Doctor Who theme music

Doctor Who theme music

The Doctor Who theme is a piece of music composed by Ron Grainer and realised by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Created in 1963, it was one of the first electronic music signature tunes for television and after nearly five decades remains one of the most easily recognised.

Although numerous arrangements of the theme have been used on television, the main melody has remained the same.




The original 1963 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. Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used musique concrète techniques to realise a score written by composer Ron Grainer. Each and every note was individually created by cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down segments of analogue tape containing recordings of a single plucked string, white noise, and the simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators which were 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.[1]

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 by adjusting the tape playback speed and re-recording the sound onto another tape player. This process continued until every sound was available at all the required pitches. To create dynamics, the notes were re-recorded at slightly different levels.

Each individual note was then trimmed to length by cutting the tape, and stuck together in the right order. This was done for each "line" in the music – the main plucked bass, the bass slides (an organ-like tone emphasising the grace notes), the hisses, the swoops, the melody, a second melody line (a high organ-like tone used for emphasis), and the bubbles and clouds. Most of these individual bits of tape making up lines of music, complete with edits every inch, still survive.

This done, the music had to be "mixed". There were no multitrack tape machines, so rudimentary multitrack techniques were invented: each length of tape was placed on a separate tape machine and all the machines were started simultaneously and the outputs mixed together. If the machines didn't stay in sync, they started again, maybe cutting tapes slightly here and there to help. In fact, a number of "submixes" were made to ease the process – a combined bass track, combined melody track, bubble track, and hisses.

Grainer was amazed at the resulting piece of music and when he heard it, famously asked, "Did I write that?". Derbyshire modestly replied "Most of it". Unfortunately, the BBC—who wanted to keep members of the Workshop anonymous—prevented Grainer from getting Derbyshire a co-composer credit and a share of the royalties.

The theme can be divided into several distinctive parts. A rhythmic bassline opens and underlies the theme throughout, followed by a rising and falling set of notes that forms the main melody which is repeated several times. The bridge, also known as the "middle eight", is an uplifting interlude in a major key that usually features in the closing credits or the full version of the theme. During the early years of the series the middle eight was also often heard during the opening credits (most notably in the first episode, An Unearthly Child).

The theme is written in the mode of E Phrygian, although on the original score the key signature of the piece is E minor and the mode changes are written as accidentals. On a piano this means the bass-line is played entirely using only white notes.

The theme has been often called both memorable and frightening, priming the viewer for what was to follow. During the 1970s, the Radio Times, the BBC's own listings magazine, announced that a child's mother said the theme music terrified her son. The Radio Times was apologetic, but the theme music remained.

Derbyshire created two arrangements in 1963: the first was rejected by the producers, but was released as a single. The second arrangement was used on the first episode of the programme. The two 1963 arrangements served, with only minor edits and additions requested by the producers, as the theme tune up to 1980 and the end of Season 17. The most notable of these edits were addition of 'electronic spangles', and tape echo to the bassline, from the Patrick Troughton serial The Faceless Ones onwards, and the addition of a "sting" at the start of the closing credits during Jon Pertwee's first season.

In 2002, Mark Ayres used Derbyshire's original masters to mix full stereo and surround sound versions of the theme.


During the Third Doctor's era, beginning in 1970, the theme tune was altered for the first time. The theme was edited to match the new credit sequence, with a shortened introduction and part of the main motif repeated to fade at the end of the titles. The "middle eight" was no longer used in the opening sequence. Over the closing credits, parts of the tune were duplicated as required for the theme to end with the credits, rather than fading out as it had previously. The "sting", an electronic shriek, was added to punctuate the episode cliffhangers and serve as a lead-in to the closing theme from The Ambassadors of Death (1970) onwards, with the "middle eight" also falling out of use in the closing credits from this serial. The first three serials of Season 8 reverted to the 1967 arrangement before reinstating the Third Doctor's arrangement for the last two serials of that year. During the Fourth Doctor era, the "middle eight" was heard on only four episodes during his first six seasons – The Invasion of Time parts 3,4 & 6 and The Armageddon Factor part 6. The adoption of Peter Howell's arrangement in 1980 re-instated the section.

In 1972, there was an attempt by Brian Hodgson and Paddy Kingsland, with Delia Derbyshire acting as producer, to modernise the theme tune using the Radiophonic Workshop's modular "Delaware" synthesiser (named after the Workshop's location at Delaware Road). The "Delaware" arrangement, which had a distinct Jew's harp sound, was not well received by BBC executives and was abandoned. The master tapes were given to a fan at the 1983 Longleat celebrations by Hodgson and were never returned. The episodes that used it were redubbed with the old Derbyshire arrangement, but lacking the repeated notes at the beginning of the music. The Delaware version was accidentally left on some episodes which were sold to Australia, and survives today in this form. (The complete version of this arrangement of the music is included as an extra on the DVD release of Carnival of Monsters; it is also included on the CD release Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: Volume 2: New Beginnings 1970–1980.)


For Season 18, Radiophonic Workshop staffer Peter Howell provided a new arrangement performed on analogue synthesisers, giving a more dynamic and glossy, but less haunting feel. Its bassline was created on a Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser, with reversed echo added, creating its characteristic "zshumm" sound. The main melody was played on an ARP Odyssey Mk III.[2] The 1980 arrangement added the sting to the opening theme as well, while the "middle eight" was included in the closing theme arrangement of all episodes. Howell's theme is in the key of F♯ minor.

The Howell theme was eventually replaced by a new arrangement by Dominic Glynn for Season 23's The Trial of a Time Lord (1986). This synthesiser-driven version was arranged to sound more mysterious than previous renditions but was only used for this single season of the series. Glynn's theme reverts back to the traditional key of E minor, even though it is slightly detuned. The bassline was performed on a Roland Juno-6 synthesiser, while the melody and filtered noise effects were performed on a Yamaha DX21 and Korg 770 respectively.[3]

The Glynn arrangement was itself replaced by a new arrangement by Keff McCulloch for the Seventh Doctor's era beginning with Season 24 (1987). McCulloch's arrangement was made using a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesiser, with the initial 'sting' replaced by a crashing explosive sound. Producer John Nathan-Turner stated that the new music, logo and title sequence were to signal a fresh start to the programme. This was the first version of the theme since the little-used 1973 Delaware version to incorporate the "middle eight" into the opening credits. McCulloch's theme is in the key of A minor. Delia Derbyshire was reportedly very unhappy with McCulloch's version.[4]


The 1996 Doctor Who television Movie used a fully orchestrated version, arranged by John Debney. This contained a new introduction, being a quieter piece of music over which part of the Eighth Doctor's (Paul McGann) opening narration was read, building up to a crescendo as it began with the "middle eight", a departure from previous versions of the theme. Debney's version of the theme begins in A minor, but after the middle eight the main melody is transposed back to E minor, as in the original score. Less evident in this version of the score is the rhythmic bassline that opens and underscores all previous (and later) televised versions of the theme; a bassline is present, but it does not rise and fall in the same way. Debney is the only composer that receives screen credit during the movie, with the then-deceased Grainer not being credited on screen for composing the theme. Debney at one point was nearly asked to compose a new theme due to music licensing issues regarding the Grainer composition.[5]


When Big Finish Productions began to produce Eighth Doctor audio plays in 2001 (beginning with Storm Warning), they approached composer David Arnold, who produced a new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme for the Eighth Doctor. The Arnold arrangement was used for every Eighth Doctor audio play until 2008's Dead London.

In 2005, the television series was revived. Murray Gold's theme arrangement featured samples from the 1963 original with further elements added: an orchestral sound of low horns, strings and percussion and part of the Dalek ray-gun and TARDIS materialisation sound effects. Rapidly rising and falling strings, known by fans as "The Chase",[citation needed] is an element that was not present in any previous version of the theme.

The sting once again served as the lead-in to the theme, but Gold omitted the "middle eight" from both the opening and closing credits. Gold has said that his interpretation was driven by the title visual sequence he was given to work around. Gold created a variation on his arrangement for the closing credits of "The Christmas Invasion", which was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Unlike his arrangement for the 2005 series, this version restored the "middle eight"; it was also used for the closing credits of the 2006 and 2007 series.

A soundtrack of Gold's incidental music for the new series was released by Silva Screen Records on 4 December 2006. Included on the album are two versions of the theme: the 44-second opening version, as arranged by Gold, and a longer arrangement that includes the middle eight. Often erroneously cited as being the same as the end credits version, this second version is in fact a new arrangement and recording.[6][7] Gold also created another new arrangement of the theme which was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales during a special televised concert, Doctor Who: A Celebration which was broadcast in November 2006 as part of the annual Children in Need appeal.[8] A second soundtrack with music from the third series plus the 2007 Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned was released on 5 November 2007.[9]

In November 2007, following the BBC's announcement that it was requiring all series to implement a shorter closing credits sequence,[10] Murray Gold produced a third version featuring additional drums, piano and bass guitar and a variation of "The Chase" counter-melody while retaining the original Derbyshire electronic melody line, used from the Christmas 2007 episode. The 2008 series featured a modified arrangement of this version.

In 2005, a new orchestral arrangement by Christopher Austin was commissioned by the BBC for the Blue Peter prom and performed by the BBC Philharmonic.[11] It has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra as part of the celebration of 75 years at Maida Vale.[12]


For series 5, the theme received a complete reworking to tie in with the brand new cast, production design, and title sequence design. Arranged by Murray Gold, the new theme retains both the original Derbyshire composition, and Gold's own "The Chase" counter-melody. The reworking is something of a departure from all previous arrangements, with a prominent new melodic fanfare theme playing in the opening bars, and a percussion sound accenting each quaver of the rhythm. The middle eight is to date only heard at the end of "The Beast Below", achieved when the theme tune was played under the trailer for "Victory of the Daleks" allowing a longer version of the theme to play at the end of the episode.

Remixes, remakes, inspirations and references

  • In 1972, Jon Pertwee recorded a version of the Doctor Who theme, with spoken lyrics, entitled "Who Is The Doctor?".
  • "One of These Days", the opening track of Pink Floyd's 1971 album "Meddle", echoes the theme about 3 minutes into the track. The reference was made more explicit in live performances.
  • In 1988, The Timelords (better known as The JAMs or The KLF) released the single "Doctorin' the TARDIS". The song used samples from Doctor Who, Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part 2)", and Sweet's "Blockbuster", including samples from Genesis Of The Daleks. The single reached number one in the UK Singles Chart on 12 June, and also charted highly in Australia and New Zealand.[13] The song, along with "Rock and Roll (Part 2)", was combined with Green Day's "Holiday" for "Dr. Who on Holiday", a track on the mash up album American Edit.
  • Other bands have covered or reinterpreted the Doctor Who theme, such as DJ duo Coldcut, the electronica band Orbital, the bands Dr. Pablo, Mankind and Dub Syndicate, New Zealand band Blam Blam Blam, the Australian string ensemble Fourplay, and disco act Mankind. The Orbital mix is heard as background music in the comedy film Haggard. The Doctor Who theme music was also used as the closing guitar solo in the 2007 song "TV" by Australian jazz rap band True Live.
  • Comedian Bill Bailey produced a humorous interpretation, "Dr. Qui", in the style of Belgian jazz;[14] he also has a routine about incidental music from Doctor Who that ends with a more traditional version.[15]
  • Muse's 2009 song "Uprising" has been said to sound very similar to the Doctor Who Theme.[16][17][18][19]
  • The Whomix fan site features over 300 different fan-created remixes and recreations of the Doctor Who theme.[20]
  • In the Family Guy episode "Blue Harvest", the opening credits used for the majority of the Fourth Doctor's era, along with a short section of the Derbyshire theme, are shown outside the cockpit when the Millennium Falcon enters hyperspace.
  • In May 2010, Parry Gripp the lead singer of Nerf Herder produced his own version of a Doctor Who Theme song. Throughout the entire song he makes references to the show[21]
  • In June 2010, Matt Smith (the Eleventh Doctor) appeared on stage with Orbital, who performed a version of the Doctor Who theme, at the Glastonbury Festival.[22]
  • In July 2010, the world music trio Manta performed a version of the theme song, combining guitar, didgeridoo and cello, on Spicks and Specks.[23]
  • In November 2010, Matt Smith appeared on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, a late night talk show hosted by Craig Ferguson in Hollywood, and Ferguson made an announcement during the show that a cold open had been filmed for that episode which was a version of the theme, with custom-written lyrics, but that "rights issues" could not be cleared up, and that was why it hadn't actually aired. He encouraged viewers to complain about this, on Twitter and in other venues, and the clip was leaked to the Internet about a week later; it was later aired as the open of the 6 January 2011 episode which featured Alex Kingston.[24][25]
  • The Doctor Who theme was used by The Howard Stern Show as a theme whenever Eric the Midget would call the show from circa 2004–2010. The theme was chosen by Stern Show writer/sound effects guru Fred Norris as a good compliment to Eric's fantasy-based ravings and science project appearance.
  • John Barrowman (companion "Jack Harkness") and David Tennant (the "Tenth Doctor") performed an impromptu rendition of the theme on the Doctor Who celebrity episode of The Weakest Link; Barrowman "sung" the melody while Tennant provided the baseline with his hands on the lectern and by vocalising.

See also


  1. ^ "A History of the Doctor Who Theme". 
  2. ^ Documentary included on BBC DVD release of The Leisure Hive
  3. ^ Glynn, Dominic. (7 March 2007). Dominic Glynn Questions and Answers (free registration required). Forums. Retrieved on 8 October 2007.
  4. ^ Related by BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer Mark Ayres on BBC DVD of Survival.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Silva Screen Records News
  7. ^ "BBC – Doctor Who – News – Soundtrack details". BBC. 6 November 2006. Retrieved 9 November 2006. 
  8. ^ An edited version of this broadcast, entitled Music and Monsters, is included as a bonus feature in the Series 3 DVD set
  9. ^ "Soundtrack Vol 2 Release Date". Gallifrey One. 30 September 2007. Archived from the original on 8 November 2007. Retrieved 2 October 2007. 
  10. ^ "BBC – Commissioning – Programme and Credits Durations". BBC. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  11. ^ Joanna Morehead (26 July 2005). "BBCPO/Lai". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 November 2009. 
  12. ^ "Friday Night is Music Night". BBC. 20 October 2009. 
  13. ^ Peel, Ian (7 July 2008). "Doctor Who: a musical force?". The Guardian. UK: blog. Retrieved 7 July 2008. 
  14. ^ Bill Bailey: Dr Qui Ringtone
  15. ^ "Is It Bill Baily?", Episode 1, BBC2, Aired 20 February 1998
  16. ^ Luke Lewis (03/08/09). "Muse's Timelord-Tastic New Track, 'Uprising'". 
  17. ^ |work=New Music Express}}
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  22. ^ Ann Lee (28 June 2010). "Doctor Who's Matt Smith performs with Orbital at Glastonbury. Doctor Who star Matt Smith made a surprise appearance with Orbital at Glastonbury last night.". 
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