Doctor Who: The Theme

The Definitive Guide to the Doctor Who Theme Music

Welcome to what aims to be the definitive guide to the theme music for long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who. This site covers the legacy of the original Doctor Who theme, composed in 1963 by Ron Grainer, realised by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, re-imagined 17 years later by the Workshop's Peter Howell, and further re-interpreted during the series' run by freelance composers Dominic Glynn and Keff McCulloch.

The Original Theme

Background

Created in 1963, the Doctor Who theme was one of the first electronic signature tunes for television and after nearly five decades remains one of the most easily recognised. The original recording of the Doctor Who theme music is widely regarded as a significant and innovative piece of electronic music, recorded well before the availability of commercial synthesisers.

The original version of the Doctor Who theme was a combined effort from Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The compositional basis for the Doctor Who theme music was delivered to the Radiophonic Workshop in mid-1963 by composer Ron Grainer on a single sheet of A4 manuscript paper containing the basic melody and bassline parts of the theme. Additionally, basic yet evocative annotations such as "wind bubble" and "cloud," based on the concept visuals already produced for the show's title sequence, were added to highlight specific sonic points of interest and loosely suggest timbre and orchestration. Grainer originally doubted that his musical ideas could be fully realised by the Workshop given the technical constraints and the time-intensive processes that would be used; in fact, much of the theme's elegance and simplicity can be put down to these constraints. Indeed, Grainer had considered the possibility of overdubbing a small instrumental ensemble, but this ultimately proved unnecessary.

Delia Derbyshire with the Jason valve oscillators

Delia Derbyshire with the Jason valve oscillators

As the original single-page score has not been made public, it is unclear how much of what we now know as the Doctor Who theme was already extant at that stage, and how much was contributed compositionally by Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills when the theme was realised. Famously, when he heard the original Radiophonic arrangement, Grainer remarked, "Did I write that?" (to which Delia replied, "Very nearly!"), and even suggested splitting his performance royalty income (although BBC policy at the time made this impossible). This hints that Delia and Dick were just as important a contribution to the theme as Ron Grainer's original ideas were.

Dick Mills in the Workshop

Dick Mills in the Workshop


About This Theme

The original theme is composed in the key of E, predominantly in the Phrygian mode. The theme runs at a tempo of approximately 140 beats per minute, but the hand-edited nature of the theme's realisation means that the exact tempo varies continuously throughout the theme.

Components

Derbyshire and Mills used musique concrète techniques to realize Grainer's score. Each note was individually created by cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down segments of magnetic tape containing recordings of a single plucked string, white noise, and the simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators (normally used for calibrating equipment and rooms, not creating music). The swooping melody and pulsating bass rhythm was created by manually adjusting the pitch of oscillator banks to a carefully timed pattern. The rhythmic hissing sounds, "bubbles" and "clouds," were created by cutting tape recordings of filtered white noise.

Bassline

As discussed in the Bassline section, the bassline is comprised of two layers.

The first layer of the Derbyshire bassline is most commonly described as a plucked string sound. It is believed that this sound was created using a steel guitar string mounted on some kind of electronic trunking cover or similar extruded piece of metal. The string was plucked and the sound recorded onto tape and heavily manipulated. A low sub-octave is also present in the bassline, which lends additional bass frequencies to the mix. From the recorded plucks, each bassline block was constructed by splicing separate pluck "samples" together into dum-de-dums, diddly-dums, and dum-dum-diddies. Each block uses two different samples, which makes them sound more natural and prevents them from becoming repetitive, but each block of the same type is the same for each pitch (for instance, all E diddly-dums are identical).

The following list denotes the samples used for each block, with "2" denoting a slightly more dominant note than "1." The samples are relative to each block, meaning that a sample marked "1" on one block is likely not the same sample marked "1" on another block.

  • Dum-De-Dums
    • The E dum-de-dum is 2-2-1.
    • The G dum-de-dum is 1-2-2.
    • The B dum-de-dum is 1-1-2.
    • The D dum-de-dum is 2-1-2
  • Diddly-Dums
    • The E diddly-dum is 2-1-1-2.
    • The B diddly-dum is 2-2-2-1.
    • The low G diddly-dum is 1-1-2-1.
    • The C diddly-dum is 1-1-2-1.
  • Dum-Dum-Diddies
    • The G high-low dum-dum-diddy is 1-1-2-2.
    • The B low-high dum-dum-diddy is 2-2-1-1.
    • The D high-low dum-dum-diddy is 2-2-1-1.

There are also some subtle variations present throughout the bassline. For example, the second G dum-de-dum in the bassline intro is notable as there is a slight bend upward as it begins. Additionally, the B, low G, and C diddly-dums are notable because the final note is less pronounced than it is on the E diddly-dum, producing more of a "duddle-uddle" sound.

The second layer, also discussed in greater detail in the Bassline section, was created using Jason valve oscillators to provide a swooping grace note lead-in to each bassline block. Put very simply, the second layer leads into the root note of each bassline block from the note below it in the scale. This is only a general guideline, however, and there are several occurrences of the second layer throughout the theme that differ.

The most notable examples occur during Melody 2, when the theme shifts from E down to B, where the second layer bends from D down to B (instead of A up to B), and during the bridge, which tends to follow its own rules. The key difference in the bridge, after the initial bend (which bends downward from A to the low G), is that every second layer section begins on the root note just below the G (which in this case is F#). This continues until the bassline has returned to B, at which point normal second layer notation resumes. The only other notable difference in the bridge is that, for the D dum-de-dum, the second layer bends from F# down to the D below it, rather than up to the D above it.

To hear the full notation of both the first and second layers of the bassline, see the Structure section.

Sine Melody

The main melody of the theme was produced using an amplitude-modulated sine wave from a signal generator primarily designed to test and calibrate radio equipment. This may have been used in conjunction with a keying unit tied to a bank of oscillators. The resulting melody sections were played alongside each other and mixed down to single tracks. The portamento glides heard in Melody 1 had to be done by hand, manually tuning the oscillator from one desired pitch to the next, which likely took a considerable number of takes before the final candidates presented themselves. This may also account for why Melody 1 is not amplitude-modulated in the same way as the other melody phrases.

A bank of Jason oscillators tied into a keying unit

A bank of Jason oscillators tied into a keying unit

Emphasis Melody

There is an additional melody line played over top the main sine lead which serves to emphasize and reinforce certain portions of the melody. This sound was created using a melodica, a wind instrument with a small keyboard controlling a row of reeds and a mouthpiece on the end.

To hear an approximation of the melody with and without emphasis, see the Structure section.

Hissing

Throughout the theme, bursts of white noise are used to add the "clouds" called for in the original notes and in the visuals of the title sequence. The first hiss in the theme is a fairly long, loud pulse of white noise. This single hiss comes in and goes out softly over the third and fourth bar in the bassline intro, just before the rhythmic hissing begins. It serves as an "intro hiss," designed to accompany the titles graphics and also setting up for the presence of white noise hissing throughout the remainder of the theme. It fades in with a series of quick volume fluctuations, peaks, then trails away again.

The rhythmic hissing consists of a series of short bursts of filtered white noise at varying pitches. These bursts, or notes, fade in softly but end abruptly. This is due to the fact that the noise bursts were generated as percussive sounds and then reversed (with additional echo applied afterward). The flowing hiss pattern used in the original theme consists of eight repeating notes, forming a pattern that repeats continuously. The relative pitch of each note is represented by the following numbers, with "1" being the highest in pitch:

1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 3, 4, 2

This pattern begins halfway through the bassline intro with a slightly different (later) alignment relative to the rest of the theme. Approaching the first Melody 1, the alignment shifts into its standard rhythm, and continues to loop this way throughout the rest of the theme. The only minor deviation from this pattern is a temporary increase in the volume of the hissing over the second repeat of the bassline solo. The flowing hiss pattern ends when the wind bubble begins at the end of the theme. 

The Derbyshire hiss loop shown using spectral analysis

The Derbyshire hiss loop shown using spectral analysis

Drones

There is a low drone that is played during the final two bars of the bassline intro, as well as at the beginning and end of the bridge. Though the drone is basically heavily filtered white noise, due to the resonance of the sound, there is a distinct tonality to it. During the intro, the drone is primarily used as a sound effect to build the intro toward its conclusion, at which point the melody enters. During the bridge, it is used more to imply a harmony. At the beginning of the bridge, a G major harmony is implied, and at the end, an E minor harmony is created. The two notes produced by the drone are A (which is the note used during the intro) and B.

A musical representation of the bridge drones is shown below.

Wind Bubble

The theme closes with a sound effect often called the "wind bubble." In actuality, this sound is produced from various sound sources used at points throughout the theme. The sound is comprised of the final held note from the second layer of the bassline (holding at E), the drone (holding at B), and a short hiss loop (structured according to the layout defined in the Hissing section above as 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2…), all of which then fade to silence. Aside from the second layer, all other sounds and loops in the theme stop when the wind bubble begins.

Structure of the Original Theme


Televised Theme (September 1963)

A number of changes were made to the August version of the theme after the original master was completed. A second master was produced in September that ultimately went on to be used on the show. Whereas the August version was more rhythmically precise, the September version was modified to sound more organic. The melody line was noticeably revised: the delay/echo effect on the sine melody was significantly reduced, and the emphasis layer was mixed much more prominently than before. Additionally, subtle changes were made to the timing of each melody section to introduce deliberate imperfections. The resulting melody feels almost more as though it is played by real musicians. Dick Mills notes:

"It's very easy to listen to musicians—they bring a piece of music to life by putting their own performance onto it. And although they are in rhythm 99% of the time, it is the little 1% that makes it a human being playing it and not a machine. … So when we did the Doctor Who music, we tried to creep in one or two, not wrong notes, but imperfections, like a little bit of tremolo in the tune. We may have shifted the beat slightly just to make it sound as though it was played by somebody with feeling, rather than a stitched together music job." (Niebur)

Also, the theme itself was significantly restructured. Around halfway through the original August version, the theme plays the bassline solo section, before moving into a restatement of almost the complete melody structure. In the September version, the theme instead draws to a close at this point, before moving into a lengthy loop of the second half of the bassline intro (bars 5 and 6). (See below for the exact structure.) The edits are notably rougher as well; the best example of this is the two Melody 1 repeats that close out the theme. In the August version, the two Melody 1 sections flow seamlessly into one another with a B low-high dum-dum-diddy. In the September version, however, the entire Melody 1 section is repeated, including the bassline, meaning that both begin with the G high-low dum-dum-diddy.

Hissing

In the September theme, the intro hiss has been moved from the third and fourth bars of the bassline intro to the first and second.

One of the most significant changes in the September theme master relates to the rhythmic hissing. The televised version of the theme uses a very different hiss structure than that of the August version. This version of the hissing is considerably more organic than its predecessor, no longer simply a consistent eight-note repeating pattern.

It begins with a modified version of the standard eight-note hissing pattern, starting halfway through the bassline intro (2, 3, 1, 4, 1, 3, 4, 2). Next is a standard, unaltered eight-note hiss pattern (1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 3, 4, 2).

When Melody 1 begins, the hissing starts with the first six notes of the standard eight-note pattern (1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 3), before chaotically ascending upward in pitch with a number of rapid and varied notes outside of the standard pitch range. This appears to have been achieved by creating a more normal pattern (2, 4, 2, 4, 1, 3, 2, 4, 1…), and bending the pattern as a whole upward as it progresses. This upward pattern ends with the addition of three repeating notes back at the standard level, trailing off with the end of Melody 1 (4, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 4, 2…). 

As Melody 2 begins, another organic and non-standard hiss pattern begins. This one is more contained within the standard range, but the timings are sometimes rapid and sporadic. It ends with a pattern of three trailing repeated notes, similar to the previous hiss pattern. It uses the following pattern: 

1, 2, 3, 2, 4, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, 4, 1,
4, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 4, 2, 4, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1…

By the end of Melody 2, all hissing has stopped, with the brief exception of a very short burst of the standard eight-note hiss pattern that plays when the bridge begins (3, 4). The hissing remains absent during most of the bridge. 

As the bridge melody nears its conclusion and the bassline first returns to B, a new form of hissing begins. This pulsing hiss is a very simple repeating burst of three quick notes (3, 1+2, 2). This pulsing hiss continues to loop rhythmically throughout the entire rest of the theme, up until the ending wind bubble begins.

Structure of the Televised Theme

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