The Doctor Who theme music is a piece of music written by Australian composer 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. It is used as the theme for the science fiction program Doctor Who, and has been adapted and covered many times.
Although numerous arrangements of the theme have been used on television, the main melody has remained the same. The theme was originally written and arranged in the key of E minor. Most versions of the theme - including the current arrangement by Segun Akinola - have retained the use of the original key, with exceptions being Peter Howell (F# minor) and Keff McCulloch's (A minor) arrangements.
Although widely listed in reference works, and many series soundtrack albums, under the title "Doctor Who Theme", its official title is "Doctor Who", although its initial sheet music release used the now-deprecated form "Dr. Who".
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 (assisted by Dick Mills) of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used musique concrète techniques to realise a score written by composer Ron Grainer. Each 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 main, pulsing bassline rhythm was created from a recording of a single plucked string, played over and over again in different patterns created by splicing copies of the sound, with different pitches and notes achieved by playing the sample in different speeds. The swooping melody and lower bassline layer were created by manually adjusting the pitch of oscillator banks to a carefully timed pattern. The non-swooping parts of the melody were created by playing a keyboard attached to the oscillator banks. The rhythmic hissing sounds, "bubbles" and "clouds", were created by cutting tape recordings of filtered white noise.
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." However 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 E minor phrygian mode.
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, a slightly modified version of the first, 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, from the Patrick Troughton serial The Faceless Ones onwards (although it was originally made for The Macra Terror, a production error led to the previous arrangement still being used) 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. Ayres revised the mix in 2006, for the Doctor Who DVD box set "The Beginning", as the 2002 mix contained an editing error in the bassline.
During the Third Doctor's era, beginning in 1970, the theme tune was altered. The theme was edited to match the new credit sequence, with an added stutter/pre-echo to the bassline at the start of the theme, 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 series - 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 1970 Derbyshire arrangement, but lacking the short bassline stutter 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.)
The first single arising fron the show to make the UK Singles Chart was "Dr. Who" by Mankind. The track was based on the theme music and was Mankind's first and only hit single. Released by Pinnacle on 25 November 1978, the song peaked at Number 25 in the UK Singles Chart and ran for 12 weeks in the BBC Top 75.
For Season 18, Radiophonic Workshop staffer Peter Howell provided a new arrangement performed on analog synthesisers, and having more dynamic and glossy, but less haunting feel. Its bassline was created on a Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser, with reversed echo added, adding to its characteristic "zshumm" sound and emphasizing especially the bass slides (which are otherwise still more upfront than in the Derbyshire theme). The sting at the beginning was also created with the CS-80, using its unique ring modulator section. The opening line of the main melody was played on an ARP Odyssey Mk III, the second on an EMS Vocoder 5000, and the "middle eight" on a Roland Jupiter-4. 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 version -- again synthesizer-driven, like the Howell arrangement, only this time using digital synthesizers -- was made to sound more mysterious than previous renditions but was only used for this single season of the series. Glynn's theme reverts to the traditional key of E minor, even though it is slightly detuned in some episodes (perhaps as a result of a mistake in the dubbing stage). 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. The theme removes the bass slides which were featured in all previous official arrangements, and is instead merged into the main bassline.
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 (as well as the closing - Although the closing credits saw them extended slightly). McCulloch's theme is in the key of A minor. Delia Derbyshire was reportedly very unhappy with McCulloch's version.
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, leading into a crescendo into 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 by-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 licensing issues regarding the Grainer composition.
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. They proceeded to use this theme arrangement again from 2012's Dark Eyes onward.
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 is an element that was not present in any prior 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. 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. A second soundtrack with music from the third series plus the 2007 Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned was released on 5 November 2007.
In November 2007, following the BBC's announcement that it was requiring all series to implement a shorter closing credits sequence, 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. It has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra as part of the celebration of 75 years at Maida Vale.
From "The Eleventh Hour" the theme received a complete reworking to tie in with the new cast, production design and title sequence design. Arranged by Murray Gold, this theme, while still retaining Gold's own "The Chase" counter-melody, has the bassline and electronic melody redone by Gold on a synthesizer. The reworking was 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 end credits featured only a short arrangement with introductory fanfare and the final notes of the main theme. The only exception to this was at the end of "The Beast Below", where the full theme tune begins under the trailer for "Victory of the Daleks". This is the only episode with this arrangement to feature the 'middle eight'.
The theme and title sequence was revised yet again the 2012 Christmas Special, "The Snowmen" to coincide with a change of companion. This new piece retains the melodic fanfare of the opening bars, as well as Gold's bassline and lead - albeit with all of them modified (with the latter two's timbre modified - especially the bassline, and the lead dipping slightly downwards during the first high B note) and lacking both the heavy use of percussion from the previous arrangement and "The Chase" counter-melody that featured in all previous Gold arrangements (as well as, probably, the bass slides). However, for the end credits of this episode, the previous arrangement was still used (this possibly being a production update). This arrangement was revised further for "The Bells of Saint John", featuring a more prominent bassline and removing the electronic beeps during the opening fanfare. The end credits were updated to use this version of the theme, now featuring the main melody repeated twice, in place of the fanfare. The ending of the opening theme was altered to incorporate some orchestral elements from the 2010-12 version, along with some other minor changes. The 'sting' is unusually quiet in this closing arrangement, often being drowned by the last seconds of the 'Next Time' trailer and the start of the actual theme.
A further revision of the arrangement was made for the 50th Anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor". The fanfare over the opening bars was absent for the first time since 2010, and more of the electronic elements were removed or replaced (but the percussion and bassline were made more prominent, and the bass slides were re-instated as well) . The 'middle eight' section was also reinstated, for the first time since 2010's "The Beast Below".
For the 2013 Christmas special, "The Time of the Doctor", the theme used throughout Series 7 Part 2 was reinstated.
The arrangement of the theme was once again revisited in 2014 to mark the introduction of Peter Capaldi as the twelfth incarnation of The Doctor. This version removed the opening fanfare of the 2010-12 and 2012-13 versions, returning to the traditional opening bars with a prominent bassline, accompanied by bells and a variety of futuristic sound effects, as well as a new sting as the theme opens. This leads into the main melody, now more electronic and screech-like in homage to the Howell and Glynn themes of the 1980s. "The Chase" counter-melody is completely absent from this version of the theme. The 'middle eight' is absent from any broadcast version of the theme, and as such the closing credits cut straight to the main melody as they did in Series 7 Part 2. However, it was reinstated for an extended version of the theme released on the series 8 soundtrack album in May 2015.
As of the third episode of Capaldi's debut season, "Robot of Sherwood", the new 2014 theme was suddenly polished further, blending in the intro transition sound and bass elements of the 2008 version.
In the fourth episode of the ninth series, the intro has an electric guitar playing throughout, which continues from the Doctor playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the pre-intro scene on an electric guitar.
The theme music received another revision in 2018 for Jodie Whittaker's first series as the Doctor, this time by new composer Segun Akinola. Akinola's version of the theme incorporates several elements of previous versions of the theme, including the melody line from the original 1963 version and cliffhanger "sting" introduced in 1970, remixed with newly synthesised elements and a drum-based bassline rhythm.