Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire: Sculptress of Sound

If you’ve ever heard the sound of Doctor Who’s space-traveling Police Box, the TARDIS, coming in for a landing, or the original Doctor Who theme, you’ve heard the work of Delia Derbyshire. Derbyshire attended Girton College, Cambridge, where she studied music and mathematics, receiving MA degrees in both. Following graduation, she hoped to work in recording, but was told by Decca, among others, that they did not hire women. After a brief stint working for the UN and then music publishers Boosey and Hawkes, Derbyshire found a position at the BBC’s new Radiophonic Workshop. Founded in order to produce music and sounds for radio dramas, the Radiophonic Workshop provided Derbyshire with the materials and equipment she needed to experiment with sound and math, electronic-only music, and music created with tape loops, repeated patterns, newly created sounds, and complex layering and texture. In her eleven years at the BBC, she produced music and sound for more than 200 programs, and her archives at the BBC contain nearly 300 tapes of music and sound ideas.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire

Among her first works include music for Oliver Twist (1963), effects for Roberto Gerhard’s Anger of Achilles radio play (1964), and work for Amor Dei, a 1964 documentary about British belief in god. She collaborated with poet Barry Bermange in composing works that accompanied his texts and stand-alone electronic pieces. Other works for the BBC included the music for Great Zoos of the World, in which she composed using only the sounds of animals, and music for the “Out of the Unknown” sci-fi series. While still working for the BBC, Derbyshire, working with others, established several institutions for the continued exploration of sound, acoustics, and electronic music, including the Kaleidophon studio and Unit Delta Plus. As a member of these groups, Derbyshire contributed to scores for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1967 production of Macbeth starring Paul Scofield, Yoko Ono’s “Wrapping Piece” (1968), and works on the album An Electric Storm (1968). Derbyshire’s way of working with sound earned her the title “sculptress of sound” from David Butler, who along with Louis Niebur has studied Derbyshire’s work extensively. Her stock of sounds included an enormous variety of materials, from her saying her own name and running it backwards or in fragments to sounds from electronic oscillators to the sounds she could make on a metal lampshade. Her own influences, she once said, ran the gamut from chant to World War II air-raid sirens. The wide variety in her works demonstrates this. Her pop-music like “Moogies Bloogies” from 1966 contains sounds reminiscent of a pipe organ and recognizable human vocals:

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In contrast, music for a 1967 episode of The World About Us called The Last Caravans focusing on Tuareg life is redolent of Arabic calls to prayer and evokes North African music, but is in fact wholly comprised of electronically captured and modified sounds, including short clips of Derbyshire speaking. According to one source, in composing this last piece—which Derbyshire referred to as “Blue Veiled Men and Golden Sands”—“Delia analysed the film of the Tuaregs in the desert, she counted the number of camels’ feet going across and she based her music on the tempo of the camels walking along and also she recorded a single voice note of her own and repitched that to do the tune over the top.”1 In other works she used Morse code (“I.E.E.100 ,” 1971), the chanting of Latin verb conjugations (“Amo Amas Amat,” 1971), bird song and the sounds of the sea (“Circle of Light, 1972), and sound based on photograph pixel data (unfinished work, 2001).

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire

After leaving the BBC in 1973, Derbyshire moved away from music production, returning to it only in the years immediately preceding her death in 2001. Despite the short span of her career, Derbyshire’s influence was widespread. She worked with other artists including Luciano Berio, Ianni Christou, Peter Maxwell Davies, Roberto Gerhard, Pink Floyd, Brian Jones, Anthony Newley, Harry Nilsson, George Martin, Paul McCartney, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Ringo Starr. Her pieces have been covered by a number of bands, such as Sonic Boom, Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers. The site delia-derbyshire.net offers an excellent chronology of Derbyshire’s work with audio and video clips, and delia-derbyshire.org offers transcripts of two rare interviews with Derbyshire and a host of other materials.


[1] Dick Mills, interviewed on the BBC radio program Woman’s Hour, aired July 25, 2008.