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Derbyshire: Dr Who Theme (1963)

Listening exercise – Delia Derbyshire's Dr Who Theme (1963)

Here’s a short listening exercise, probably the most well-known musical product from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the Dr Who main theme.

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The Dr Who Theme itself was composed by Ron Grainer on a single sheet of manuscript paper. The theme itself was fairly minimal, with its harmonic changes primarily driven by the bassline. Along with the outline of the bass and melodic contours, Grainer indicated timbral qualities such as “wind bubble” and “cloud”. Grainer deliberately kept things minimal. The goal was to create all aspects of the theme electronically, and knowing that radiophonic work took a lot of time, ensured that he supplied the workshop with minimal materials they could exert maximum creativity with. On hearing the finished version he remarked: “Did I write that?”

The entire track was created with magnetic tape by Delia Derbyshire, assisted by Dick Mills. Each note was individually hand-crafted. The electronic tones came from a set of test-tone oscillators used to test and calibrate equipment, as did the noise sweeps and other textures. The bass sound came from a recorded sound of a plucked bass string, the bass line was produced by speeding this sample up and down to change the pitch. As Mark Ayres describes the process:

Once each sound had been created, it was modified. Some sounds were created at all the required pitches direct from the oscillators, others had to be repitched later. This was done by taking the piece of tape with the sound on and looping it. The loop was placed on a tape machine and its playback speed varied until the pitch was correct, then the sound was rerecorded onto another machine. This process continued until every sound was available at all the required pitches. To create dynamics, the notes were rerecorded at slightly different levels.

Once Derbyshire and Mills had all the necessary notes and sounds available to them, they set about assembling the piece by splicing each sound together. Multiple tracks were made of the component parts (bass, melody, texture, and so on) and once each component part was constructed, they were mixed down to a single recording.

What’s really impressive about the Dr Who Theme is how alive it sounds. Today, artists spend a lot of energy making electronic music sound as though it were performed, and in this way Derbyshire’s work here is really ahead of its time. It also demonstrates an approach to applied music that isn’t found in the other examples of electronic music studios at the time, one that is working with sound materials to create a very different kind of musical experience.

Over to you

Have you heard this work before? When listening to it for the first time how did you think it was originally put together? How does it differ to the other listening examples we’ve had so far?

Further reading

Ayres, M. (2002) “Making of the Dr Who Theme Music”. Accessed 28 July 2022. https://www.effectrode.com/knowledge-base/making-of-the-doctor-who-theme-music/

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