photo by Debbie Olsen

Studio Bell – Start at the Top

Okay, I’m just going to be blunt – KD Lang has worn some terrible outfits over the years. She even had a dress with plastic Dollar Store livestock sewn onto the yoke. I suppose that’s what she had to do to be successful when she first started out. Today, she wears whatever she likes – often a masculine suit. You’ve come a long way, baby! And we’ve come a long way as a society. We made a lot of fascinating discoveries while exploring the Idols and Icons exhibit and the Canadian Music Halls of Fame on the fifth floor of Studio Bell in Calgary. The instruments and artifacts were interesting and we also enjoyed learning the stories of Canadian songwriters and musicians.

An image of the oldest item in the National Music Centre collection, a 1560 Italian Virginal.
The oldest item in the National Music Centre collection is a 1560 Italian Virginal. Similar to a harpsichord, the instrument is fully functional. Photo by Debbie Olsen.
An image of Elton John's songwriting piano at Studio Bell in Calgary.
Elton John’s songwriting piano is another highlight of the National Music Centre’s collection. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

Studio Bell’s Most Treasured Items

The instrument collection at Calgary’s Studio Bell is impressive. There’s a rare 16th century Trasuntino Harpsichord and Elton John’s original songwriting piano. I enjoyed trying my hand a playing a theremin, an unusual musical instrument that you don’t actually physically touch to play. You move your hands between two antennas to elicit sound. Other unique items include TONTO, which is considered to be the “holy grail” of synthesizers and an extremely rare Hammond Novachord. There are only six functioning Novachords left in the world.

An image of a man in the bodyphonic exhibit at Studio Bell in Calgary, Alberta.
You gotta move your body to make music at the Bodyphonic exhibit at Calgary’s Studio Bell. Photo by Debbie Olsen.
An image of a woman playing a bass guitar at Studio Bell in Calgary, Alberta Canada.
Who doesn’t want to pretend they’re a rock star? Photo by Greg Olsen.

Making Music at Studio Bell Calgary

Studio Bell is very hands on and interactive. There are stationary displays of rare musical instruments, but there are also many instruments you can play. The Soundbox on the fourth floor is especially fun for kids. They can build and play with musical instruments. (And adults can too.) We had fun playing drum sets, guitars, synthesizers, pianos and other instruments. Who doesn’t like pretending they’re a rock star? There are tutorials and headphones, so you could actually learn to play properly. On the third floor, there are vocal recording booths where you can practice singing.

An image of a man playing the theremin at Studio Bell in Calgary, Alberta.
In case you can’t tell by his face, Greg thought the music he made on the theremin sounded like a stomach gurgle. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

The Power of Music

Music is powerful. Canada’s National Music Centre delves into the science behind music and how it stimulates human beings. It also looks at how music brings people together and how music has influenced Canada and the world. At the museum, you can listen to different styles of music and see how it makes you feel.

An image of a woman wearing headphones and playing a drum set.
I’ve always wanted to try playing the drums! Photo by Greg Olsen.

The Mosaic of Music in Canada

You can learn a great deal about the history of music in Canada at Studio Bell in Calgary. We learned things about industry pioneers and trailblazers who shaped the music scene in North America. We also learned more about Canadian icons. Canada is proudly home to Celine Dion, Diana Krall, Gordon Lightfoot, Bryan Adams, KD Lang, Justin Bieber, Shania Twain, Corey Hart, Avril Levigne, Shawn Mendes, Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young – to name a few. Famous bands include The Guess Who, Rush, The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and more. Canadian music is something to be proud of.

An image of a computer screen that says "you're a rising star" at Studio Bell in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Guess who? One of us was a rising star in the recording sound booth. (It might be the person who took this photo…) Photo by Debbie Olsen.

The Perfect T-shirt

This music pareidolia T-shirt would be a good fashion choice for a day at Studio Bell in Calgary. If you’re not sure what pareidolia is and you want to see if you have it, Take the Iceberg Pareidolia Test.

An image of a woman taking a selfie at the Corey Hart exhibit at National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
When an artist is inducted into the music hall of fame, they put up a temporary exhibit about that artist. We got to wear 3-D Glasses at the Corey Hart exhibit. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

The King Eddy and the National Music Centre

The King Edward Hotel was Calgary’s second oldest hotel and the longest operating bar and hotel when it closed in 2004. In 2008, the National Music Centre (Studio Bell) acquired the Eddy and restored it in collaboration with Calgary Municipal Land Corporation. On July 2018, the King Eddy reopened as a restaurant, bar and music venue. Pop in and check it out. There’s often live music playing. The building also houses CKUA Radio Calgary, the Rolling Stone Mobile Studio and other National Music Centre facilities. You should also check out the nearby Calgary Central Library – another architectural gem.

An image of a dress worn by KD Lang as seen at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Not the best picture with all the reflection, but check out this dress worn by KD Lang. There are plastic Dollar Store farm animals sewn onto the yoke.

Studio Bell Calgary – Backstage Pass

The National Music Centre also has state-of-the-art professional recording facilities. On Sunday afternoons, you can book a Backstage Pass Tour of the working spaces in the facility. This unique behind-the-scenes tour lets you check out three world-class recording facilities that house historic consoles—including the Olympic Studios console, Trident A-Range console, and the legendary Rolling Stones Mobile Studio.

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