Delia Derbyshire (BBC, Doctor Who) 1960s Electronic Music Pioneer and Sound Designer

Dubspot blogger Rachel Dixon investigates the life and legacy of British electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, best known for her work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s, including recording the original theme for the long-running science fiction program Doctor Who

Delia Derbyshire may not be a familiar name, but many are familiar with her work. Her most famous piece is the original TV theme for Doctor Who, for which she electronically realized the composer’s score using analog tape spools, meticulously altered and cut.

Math and music: the origins of an analytical mind

Derbyshire was born in 1937, in Coventry, England. She studied music and math at Girton College, hoping to work in a recording studio after graduating. However, when she approached Decca Records looking for a job, she was told that the studio was “no place for a woman.”

After securing a position as a trainee studio manager for the BBC, she quickly became interested in what was happening at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where a group of early sound designers huddled over tape spools, making strange noises. She asked for a transfer, and was given a three-month contract to prove herself.

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The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was founded in 1958 to create sounds for broadcast on radio and television. The workshop largely used analog reel-to-reel tapes and handmade filters to create the soundscapes that accompanied many famous BBC broadcasts. At the time, multitrack recorders did not exist, so the pieces were constructed with each track on individual tape spools. Here, her musical talent and analytical mind flourished.

Delia quickly learned the ropes, and within a few months had begun work on the theme for Doctor Who, composed by Ron Granier. By using analog filters and oscillators, and cutting and editing tape, she created something completely unique. Upon hearing her work, he asked, “Did I really write this?” Derbyshire responded, “Most of it.” Unfortunately, she was never given credit for her work, although Granier pushed for one, citing the originality of her interpretation.

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Pattern recognition

Derbyshire’s knack for finding patterns in speech and sampled sound was also useful for other projects where atmospheric sounds were needed for dramatic effect. She worked on documentaries such as Great Zoos of the World (using only animal sounds), Inventions for Radio, and Cyprian Queen. At one point she was told that her work was “too sophisticated for the BBC Two audience.”

Some of her collaborative work with dramatists and other members of the workshop showcased her love for mathematical patterns, rhythms, and loops. In the Inventions for Radio series, she manipulated Barry Bermage’s recordings of people speaking about their dreams against an electronic music background. The repetition of voices in a rhythmic pattern is well ahead of its time, and creates a mood very different from regular speech.

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In 1969, Derbyshire and fellow Workshop artist Brian Hodgson joined forces with classical bass player David Vorhaus to release the experimental pop album, An Electronic Storm, under the name White Noise. In “The Visitation,” Derbyshire’s trademark rhythmic atmospheres can be heard both in the prelude and underneath the traditional pop song that emerges.

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Noah’s Dance

Recently, a trove of Derbyshire’s forgotten work was discovered. The rhythmic track from Noah’s Dance (1963) was so modern-sounding that some suspected it was a hoax. The claim was that there was no way she could have gotten such a clean sound from the equipment available at the time, and that the music was simply too modern. The very long explanation of how the work was found is documented here in a post that says it all: Yes, Virginia, Delia Derbyshire Really Was That Awesome.

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Dubspot blogger Rachel Dixon was a Handel and Haydn Vocal Apprentice, studied at New England Conservatory, briefly sang lead vocals for the Phoenix punk band Scrimshaw, managed the guestlist at Boston nightclubs Avalon and Axis, and was on the design team for the Dance Central video game franchise. She is a published fiction writer, bedroom songwriter, and poet who lives in New York City with her dog.

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