The Fascinating Story of How Delia Derbyshire Created the Original Doctor Who Theme

We’ve focused a fair bit here on the work of Delia Derbyshire, pioneering electronic composer of the mid-twentieth century—featuring two documentaries on her and discussing her role in almost creating an electronic backing track for Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” There’s good reason to devote so much attention to her: Derbyshire’s work with the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop laid the bedrock for a good deal of the sound design we hear on TV and radio today.

And, as we pointed out previously, her electronic music, recorded under her own name and with the band White Noise, influenced “most every current legend in the business—from Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers to Paul Hartnoll of Orbital.” Along with documentaries and high praise in the music press, the late Derbyshire now has her own Exhibition at the Coventry Music Museum, as of December 6 of last year.

Yet for all her influence among dance music composers and sound effects wizards, Derbyshire and her music remain pretty obscure—that is except for one composition, instantly recognizable as the original theme to the BBC’s sci-fit hit Doctor Who (hear it at the top), “the best-known work of a ragtag group of technicians,” writes The Atlantic, “who unwittingly helped shape the course of 20th-century music.” Written by composer Ron Granier, the song was actually brought into being by the Radiophonic Workshop, and by Derbyshire especially. The story of the Doctor Who theme’s creation is almost as interesting as the tune itself, with its “swooping, hissing and pulsing” that “manages to be at once haunting, goofy and ethereal.” Just above, you can see Derbyshire and her assistant Dick Mills tell it in brief.

What we learn from them is fascinating, considering that compositions like this are now created in powerful computer systems with dozens of separate tracks and digital effects. The Doctor Who theme, on the other hand, recorded in 1963, was made even before basic analog synthesizers came into use. “There are no musicians,” says Mills, “there are no synthesizers, and in those days, we didn’t even have a 2-track or a stereo machine, it was always mono.” (Despite popular misconceptions, the theme does not feature a Theremin.) Derbyshire confirms; each and every part of the song “was constructed on quarter-inch mono tape,” she says, “inch by inch by inch,” using such recording techniques as “filtered white noise” and something called a “wobbulator.” How were all of these painstakingly constructed individual parts combined without multi track technology? “We created three separate tapes,” Derbyshire explains, “put them onto three machines and stood next to them and said “Ready, steady, go!” and pushed all the ‘start’ buttons at once. It seemed to work.”

The theme came about when Grainer received a commission from the BBC after his well-received work on other series. He “composed the theme on a single sheet of A4 manuscript,” writes Mark Ayres in an extensive online history, “and sent it over from his home in Portugal, leaving the Workshop to get on with it.” Aware that the musique concrète techniques Derbyshire and her team used “were very time-consuming, Grainer provided a very simple composition, in essence just the famous bass line and a swooping melody,” as well as vaguely evocative instructions for orchestration like “wind bubble” and “cloud.” Ayres writes, “To an inventive radiophonic composer such as Delia Derbyshire, this was a gift.” Indeed “upon hearing it,” The Atlantic notes, “a very impressed Grainer barely recognized it as his composition. Due to BBC policies at the time, Granier—against his objections—is still officially credited as the sole writer.” But the credit for this futuristic work—which sounds absolutely like nothing else of the time and “which brought to a wide audience methods once exclusive to the high modernism of experimental composition”—should equally go to Derbyshire and her team. You can contrast that ahead-of-its-time original theme with all of the iterations to follow in the video just above.

Related Content:

Hear Seven Hours of Women Making Electronic Music (1938- 2014)

Two Documentaries Introduce Delia Derbyshire, the Pioneer in Electronic Music

Meet Delia Derbyshire, the Dr. Who Composer Who Almost Turned The Beatles’ “Yesterday” Into Early Electronica

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Chris says:

    Each of us has a most favorite Doctor,I liked Rose Tyler’s Doctor very much, but he was the one I have watched the most.The music set the stage for each doctor being different and it is like having a king whit a fanfare of trumpets only played for him and never used again after he dies.
    Every woman who has had a leading or secondary role in the Dr. Who’s has been strong,and brave.
    The story during the London Blitz , Are you my Mummie, introducing Captain Jack.
    Also the Christmas story where we have a Narnia type story of going to a magical world but tied to the London Blitz, where families were sent out to the country to escape the bombs.The mother hides the fact her husband did one the way back from a bombing run.She and her children save the forest by her inner strength and in exchange her husband sees the light from the TARDIS and flies safely home to her with the crew all saved.

  • M-R says:

    Oh, Donna Noble – easily ! Wonderful to have a real adult, with zero reference to a behind-the-scenes pash going on. Or perhaps I mean a wannabe pash, eh ? :)

    And David Tennant remains indisputably the greatest Doctor of them all …

  • Evelyn Carnate says:

    Why are these comments about much later Doctor Who (made in a different century!) & not about Delia Derbyshire at all?

  • Skychazz says:

    The comments seem non-sequitur because people are watching the theme composite video embedded above and following the instructions to “leave comments below”–without realizing that those instructions are for the YouTube location and NOT OpenCulture. The proper place for comments about The Doctor are on the originating YouTube site (from which this video is embedded) and not this site.

    However, people will be people.

    I am DELIGHTED to see the wonderful Delia Derbyshire getting some recognition here again. Unless you have actually spent much time assembling analogue tape projects, you really can’t imagine the INCREDIBLY hard work and creativity that went into the original theme. Everything is SOOOOOO much easier to do these days that one can’t really appreciate what the electronic artists of the past had to do to construct their creations. It was more akin to architecture and building (or sculpture) than today’s “word processing with sound.” Delia and her ilk deserve tremendous recognition for what they were able to achieve with the most basic of equipment. That’s *real* ingenuity and creativity!

  • Rod Main says:

    “An Unearthly Child” – favourite episode because it was the first ever. Theres something about the crotchety William Hartnell Doctor that Peter Capaldi has picked up. Well done Peter.

    Delia Derbyshire’s them is subtle and haunting, weird and wonderful. Later themes have added more body, more pomp and circumstance but lost the haunting feel of the original.

    Hard to pick a favourite doctor. Tom Baker and David Tennant have a similar impish style which is invariable why they both still score highly. I wasn’t sold on Matt Smith’s “bumbly” style. Paul McGann never got to show his true colours – I suspect he could have been great. Peter Capaldi is doing a great job currently.

    Companions – the ones with brains in their heads and can find their own way out of trouble. Clara Oswold probably did it best. Perhaps due to the scriptwriters realising that damsels in distress is just a concept that has had its day. Its so boring if companions only get into trouble in order for the doctor to rescue them. Peter Purves was good …if a tad on the “needs rescuing” scale.

    The doctor’s daughter – created by a genetic device in David Tennants time. Not exactly a daughter but hard to explain as anything else. And, of course, Susan – allegedly the doctors grand-daughter (taking us back to where I came in). So possibly two female timelords still at large somewhere in space and time. Things to make you go hmmmmmm

  • Scott Liddell says:

    Just finished reading this great book which covers Deila and the workshop really well.

  • snakester says:

    Daughter jenny grand daughter susan favorite doctor David tenner he was funny favorite episode day of the doctor had all the incarnation of the doctors Including the war doctor and the unknown doctor aka the next doctor

  • Gyran says:

    Doctor Who has been a series I’ve grown up with and while I love the newer doctors for having better constructed story arcs and stronger characters all round there is a special place in at least one of my hearts for the original doctors even if I was generally too young to appreciate it at the time.

    The music of Doctor Who is, quite simply, iconic and what’s interesting is that it’s one which has never gotten tired or boring. Even when I’m watching several episodes one after another the theme song isn’t something which gets skipped in order to get to the show itself.
    Thank you Delia Derbyshire.

  • ploktak says:

    Tom Baker

  • Jeremy says:

    The modern incarnations of the Doctor Who signature tune do not compare with the original, which is magnificent. The original electronic sound should be revived.

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