With Delia Derbyshire awarded with a posthumous honorary doctorate of arts and the recent passing of Who music legend Dudley Simpson, I felt compelled to write about how important music is in Doctor Who.
First, let me state an obvious fact: opening credits are part of a TV show’s identity. You hear a certain tune and you know instantly to which TV show it belongs. Take The X-Files for instance; Mark Snow’s opening credits still make a strong impression on people! The more famous the show is, the more you remember the tune and next time you hear it, you instantly tag it to the show. Doctor Who enters in that category and yet the famous tune still manages to get its own identity, since every Doctor gets his own variation. One could say that the Doctor’s story is summarised in the music: the same character who changes faces on a regular basis becomes a tune that gets a variation on a regular basis.
Back in the days of silent movies, music had a part to play too, as live pianists would often play the background music, bringing more intensity to the movie by highlighting scenes. As I write those lines, I find myself trying to picture a theatre showing a silent movie with no music accompanying it. Wouldn’t it feel strange? Especially since it would mean that any noise made by the audience would be perceptible! Frightening thought, especially now that theatres tend to increase the volume in order to cover the audience’s sounds from the crisps bag crumpling to the chatting.
As soon as sound could be incorporated into movies, music became a part of it with the same objective as before: accompanying the audience, highlighting scenes. The idea being of course for music to blend in so well that the audience would eventually follow the movie without realising that music would influence one’s perception of the story or the characters.
The same rule can apply to TV shows. For instance, during the Third Doctor era, a theme would be composed for a character or even a specific object. The most obvious examples being the Keller Machine theme or the Master’s theme, both composed by the late Dudley Simpson. Doctor Who can be considered as a composer’s favourite playground when it comes to music and it’s very interesting to go through the evolution of the music in Doctor Who, but since some people did it already, I will just skip that part and invite you to read this page.
Instead, let’s talk about Beethoven.
While Series 9’s Before the Flood isn’t one of my favourite episodes, there is one brilliant scene after the Doctor finishes explaining the bootstrap paradox using Beethoven as an example.
Who really composed Beethoven’s Fifth?
This question is followed by a rock excerpt of Beethoven’s Fifth played by the Doctor himself (I personally think that it’s another hint that he is Beethoven, but that’s another story entirely) that leads to an unusual rock version of the opening tune. This is probably the point where music reaches its full potential, when it becomes obvious that music has multiple dimensions. First, the character talks about music, then he plays it, then it spreads into the credits, thus reaching a new level.
This is another proof that music plays an important role in Doctor Who. For over 50 years, music has accompanied the Doctor and has helped shape his character by highlighting his actions (or those from his enemies). Music is not only a guide, it’s also a proper companion, because you know what? Composers come and go just like the Doctor’s companions do, so why wouldn’t music become a proper character and be that invisible companion that sees everything and yet can only be heard.