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Baker: Dial M for Murder Theme (1974)

Listening exercise – John Baker's Dial M for Murder Theme (1974)

Listening exercise

If you open a history book about electronic music, Dr Who is inevitably one of the first examples listed. The science fiction setting made it a natural fit for the kinds of otherworldly textures electronic music can generate. But the real strength of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was its ability to incorporate electronic music into a wide range of programmes. Let’s have a look at an example that has largely been forgotten – the 1974 crime anthology series ‘Dial M for Murder’.

The original composition in full can be heard on Spotify

For some context, here’s the original opening titles for Episode 12, ‘Frame’:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

‘Dial M for Murder’ was an anthology series built around crime stories in which the telephone played a key role. The production lasted for one season and featured a number of then familiar faces in BBC productions. It is a great example of the sort of project that might have come through to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with a brief of ‘we need something for the opening credits’. The opening theme here was composed by John Baker.

John Baker was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, studying composition and piano. He joined the BBC in 1960 as a sound engineer, before transferring to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963 where he worked for 11 years. Baker was one of the most prolific composers at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. He quickly developed a distinctive style, embracing rhythmic elements influenced by his training as a jazz pianist, and a fascination with the musical manipulation of everyday sounds.

We can hear all of these features in the theme to ‘Dial M for Murder’. The sound of a rotary phone and the dial tone is given central emphasis, with Baker using the natural rhythm of these sound recordings to determine the tempo of the composition. This is punctuated against single bell chimes that are manipulated in a variety of ways. The source of these materials likely comes from a segmented recording of a phone ringing, but here is chopped up and treated as a unique entity, and strung together in a way that alludes to the main melody before we hear it in its entirety. All of this is accompanied by a cyclic series of descending arpeggios.

What’s really interesting here is the use of electronic processing and musique concrète techniques to create a soundtrack for a narrative crime drama. There is nothing futuristic or science-y about ‘Dial M for Murder’, and yet the use of electronic music helps make the program feel fresh, new, and different. This was the real strength of the work the BBC Radiophonic Workshop undertook, it provided an alternative vision of what a tv soundtrack could do.

Over to you

How many individual sounds can you hear in this piece? What techniques can you identify that you’ve encountered in other works we’ve listened to? Can you think of any other examples of films using electronic music in a non-genre specific way?

Further reading

Netherwood, N. (2015). An Electric Storm: Daphne, Delia, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Edinburgh, UK: Obverse Books.

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