Music and Sound

Women who changed the World with Sound: a brief look at experimental composers of the 20th century

Oksana Rudko06/03/24 00:03811

Women’s fundamental breakthroughs in the 20th-century sound industry were facilitated not only by technological advances that equalized access to electronic equipment between the sexes.

Their visibility in the field of recording, oddly enough, was also facilitated by the Second World War, which freed up jobs in areas where ladies had previously been neglected.

Thus, the visionaries of new technologies and historic changes in twentieth-century sound design and music were undoubtedly also the women who broke the academic mold.

Eliane Radigue in her studio, Paris, ca. 1970s. Photo: Yves Arman.
Eliane Radigue in her studio, Paris, ca. 1970s. Photo: Yves Arman.

In this article, I will look at the most prominent heroines of the sound industry from different backgrounds, who left an impressive legacy in the form of experimental music, legendary soundtracks, new computer programs, and other incredible devices for creating sounds.

If you would like to expand this selection with names of women from the industry known to you, write in the comments.

Table of contents
  • 1. Elsa Maria Pade
  • 2. Daphne Oram
  • 3. Bebe Barron
  • 4. Sofia Gubaidulina
  • 5. Pauline Oliveros
  • 6. Eliane Radigue
  • 7. Delia Derbyshire
  • 8. Laurie Spiegel
  • Conclusion

1. Elsa Maria Pade

The first Danish composer of electronic and concrete music is considered to be Elsa Maria Pade (1924-2016), a graduate of the Royal Conservatory who was fascinated by the ideas of the Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer.

It was she who opened the first electronic sound research laboratory in Denmark. Moreover, Elsa did this several years earlier than the launch of the historically more famous BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the world.

Being not only a researcher but also an avant-garde composer, in her compositions Pade combined electronics with sound collages characteristic of concrete music. Her debut work in this sense was her soundtrack to the film “A Day in the Bakken”.

Recognition of Pade’s merits in the sound industry was facilitated by the publication of her works on CD in the 2000s. Around the same time, the subversive biography of Elsa Maria, a World War II resistance activist and former prisoner of the Gestapo, first hit the screens in the form of the documentary Lyd på Liv (2006).

2. Daphne Oram

Daphne Oram (1925 -2003) preferred the experimental creation of music from electronic sounds and field recordings to the prospect of becoming a classical composer.

Following her passion for soundscapes and engineering, Daphne managed to get into BBC radio in the early 40s. A shortage of personnel explained the appearance of women on the radio — most British men participated in the Second World War, and there was simply no one to work except women.

At the BBC, Daphne experimented extensively with sound generators — the predecessors of synthesizers, and field recordings. The result of her work was usually sound design for radio shows and entertainment programs.

In parallel, during non-working hours, Daphne was engaged in independent sound research and created musical compositions that were unique for her time using affordable audio devices created almost from scratch. As a result, Daphne has gone down in sound history as a pioneer of British electronic music.

She was also one of the founders of the now-legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The laboratory was the only studio in the UK at that time completely focused on sound design tasks.

In the late 50s, Daphne opened her laboratory Oramics, where in the early 60s she developed a unique synthesizer of the same name, which converts images from film into sounds. Later, based on her developments, an application was even released for Apple technology, in which music can be written directly on the tablet using finger drawings.

3. Bebe Barron

The Barron family is often credited with pioneering independent electronic music in the United States. The world’s first movie with an all-electronic soundtrack was Forbidden Planet 1956, the music for which was composed by Bebe Barron (1925-2008), in collaboration with her husband Louis Barron.

The American duo made history by innovating the use of magnetic tapes and homemade electronic circuits in sound production. Barron’s technique of superimposing processed sounds from different tape recorders is still used today to create multi-tracking.

Being a true visionary of electronics, Bebe with her husband founded one of the first independent electronic studios in the States back in 1949. Many experimental composers, including John Cage, subsequently recorded their music there.

4. Sofia Gubaidulina

While in the USA electronic experiments were actively seeping into the sound design of movies, in the USSR alternative composers worked on film soundtracks as a compromise to somehow make a living.

One of these composers was Sofia Gubaidulina (1931). Perhaps the only woman who was involved in the “electronic turn” in the music industry in the USSR.

Like the previous heroines, Sofia has a serious academic background — the Kazan Conservatory, graduate school in Moscow in composition, and a sudden crush from a predictable classical career to creating experimental music.

Despite Sofia Gubaidulina saying her passion for electronics in her career was fleeting and associated with the period of work in the late 60s at the Moscow Electronic Music Studio, the play "Vivente — Non-Vivente" recorded at that time on the Soviet ANS synthesizer, entered the history of the electronic music.

Thanks to this work, Gubaidulina became one of the first composers of electronic music in the USSR. Unaccepted by Soviet party composers, Sofia’s music in 1979 was subject to great criticism from soviet party composers, which is why her works were banned and blacklisted in the USSR.

Gubaidulina survived by creating music for films. Among the most famous are the soundtracks for the Soviet cartoon “Mowgli”, and the films “Scarecrow” and “Vertical”.

In 1992, Sofia Gubaidulina moved to live in Germany. Her only electronic piece, “Vivente — Non-Vivente,” recorded in Moscow in 1970, was published in Russia only 20 years later.

5. Pauline Oliveros

In parallel with the revolution in sound recording and the emergence of electronic music in Europe, an active transformation of the sound industry also took place in different regions of the United States. Perhaps the most famous experimentalist, theorist, and fighter against the gender gap in music production was the American Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016).

A classically trained accordionist and composer, Pauline became interested in studying recording and electronics in the 1950s. In the 60s, her passion was already tape experimentation and sound processing. Thanks to this, the Tape Music Center even appeared in San Francisco, one of the founders of which was Oliveros. It was there that the legendary Buchla synthesizer was subsequently created.

Pauline has dedicated her academic and composing career to exploring the relationship between sound, space, and consciousness, and coined the term and practice of “Deep Listening.” I mentioned this book earlier in Books About Sound: A Brief Review of 15 Books from Iconic Authors in the Field of Sound Studies.

Her passion for Eastern philosophy and meditation was actively integrated into sound research and practical guides, which still remain relevant for anyone interested in sound.

6. Eliane Radigue

A significant influence on the future generation of electronic musicians was the French composer Eliane Radigue (1932), a student of Pierre Schaeffer, who began her journey in the field of electroacoustics in the 50s.

Her research and compositions focused around feedback techniques, tape loops, and modular synthesizers. Elian’s first synthesizer music, created on Buchla in a studio in New York, was released in 1970.

In her work using analog synthesizers and magnetic tape, Radigue sought to capture the gradual "unpacking" of sound, close in mood to the minimalism of New York composers of the time.

Known for her devotion to analog technology, Eliane Radigue created her unique music until 2000 using magnetic tape and the ARP 2500 modular synthesizer.

Radigue’s last electronic work was recorded in Paris in 2000. Since 2004, Elian has worked exclusively with acoustic instruments.

7. Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) entered the history of the sound industry primarily as the author of the most recognizable electronic hit, recorded for the TV series Doctor Who. A mathematician and pianist by training, Delia has been fascinated by the nature of sound production since her time at Cambridge.

Like Daphne Oram, she began her career in BBC radio. At first, she worked as a journalist and music reviewer, and then as a sound designer at the Radiophonic Workshop, the main music laboratory in the world at that time. There she wrote film soundtracks, jingles for radio programs, sound effects for theater productions, and experimented with her works.

Delia’s innovation lay in her approach to creating electronic music, namely, combining the first synthesizers with concrete music. In addition to recording her electronic compositions, Derbyshire gave rare concerts. In the mid-60s she even created the Delta Plus studio with Peter Zinoviev in order to popularize electronic music.

8. Laurie Spiegel

Like Eliane Radig, American Laurie Spiegel (1945) was a big fan of the sound of analog synthesizers. In the late 60s in New York, Spiegel even shared a workshop with Eliane Radig, where they created their first music on a Buchla synthesizer.

Spiegel made sound industry history by creating innovative software for musicians, algorithmic composition, and computer music.

Laurie was known to have studied programming on the giant computers, working at Bell Laboratories since 1973.

In 1985, Laurie developed Music Mouse, an application program that turned the Mac into a musical instrument and made it available to the masses.

Spiegel’s landmark compositional work was a piece called Harmonices Mundi, consisting of data translated into sound about the motion of the planets from the work of astronomer Kepler. It was this composition that became the opening piece on the Golden Record disk sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.

The piece was officially released for public listeners 35 years later. The track was included on the two-disc reissue of Spiegel’s debut album, The Expanding Universe.


In this review, I talked about outstanding women of the 20th century in the fields of sound engineering, sound art, and electronic music. Their pioneering spirit, persistence, and artistic vision significantly expanded the boundaries of sound exploration and left a rich legacy.

Fortunately, we can find their experimental music and legendary film soundtracks today on the Internet.

Analog recordings on CDs, records, or magnetic tapes are much more difficult to find.

If you managed to listen to them somewhere, share your impressions in the comments.

Author Oksana Rudko



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