Knob-twiddling and Wobbulators: The Music of Doctor Who

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Welcome to Day 10 of the 13 Days of Doctor Who! I hope you had a chance to visit yesterday’s stop at Patricia E. Riley, at Tangled Up In Words and be sure to check out Lisa Bigelow’s Must Love Doctor Who post tomorrow

When I used to think of the non-traditional work women did during World War II, I thought of Rosie the Riveter. Not anymore. From now on I will also think of Daphne Orem and, fair Whovian, so should you.

Daphne Orem shown here with a wobbulator.

Daphne Orem was a sound balancer during the war and afterwards she worked tirelessly to start a experimental sound creation lab. Finally, in 1958, she and Desmond Briscoe founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Much of the work done at the Workshop consisted of recording sounds and then manipulating them through editing, pitch-changing, and reversing the tape. Soon, wobbulators and oscillators were added to the mix.

But, Ryann! We are here about Doctor Who, not a history lesson!

Okay, fine. Fast forward to 1963 when Doctor Who’s first producer, Verity Lambert, contacted the Workshop looking for someone to do sound effects for her little sci-fi series, just six episodes long. Soon, the famous Doctor Who theme was born, thanks to music written by Ron Grainer and created by Dick Mills, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson from the Workshop.

Brian Hodgson scraped a key along piano strings to create the TARDIS sounds.

And, a lot of knob-twiddling.  And Hodgson scraping his mum’s house key along bass strings from a dismantled piano to create the TARDIS sound that we know and love. Genius, yes? But, seriously, don’t try that at home. (Looking at you, Mr. Murphy.)

But, you know the story doesn’t stop there. The series has endured for decades and some of those original sound effects are still used in the show today. Since 2005, Murrary Gold has been the music director for Doctor Who and has taken the show’s music on a slightly different, though no less awesome, path.

While I can appreciate the advancements of the earlier efforts, I love the addition of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for the recent Doctor Who soundtracks. Now the theme song has became a siren call between Mr. Murphy and I, summoning the other through time and space…well, from the side of the house anyway. We alternately pretend to play the violin part  or sing the electronic “Whooo-eeeee-ewwww”. Here’s the link if you want to play along at home.

The genius of Murrary Gold and Ben Foster shine through every note. Did you know Gold created a theme for each Doctor as well as Rose, Donna, the Cyberman (boo, hiss) and more? My question is, when do we get OUR own fan theme? It could be a hipster track created from the sounds of our minds being blown and our hearts being broken (#teamdonna).

Vocal performances also enhance the soundtracks of several episodes. “End of Time” is particularly moving as each time the Doctor talks of his upcoming death or bids farewell to his companions, haunting vocals in “Vale Decem” create a requiem leading us towards a regenerating Doctor. Melanie Pappenheim is also breathtaking in Rose’s farewell from Season 2.

Even with all this amazing music, Doctor Who still inspires people to create their own musical mashups in tribute to their favorite show. You can even make your own own version of the Doctor Who theme with the radiophonatron. Come on, I know you want to try it. Master this and you’ll be a hit at parties. Well, certain parties. Well, okay, just Doctor Who parties. Still, try it already!

Here is one of my favorite mashups. You might want to grab a box of tissue. No? Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Looking for a Doctor Who Theme you can dance to? Check out this groovy tune:

It takes a lot to make a television series capture your mind and your heart. I can appreciate great acting and brilliant storytelling, but an outstanding soundtrack can bring it all together and wrap it up with a bow of emotional intensity. For me, the Doctor Who soundtracks do exactly that.

“The Universe will sing you to your sleep, Doctor. This song is ending but the story never ends.” –Ood Sigma


Thanks for stopping by and thanks to Erica and Eliza for letting me climb aboard the Doctor Who train!

Mini Prize:

To enter my mini prize giveaway of a copy of Doctor Who – A Christmas Carol, the soundtrack to the upcoming Christmas episode, leave a comment with your name and email address below. This giveaway will close on midnight CST on December 24. The prize will be either CD or MP3 as appropriate.



Grand Prize:

To enter the grand prize giveaway for the Complete Sixth Series on DVD, please leave a comment with your name and email address. You may enter once at every stop on the blog tour for a total of thirteen chances. The Grand Prize giveaway is limited to the US and Canada, due to regional restrictions on the DVD. Individual contest will close at the discretion of the author, but the Grand Prize contest will accept entries on any site until midnight CST on December 24th. We will post the winner on December 25th, and notify the winner via email. 


29 thoughts on “Knob-twiddling and Wobbulators: The Music of Doctor Who

  1. Every morning I wake up to the opening bars of “I Am The Doctor”, 11’s theme. It’s absolutely genius, and whenever I hear it, I feel like I can take on the world!

    • Hi Celeste! Thanks for stopping by. I know exactly what you mean. Whether comedic or melancholy, the music hits all my emotional triggers. I’ve been listening to the music from the Christmas episode and I’m very excited to see it! Go, now, and take on the world! (Maybe later on I’ll post the blooper reel from when I made a video using Doctor Who soundtrack from my life…).

      • Please do! That sounds excellent!

        I am trying to subscribe to all the blogs from the blog hop, so I won’t miss it. 😉

  2. The music is one of my favorite parts! I like to watch Babel Colour’s videos on YouTube as well. Please enter me in the giveaway. “Traci” “tgperg (at) gmail (dot) com”

    • Hi Traci, I can’t wait to explore more of the Babel Colour videos. The one with every story from 1963-2008 looks very cool. Thanks for the info and for stopping by!

  3. I love this history-based post! Fascinating stuff, and I totally agree with you about the music. It can make or break a show or film. A great soundtrack makes the best emotional tie. For example, when I watched the trailer for The Hobbit yesterday, it was the familiar strains of themes from the LOTR trilogy that had me squeeing with joy. 🙂

  4. Everytime I hear the opening theme song to Doctor Who (classic or new) my heart skips a beat and I can’t help but grin. That song just makes me love the show even more each time I hear it.

    I loved reading about how it was made and the progression of the music. Thanks for the article and giveaway.

  5. What’s incredible to me is that Delia Derbyshire created the original Who theme *without using a keyboard!* She recorded the various tones that make up the notes of the theme onto tape, cut the tape to the appropriate length for each note, and then spliced them all together to make a tune!! The creativity of those people is truly astounding. And it’s a testimony to their legacy that Delia’s original work is still used today. Unless I am mistaken, Murray Gold used the original tune as “played” by Delia in his orchestral version of the theme.

    Great article. Thanks, Ryann!

    • Yes, Colin, I agree. It is hard to imagine the meticulous and creative work done to create this music, like trying to match the tapes up to find the part out of place. I’m glad you are drawing attention to Delia’s work! You just never know what kind of impact one person can have. Thanks for commenting!

  6. I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack, so I loved this post. The Doctor Who theme is absolutely perfect. It’s just as iconic and recognizable as the theme for The X-Files or The Simpsons; you know it’s Doctor Who, and you can’t help but feel the show when you hear it. The history behind the music is fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Sorry! Posted this in the previous day’s comment stream.

    What an awesome post to wake up to! I, for one, appreciated the history lesson but am glad you got around to the music. I also wanted to show you this video from Glastonbury 2010 with Orbital closing out the night with the Doctor Who theme and featuring Eleven (Matt Smith):

    Excellent post, Ryann!

  8. A friend and I had a mini Doctor Who marathon to celebrate my birthday last Saturday. I found myself longing to race around whenever the dramatic TIME-FOR-THE-DOCTOR-TO-RUN-LIKE-MAD music kicked in. There’s something fantastic about themes that just fill you with this intense urge to move because you’re just swept along with the emotions.

  9. This was such a great post. One of my favorite extra features on the DVDs is the special about the Dr. Who concert. The music is fabulous. Also, that mash up is ridiculously heart wrenching. Thanks for sharing!

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  11. I didn’t know most of this about the sound effects and history of the music– very interesting! I downloaded a soundboard for my phone a short while ago, though, and now have the joy of hearing the TARDIS materialize every time I get a text message! 🙂

  12. This was a great post. I certainly LOVE the music of DW. I write a lot to it. Thanks for sharing the history behind it–I’ve never even thought about it before.

  13. Thank you for the kleenex warning. Music goes right to the core of the emotions. Without the brilliant themes it would be just another show for me.

  14. I wish “Next Stop Everywhere” was available to buy! It’s my favorite. Don’t know why it hasn’t been released…

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