Daphne Oram: the dawn of music humans can’t play

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Music notes over paint brush patterns
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

What links James Bond, a classic 1950s radio comedy series and a machine for creating music by drawing? … Electronic music pioneer: Daphne Oram.

Oram was one of the earliest musicians to experiment with electronic music, and was the first woman to create an electronic instrument. She realised that the advent of electronic music meant composers no longer had to worry about whether anyone could actual physically perform the music they composed. If you could write it down in a machine readable way then machines could play it electronically. That idea opened up whole new sounds and forms of music and is an idea that pop stars and music producers still make use of today.

She learnt to play music as a child and was good enough to be offered a place at the Royal College of Music, though turned it down. She also played with radio electronics with her brothers, creating radio gadgets and broadcasting music from one room to another. Combining music with electronics became her passion and she joined the BBC as a sound engineer. This was during World War 2 and her job included being the person ready during a live music broadcast to swap in a recording at just the right point if, for example, there was an air raid that meant the performance had to be abandoned. The show, after all, had to go on.

Composing electronic music

She went on to take this idea of combining an electronic recording with live performance further and composed a novel piece of music called Still Point that fully combined orchestral with electronic music in a completely novel way. The BBC turned down the idea of broadcasting it, however, so it was not played for 70 years until it was rediscovered after her death, ultimately being played at a BBC Prom.

Composers no longer had to worry
about whether anyone could actually
physically perform the music they composed

She started instead to compose electronic music and sounds for radio shows for the BBC which is where the comedy series link came in. She created sound effects for a sketch for the Goon Show (the show which made the names of comics including Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers). She constantly played with new techniques. Years later it became standard for pop musicians to mess with tapes of music to get interesting effects, speeding them up and down, rerecording fragments, creating loops, running tapes backwards, and so on. These kinds of effects were part of amazing sounds of the Beatles, for example. Oram was one of the first to experiment with these kinds of effects and use them in her compositions – long before pop star producers.

One of the most influential things she did was set up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which went on to revolutionise the way sound effects and scores for films and shows were created. Oram though left the BBC shortly after it was founded, leaving the way open for other BBC pioneers like Delia Derbyshire. Oram felt she wasn’t getting credit for her work, and couldn’t push forward with some of her ideas. Instead Oram set herself up as an independent composer, creating effects for films and theatre. One of her contracts involved creating electronic music that was used on the soundtracks of the early Bond films starring Sean Connery – so Shirley Bassey is not the only woman to contribute to the Bond sound!

The Music Machine

While her film work brought in the money, she continued with her real passion which was to create a completely new and highly versatile way to create music…by drawing. She built a machine – the Oramics Machine – that read a composition drawn onto film reels. It fulfilled her idea of having a machine that could play anything she could compose (and fulfilled a thought she had as a child when she wondered how you could play the notes that fell between the keys on a piano!).

Image by unknown photographer from wikimedia.

The 35mm film that was the basis of her system that dates all the way back to the 19th century when George Eastman, Thomas Edison and Kennedy Dixon pioneered the invention film based photography and then movies. It involved a light sensitive layer being painted on strips of film with holes down the side that allowed the film to be advanced. This gave Oram a recording media. She could etch or paint subtle shapes and patterns on to the film. In a movie light was shone through the film, projecting the pictures on the film on to the screen. Oram instead used light sensors to detect the patterns on the film and convert it to electronic signals. Electronic circuitry she designed (and was awarded patents for) controlled cathode ray tubes that showed the original drawn patterns but now as electrical signals. Ultimately these electrical signals drove speakers. Key to the flexibility of the system was that different aspects of the music were controlled by patterns on different films. One for example controlled the frequency of the sound, others the timbre or tone quality and others the volume. These different control signals for the music were then combined by Oram’s circuitry. The result of combining the fine control of the drawings with the multiple tapes meant she had created a music machine far more flexible in the sound it could produce than any traditional instrument or orchestra. Modern music production facilities use very similar approaches today though based on software systems rather than the 1960s technology available to Oram.

Ultimately, Daphne Oram was ahead of her time as a result of combining her two childhood fascinations of music and electronics in a way that had not been done before. She may not be as famous as the great record producers who followed her, but they owe a lot to her ideas and innovation.

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1. 

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