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Electronic Music History Essay

Delia Derbyshire became a sound specialist in the 1960s at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. (Shown here: Dick Mills adjusts one of the Workshop's machines). Chris Ware/Getty Images hide caption

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Chris Ware/Getty Images

Delia Derbyshire became a sound specialist in the 1960s at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. (Shown here: Dick Mills adjusts one of the Workshop's machines).

Chris Ware/Getty Images

This essay is one in a series celebrating women whose major contributions in recording occurred before the time frame of NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.

Of the forgotten and underappreciated pioneers of electronic music, no one deserves to be championed like Delia Derbyshire, who, in her decades of experimentation, altered the very fabric in which electronic music is understood. Misogyny runs rampant in the way musical history is presented, and it's often most prevalent in conversations about music with a relationship to science or technology — and the stigma about women and STEM persists today. But Derbyshire did not allow herself to be limited by prevailing expectations of her (or any) era; she became a founder of musique concrète and one of the most important voices in electronic music. Experimental recording owes much to this woman who refused rejection.

Derbyshire was born in Coventry, England in 1937. In her youth, she quickly showcased an undeniable intellect and understanding of the congruency between math and music. She studied at Girton College in Cambridge and, after graduating, applied for a recording position at Decca Records. She was immediately denied: According to the 2010 BBC documentary about her life, Sculptress of Sound: The Lost Works of Delia Derbyshire, she was told by a representative that "the studio was no place for a woman."

All that changed in 1960 when she went to work at the BBC as a studio manager. She soon became enamored of the Radiophonic Workshop, a division of the media conglomerate dedicated to electronic experimentation. The invention of tape recording in the 1950s allowed sounds to be manipulated in entirely new ways; in a time when radio dramas ruled popular entertainment, the Workshop was a creative — and coveted — place of employment. In 1962, Derbyshire was assigned a position at the workshop, where she'd work for over a decade, becoming a sound specialist and a leading voice in musical counterculture: The weirder her soundscapes became, the more wondrous they felt. She created music for the world's first fashion show with an electronic soundtrack (and considering the commonality of techno/dance music on the runway, she left a legacy in that field, too). She organized robotic noise in a way that felt truly alien, shocking sounds whole decades ahead of this music's time.

For Derbyshire, the technology used to doctor ambient, instrumental or found natural sounds using magnetic tape appealed to her most experimental impulses. She soundtracked countless radio programs prior to the mid-1960s, when her focus shifted to television shows. In 1963, she created an electronic theme for the Doctor Who series, which was a breakthrough both for the program and for her career. Using feedback and bits of tape to give the listener a realistic feeling of traveling through space, Derbyshire laid a foundation in which the fantastical world of Doctor Who could come to life. It was one of the very first TV themes to be entirely composed of electronic sounds, giving the series its inherent eeriness. Legend has it that when Rob Grainer — whose composition Derbyshire worked from to create the theme — first heard Derbyshire's recording, he was so shocked he asked her, "Did I really write this?" to which she replied, "Most of it." Her arrangement would be used until the 1980s, and its influence on television composition and science fiction recordings would live on in future synthesized ventures — it's hard to think the iconic pluckiness of the Knight Rider theme or the joyful percussion of Miami Vice would have existed without Derbyshire's initial endeavoring.


Many of the women featured in NPR's massive Turning the Tables undertaking are singers, history-altering figures who used their voices to inspire change. Derbyshire's offering is removed from that style of creation, yet just as physical — all of her organized soundscapes were handmade. In the mid-to-late 70s, she left music with the introduction of the synthesizer; even though her music was robotic, it felt human, and the synth removed a certain level of connectivity at the heart of her tracks. To make the sounds Derbyshire desired, she would quite literally cut tape and stick them back together in a new, inventive order. It's why her tracks, from before and after Doctor Who and everywhere else, inspired a resonance far beyond her contemporaries. When Derbyshire passed away on July 3, 2001, she left behind an enduring legacy. Electronic music as it is now known and used would not exist without Derbyshire and her spirit of human, sonic manipulation.

Correction Nov. 2, 2017

A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the title of the TV show for which Derbyshire created the theme; it is Doctor Who, not Dr. Who.

(By James T) Electronic music first became widely popular in the mid-1970s, but experiments with electronic musical instruments began as early as the turn of the 20th century. The Beatles used synthesizers and keyboards, and the Moog synthesizer became an iconic instrument when Pink Floyd used it. The theremin is a widely popular electronic device that was being used by composers, especially in the film industry. The Moog synthesizer which first introduced in the mid-1960s considers as the first major electronic music instrument. Early developments took place in Europe, from where they reached the United States. At the same time, the Japanese also contributed in a big way to the development of electronic music. But the history and origin of electronic music cannot be restricted to just a few instruments, continents or eras.

Early 20th Century

Experiments associated with electronic musical instruments began as early as the 20th century. The earliest of inventions were not commercial units, and they were part of public demonstrations and performances. People couldn’t’ purchase the system. Most of the creations were reproductions of already existing music, and the instruments were hardly any new compositions. Many of these tools were limited to producing fundamental tones. Then there was the Telharmonium that was highly accurate in synthesizing music of orchestral instruments.  It did find some commercial success as it became popular for streaming music across telephone networks.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) had predicted and encouraged that microtonal music will be composed with electronic instruments. His prediction in the Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music about the use of machines for creating music in the future is considered a major prediction in the history of electronic music. In fact, Luigi Russolo and Francesco Balilla Pratella even began composition of music by using acoustic noise. It was to create the sound of machinery.

The 1940s – 1950s

The audio tape recorder may have developed some time ago, but a practical option first produced and released in 1935. It led to the introduction of the electro acoustic tape music era. This tape recorder improved with the AC biasing technique that enhanced the recording fidelity.

Stereo recordings began taking place in 1942. Most of these early developments took place in Germany. It was not until the need of the WWII that tapes and recorders made their way to the United States. This technology transfer from Germany helped in creating the first commercial tape recorder in 1948.

Most Famous Electronic Music Studio in the World

The foundation of the world’s most famous electronic music studio laid at the NWDR radio studios, Cologne in 1953. Compositions began to created as early as 1951. Werner Meyer-Eppler was one of the founders. In 1949, he came up with the idea of synthesizing music entirely from electronically generated signals. The music produced by the studio was known as Elektronische Musik, and it was quite different from French musique concrete that made use of sound recordings from acoustical sources.

Electronic Music Creation in Japan

While developments in electronic music were taking place in Europe and America, significant strides also made in Japan. The Japanese built the first electronic music instrument like the Yamaha Magna Organ in 1935. Experiments in electronic music composition took place in the late 1940s, after the end of the WWII. The Japanese infused Asian music into the development, and it played an instrumental role in helping them emerge at the forefront of music technology down the decades.

Electronic Music Development in America

In the United States, electronic music production began in 1939. John Cage gets the credit for publishing Imaginary Landscape, No.1. He created the music using cymbal, muted piano, frequency recordings and two variable-speed turntables. There was no actual electronic element for the music production. He added five more compositions to the series from 1942 to 1952. In 1954, he performed a Williams Mix at Donaueschingen Festival with eight loudspeakers and was believed to be a grand success.
Electronic Music & Computers
CSIRAC is the first computer used for playing music. 1951, it was first utilized in a public demonstration to play music. Computer music was first demonstrated at a large-scale level when pre-recorded radio broadcast on NBC television in February 1962. In 1961, LaFarr Stuart played existing tunes using CYCLONE computer using an amplified speaker at the Iowa State University.

Popular Electronic Music

Electronic instruments began finding widespread use in the 1960s. Rock and pop musicians started using the Mellotron and theremin for enhancing their music. The Moog synthesizer became a primary instrument in the late 1960s in progressive rock production. Some of the bands that used it included Pink Floyd, Genesis, Emerson, Yes and Lake & Palmer. The use of instrumental prog rock in continental Europe helped many groups in getting around the language restrictions. The krautrock made a significant impact on later electronic rock music. All these developments in electronic music contributed to creating the sophisticated music technologies which are available today.

Produced by James T., a freelance academic expert from online essay writing service CustomWritings.com.

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