The big picture

  • The Doctor Who The theme, composed by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire, remains one of the most unique pieces in television history and introduced the world to the sounds of electronic music.
  • Derbyshire used creative techniques such as filtered white noise and merging individual notes to bring Grainer’s vision to life without the use of synthesizers or stereo equipment.
  • Despite her groundbreaking work, Derbyshire was never given due recognition for her role in creating the icon Doctor Who issue and faced sexism in the record industry throughout her career.

A strange beat, an unsettling whistle, the sound of the TARDIS appearing and disappearing in the background… This Doctor Who The theme is easily one of the most unique tunes in the history of television. Some would even say it’s one of the most unique in music history. Originally composed by an Australian musician Ron Grainer (And Delia Derbyshire, but we’ll get to that), the theme has remained largely the same since the first episode of the classic BBC science fiction series was broadcast in 1963, although later composers working on the series made some changes. One of the first electronic television topics ever, that Doctor Who Intro – originally simply “Dr. Who” – has a wild story behind it. In a time when ordinary synthesizers were still far from mainstream, the song was composed using practical techniques ranging from recording jugs of water to simply pressing play on tapes at the same time to make them a cohesive piece close. The result was a distinctive melody that essentially introduced the world to many of the sounds we have come to associate with electronic music. Add to that a whole internal debate about who the actual composers of the theme are, and you have a story that deserves to be told.

Doctor Who

“Doctor Who” is a classic science fiction series with cult status. The Doctor is referred to as the “Time Lord”, a time-traveling scientist from a distant planet who travels through time and space in a shop known by the acronym TARDIS. A TARDIS is a machine that is larger on the inside than the outside and is designed to change its appearance depending on its surroundings. The Doctor is also able to evolve his biology, allowing him to appear as many different people over the course of the series. The Doctor loves Earth, so he makes many trips here to save the planet or recruit Earthlings to help him with tasks in the galaxy.

Release date March 17, 2006

Pour Jodie Whittaker, Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Smith

Main genre Science fiction

Seasons 14

How did the original Doctor Who theme come about?

But perhaps we are a little ahead of ourselves. Maybe it’s best to start at the beginning, 1963. Back then The BBC had just launched a new science fiction series that few could have imagined would become a cultural juggernaut that would still be making waves 60 years in the future. The show in question was natural Doctor Who, the now-popular ongoing story about an Earth-obsessed alien who travels through space and time, always with at least one lucky companion. Things were set in motion for the series to begin its first-ever starring season William Hartnell as the first incarnation of the titular Doctor, but among many questions that still needed to be resolved was which tune would introduce Britain – and eventually the world – to the adventures of the TARDIS crew.

At the time, the BBC commissioned Ron Grainer to write the opening theme for their latest show. The piece subsequently received a new adaptation by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a sound effects project set up in 1958 to produce new sounds for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s radio and television stations. More specifically, the theme was to be reworked by one Delia Derbyshire, a name that would become one of the greatest in the history of electronic music and influence modern acts such as Aphex twin, PortisheadAnd The chemical brothers. The end result would be something so different and unique that Grainer himself would have difficulty recognizing it as his original composition.

We have to thank Delia Derbyshire for the iconic theme from Doctor Who

Okay, but what exactly made Derbyshire’s take on Grainer’s creation so special? Well, Grainer was well aware that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop crew used some very complicated techniques in their projects. So he gave them a very simple piece of music with just a handful of instructions like “bubble of wind” and “clouds.” And to bring Grainer’s vision to life, Derbyshire used techniques such as filtered white noise, plucking a single string, and connecting a keyboard to equipment typically used to calibrate recorders.

Lacking synthesizers and stereo equipment, Derbyshire and her team recorded the sounds in mono and put them on tape “inch by inch by inch,” as she put it. An entire orchestra was built from individual notes, as explained by Dick Mills, one of the sound engineers involved in the project. The notes were then cut and pasted manually as digital editing software was not available at the time.

In an interview with the BBC, Mills further explains that most melodies are divided into three parts: the rhythm, the melody and the “little bits and pieces above it.” So the Derbyshire team recorded their sound on three separate tapes, which were then loaded into three different machines. To put these sounds together, the crew had to press play on the three devices at the same time. In case you’re a music fan and want to delve into the details of how the whole thing works, there’s an entire website dedicated to breaking down the tune. It may sound simple, but only in theory: can you even imagine how in sync they had to be for everything to work out in the end? Additionally, this early form of multitracking was virtually unheard of at the time Derbyshire and her team first used it.

The Doctor Who theme became a classic, but Derbyshire was never properly recognized for their work

Image via BBC

The end result of this torturous work became an issue Doctor Who for the next seventeen years. Although some changes were made over the course of the series to adapt to the new title sequences, it was not until 1980 that the intro theme received entirely new arrangements Peter Howell, which used analog synthesizers to give the theme a new feel. From then on, composers liked Murray Gold And Segun Akinola have also attempted to revise Grainer and Derbyshire’s original composition. However, even if the Doctor Who Although the theme remains a remarkable piece of music that can fill the hearts of fans around the world with a sense of adventure, it is still difficult to match the haunting melody of the original music.

But although Delia Derbyshire was instrumental in the creation of the subject as we eventually came to know it, her work was never properly acknowledged. Grainer tried to talk to the BBC about having her name included in the piece, but to this day he is the only person credited as the tune’s author. Legend has it that this decision was made for reasons of anonymity: the BBC did not want the public to get to know the members of the Radiophonic Workshop, but wanted it to remain known simply as an ensemble. Today, however, at least most of the series’ die-hard fans recognize that Derbyshire played an integral role in shaping the series’ theme.

Delia Derbyshire never got to see the revival of Doctor Who

Image via BBC

Still, it’s sad to realize that the BBC doesn’t extend the same kindness to Derbyshire as Whovians, especially considering how tough it was for her before she came to the workshop. Derbyshire once said that her love of abstract music came from the sounds of air raid sirens during the Second World War, and graduated from Cambridge with a BA in mathematics and music. In one of her first attempts to get a job in the recording industry, she was rejected by Decca because the company didn’t employ women. However, in 1960 she got a job as a trainee at the BBC and in 1962, a year before she started working at the BBC Doctor Who topic she was transferred to the Radiophonic Workshop. Throughout her career she has worked with names like Yoko Ono And The Royal Shakespeare Company. At some point she started to get recognition for her BBC work, but only after Doctor Who Topic hit televisions.

Derbyshire left the BBC in 1973, feeling out of place in an environment she found increasingly corporate and unfriendly to creative work. Although she continued to work as a musician privately, she almost disappeared from the public eye. She died in 2001 at the relatively young age of 64, four years before her most famous creation was released to the public again Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor.

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