The electronic origins of one of TV’s most iconic tunes.
In 1963, the most influential piece of electronic music debuted to an audience of millions, under the guise of a “simple” TV show theme tune.
The tune, of course, was the original version of the forever evolving Doctor Who theme song. But how was the original made? And in 1963, years before synthesizers were made available to the public, how were these electronic sounds created?
The answer lies within BBC Radiophonic Workshop, established as the British Broadcasting Company’s home base for custom made sound effects, music, and audio experimentation, where composer Delia Derbyshire was given sheet music written by Ron Grainer. Derbyshire was tasked with making the theme song sound alien (or “out of this world” as some may say), which she achieved through the use of then-modern technology, in ways no other musician would have dreamed of.
Derbyshire was a noted musique concrete composer, a style of music in which random found sounds (meaning literally any sound imaginable) are recorded onto tape, and then mixed with other sounds to create a finished piece (one notable example of musique concrete is The Beatles’ “Revolution 9”). For the Doctor Who theme, Derbyshire had three main “instruments” she needed to create from sound: a bass, a melodic tone, and whooshing sounds (described in Grainer’s sheet notes as “bubbles” and “clouds”.)
Beginning with the bass, Derbyshire recorded the sound of a single plucked string onto quarter inch tape, and then slowed the recording down, consequently decreasing the pitch of the sound as well. The slowed pluck tone was then copied onto many other small sections of tape by rerecording the sound back into the tape machine. Derbyshire slowed and sped up the tape machine in order to create the different notes of the bassline. She then carefully organized the individual tape strips into one, long strip, in such a way that the iconic “dun dun dun, dun dun dun” pattern was created.
For the melody, Derbyshire turned to the oscillator, a device used to create pure sound tones. The purest of these tones, a sine wave, was used as the sound for the main lead of the theme. Derbyshire recorded herself playing the oscillator at many different pitches in time with the music, frequently sliding between notes to give the theme its famous gliding melody.
Finally, Derbyshire used the oscillator again for the whooshing noises, but used the machine’s white noise function paired with a volume and cutoff control knob to create multiple rhythmic pulsing noises. These noises were recorded onto tape, and then spliced together in such a way that they would be in time with the music.
Once the main three components of the song were recorded individually, the tape the tracks were recorded on were fed into three separate tape machines and played simultaneously. The audio of all the elements being played at once was recorded onto another, separate tape, which became the final master tape for the theme song.
The creation of the Doctor Who theme song is a technological marvel. Derbyshire’s creative use of tape machines in some ways predicted the future of recorded music, with oscillators eventually becoming connected to keyboards to create synthesizers, and multitrack tape players becoming more readily available for purchase just a few years down the line. Sixty years later, Derbyshire’s arrangement is still one of the most iconic pieces of television history.