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How Delia Derbyshire is responsible for one of the most important events in modern music

The most widely heard and recognizable TV theme explains the rise of electronica and synthpop in the UK

Delia Derbyshire operating tape deck at BBC

If you had to pick a piece of music that had influence for decades to come, it would be easy to highlight dozens of examples.

But what about a piece of music that was never intended to be anything other than a children's television show theme song?

Original Doctor Who intro screen capture

On the 23rd of November, 1963 the BBC premiered "Doctor Who" with one of the first theme songs produced entirely with electronics. The "Doctor Who" theme would go on to become one of the most widely heard and listened to pieces of electronic music for decades.

The theme was composed by Australian composer Ron Grainer, but it was ultimately the electronic version produced by pioneer in electronic music Delia Derbyshire that everyone heard opening and closing each episode.

Who is Delia Derbyshire?

Delia Derbyshire as a teenager

Derbyshire was born May 5th, 1937 and was by all accounts an academic and musical prodigy. Her parents bought her a piano when she was 8 and she immediately showed great promise. Even though she had a love of music, her focus in early years was mostly on academics, especially mathematics.

In 1956 Derbyshire was accepted to both Oxford and Cambridge, an incredibly rare accomplishment for a working class girl during a time when less than 10% of the students at both schools were female.

Ultimately she accepted a scholarship to study mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge and after one year switched her primary focus to music.

In 1959 she graduated with degrees in both mathematics and music, having specialized in medieval and modern music history, as well as an LRAM in pianoforte.

After graduation she was turned down by Decca Records who, at the time, wouldn't hire women for recording or engineering positions.

She went on to a variety of teaching, music, and radio related jobs before taking a position with the BBC in November 1960. By April 1962 she was assigned to the Radiophonic Workshop, where she would spend the next 11 years creating music and sounds for over 200 radio and television programs.

Derbyshire's original arrangement served as the "Doctor Who" main theme for its first seventeen series, from 1963 to 1980.

Grainer attempted to credit Derbyshire as co-composer, but was prevented by the BBC because of a policy that members of the workshop remain anonymous.

She was not credited on-screen for her work until the "Doctor Who" 50th anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor" Christmas special, which aired in 2010, featuring both Matt Smith and David Tennant as the Doctor.

When first hearing it, Grainer was so amazed by her arrangement of his theme that he asked: "Did I really write this?" to which Derbyshire replied: "Most of it."

The Radiophonic Workshop became a bastion of female music production, with women who

were denied jobs in the music industry flocking to the BBC.

Unfortunately much of their work went largely uncredited for most of their lives. The scope of the contributions made by these women have only come to light in the last 10 to 20 years.

bluedot festival at Jodrell Bank Observatory
The Radiophonic Workshop celebrated their 60th Anniversary in 2018 at the bluedot festival, held annually at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, another example of the important connection between the pioneering BBC organization and the global electronic music community.

The Impact of Derbyshire's Arrangement

Heard after school each day, the "Doctor Who" theme soaked into the collective subconscious, spurring the youth of the UK to disproportionately consume and create electronic music in the 1970s and '80s.

There is no singular list of all of the bands and artists that credit the "Doctor Who" theme in their musical journey, but some who have mentioned specifically the influence of "Doctor Who" or Delia Derbyshire include:

  • Pink Floyd

  • Paul McCartney

  • The Rolling Stones

  • David Bowie

  • Brian Eno

  • Radiohead

  • Coldplay

  • Orbital

  • Aphex Twin

  • Chemical Brothers

  • Sonic Boom

  • Fir Wave

  • Caro C

The list could probably go on forever.

Even without a complete list, it is clear that the UK had an explosion in electronic and synthpop disproportionate to the rest of the world, helping launch entire new categories of music.

The "Doctor Who" theme was heard far and wide, by generations of science fiction fans, many of whom would become musicians.

If the number of times a television theme song was heard was counted in the singles charts, "Doctor Who" would most likely be the ultimate Number 1.

Her Work Lives On

Delia Derbyshire

Derbyshire passed away in 2001 at 64 years of age.

Her impact has not gone unnoticed. An official "Delia Derbyshire Day" is celebrated annually on November 23 by bluedot.

In November 2017, she was awarded a posthumous PhD in Music from Coventry University, recognizing her lifetime of contributions to music, composition, production, and technology.

The university also launched a series of school workshops in her name to inspire new generations to pursue studies in maths and music.

For a deeper exploration of the life and work of Delia Derbyshire please look to the Delia Wiki

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