Delia Derbyshire and the Acceptance of Musical Modernism

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How Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop introduced avant-garde electronic music to mainstream British society in the 1960s.

One of the biggest challenges to appreciating avant-garde culture is accessibility. Often, the art, music, film, or literature is so different from the accepted mainstream that when it stands on its own, most people find it impossible to understand and pointless to try.

But in the 1960s, some avant-garde artists started to find ways to attach innovative and progressive art to the mainstream. One such example was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which used electronic sounds to create the futuristic soundscapes and themes that punctuated and complemented BBC radio broadcasts of the era. As Frances Morgan points out in the September 2013 issue of Sight & Sound, this helped experimental musicians bypass the critics and directly introduce their forward-thinking music to millions of British radio listeners. As part of the shared cultural experience of listening to the radio, music that was at first considered radical became familiar and eventually even nostalgic for those who grew up with it. 

One of the most notable of the BBC technicians was Delia Derbyshire, who worked in the Workshop from 1960 to 1973. While she compiled more than 260 reel-to-reel tapes of electronic sound compositions over that time, she’s most known for applying her Radiophonic magic to the original theme of the legendary British science-fiction TV show Doctor Who (1963):

After listening to that theme, it’s easy to see why Derbyshire is considered one of the pioneers of modern electronic music, though she lamented the invention of the synthesizer and always preferred the hands-on, analog process of making electronic music through the Workshop. As a woman working in a traditionally male profession, her story is fascinating, and her approach to making music continues to inspire and inform contemporary electronic music composition. For those interested in learning more about Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this hour-long BBC documentary from 2010 is a great place to start:

Photo courtesy Ethan Hein, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at

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