Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop


Before our class on music and recording, I wanted to blog about my favorite historical figure in the field of music. I believe many of her techniques and compositions walk a fine line between the qualities of “hardware” and “software” in music as defined by Nicolas Collins in his article “Semiconducting–Making Music After the Transistor.”

If you’ve ever heard the iconic opening theme to the British Sci-Fi series, Doctor Who, then you’ve heard the work of Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She was a pioneer in the field of electronic music both as a composer and as one of the first females working on the forefront of the synthesis of technology and music. She graduated in both Music and Mathematics, and to overcome gender-biased obstacles to make a position for herself in this field. Delia joined the Radiophonic Workshop as a trainee and eventually was assigned permanently, and remained there for eleven years.

Though electronic music has its roots in the early technological developments of the early twentieth century with the theremin and electroacoustic tape recording, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop successfully introduced electronic music and synthesized sounds to the public ear through music and sounds for television and radio programs during the late 1950s and 60s. Electronic music would only become more prevalent with the development of synthesizer technology, however, the Radiophonic Workshop used the tools and technology it had available to create sounds and compose musical scores that were literally cutting edge for their time–as cutting and reassembling tape was their primary editing tool.

Before the introduction of music-editing software, electronic music relied on humans to alter the recording to form new sounds. By manipulating, cutting, and altering recordings on magnetic tape, the studio technicians were able to achieve unnatural sounds (“bleeps and bloops” according to Collins). In this way, Delia Derbyshire would record a sound using an instrument or a simple rap on a wooden table, and transform it into a completely new musical entity that complemented the scientific and futuristic themes inherent in shows like Doctor Who. Using tools such as the “wobbulator,” a sine wave oscillator that could be frequency modulated, and hardware musical recordings such as a simple string pluck, she created a sonic landscape fit for time and space travel.

Here is a demonstration of the process by Delia herself:

This is one part of a documentary on Delia Derbyshire called “Sculptress of Sound.” Though the actual footage of the documentary has been replaced by a slideshow, you can still listen.

Delia’s legacy is not just limited to television and radio. She also composed her own scores and renditions of classical music through this process.

This is one of her compositions called “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO.” You can really hear the influence of chant-based medieval music which she studied while pursuing her Master’s

“Some people thought I had a kind of second sight. One of the music critics would say “I don’t know where it is, but it’s where the trombones come in” and I’d hold it up to the light and see the trombones and put the needle down exactly where it was. And they thought it was magic.” -Delia Derbyshire

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