Dun-Na-Da-Dun, Da-Da-Da-Dun …

Ron Grainer’s melody for the theme from Doctor Who does this:

Everyone knows that, right? And yet for years I heard the melody as this:

Audio demonstration here:

I thought the melody continued from the upper D to the B a third below.  Years later, I wondered what was wrong with my ears. Why couldn’t I hear the right melody, with the B an octave lower?

So I did a little sleuthing, and I was helped by the impressive geeky devotion that has been lavished upon the Doctor Who theme. God bless you all.

Here’s the first version of the theme, from 1963. Delia Derbyshire was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop whiz who worked from Grainer’s score, and painstakingly edited together sections of tape containing oscillation tones, white noise and the occasional real instrument. She sped the recordings up, slowed them down, fed them back onto themselves, and edited it all with a razor blade. Grainer, deeply impressed, wanted her to get a co-composer credit, but the BBC wouldn’t allow it.

Whose idea, though, was the portamento between the notes? Surely, with such big intervals, Grainer had the swooping on his original score? Was he thinking of a theremin?

You’ll notice, in this minimalist early version, that there’s an organ sound an octave above the oscillator noise, reinforcing the upper overtone.  So you’re really hearing this:

Mark Ayres is responsible for a wonderful, detailed analysis of later versions here, and his work explains my old inability to hear the tune properly. In 1967 the intro was shortened, and electronic rising arpeggios (spangles, they’re called) were added.  You can hear them over the bass line, right from the beginning:

The spangles drop down in the mix, so by 0:18 you can still hear the melody swoop to the lower octave. 

But all of this was before I was born.  By the time I was hearing the theme , it sounded like this:

By now, the intro had been shortened again.  And there it is, at 0:11, another electronic spangle, partly to hide an edit point, and covering up the crucial part of the melody!  I hear the B from the upper organ line take over.  It’s very difficult to hear the lower oscillator note any more, and if you hadn’t heard the earlier versions (as I, a mere child, had not), that note might as well not exist.

By the 1980s the theme had been re-recorded, its key shifting up to F# minor, then back to E minor, and its melody was much clearer, but it was too late for me.  I stopped watching the show around the time Peter Davison turned into Colin Baker, with the wrong version of the theme firmly ensconced in my scone.

Mystery solved, although it should be noted that it’s also quite hard to sing the correct melody.  That big interval is not typical of a vocal line.  Here’s John Barrowman, who might be expected to know the tune, and who is no slouch as a singer, getting it wrong in precisely the same way that I used to:

Perhaps this anomaly is true of most people my age?  John Barrowman is, I notice, only a couple of years older than I, although not quite so good-looking.