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Sounds inspired by galaxies far, far away

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Weird Instruments Behind Sci-Fi's Most Memorable Themes

Some of the most distinctive soundtracks come from the great science fiction films and television series. When Doctor Who, about a mysterious alien time traveller, first aired in 1963 it was heralded by eerie theme music. Unidentifiable machine sounds and a bizarre whooshing were followed by a warbling electronic base line, over which played a high-pitched melody.

The original tune, written by the Australian-born composer Ron Grainer, was brought to life by Delia Derbyshire in the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop using electronic gadgetry.

Grainer was asked to write an "other-worldly" theme tune, which he handed to Derbyshire who then transformed it. When Grainer heard it he asked: "Did I really write this?" Derbyshire replied: "Most of it."

That distinctive theme music has undergone several regenerations to arrive at the version used in the latest series. This new symphonic version, arranged by British composer Murray Gold, will be played live at the concert Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular at Sydney Opera House from December 15-21.

As a classically trained composer, Grainer would probably appreciate the full orchestral treatment. Born in Queensland in 1922 he studied violin and composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He later moved to England where he found work as a composer at the BBC.

He had written the theme music for detective series Maigret and sitcom Steptoe And Son before being commission for the Doctor Who theme in 1963. Although he offered to split credit with Derbyshire for her significant input into shaping the theme, BBC rules wouldn't allow it. Grainer also wrote the music for sci-fi spy drama The Prisoner (1967) and the post-apocalyptic zombie thriller The Omega Man (1970).

Another Australian composer, Dudley Simpson, provided soundtracks for Doctor Who in the 1960s and '70s, also writing the theme for a new science fiction series Blake's Seven. He was dumped from Doctor Who in 1980 when the producer decided the Radiophonic Workshop would provide all of the music.

The Doctor Who theme arrived at the end of the era when most sci-fi films used weird electronic instruments.

American composer Bernard Herrmann had been a trailblazer in the scene, employing a theremin. Invented in the '20s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, it was played by waving the hands over a metal loop and an antenna, producing a wavering note that could be varied in pitch or volume by moving the hands. Herrmann used it in the soundtrack of 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still. Ukranian-born American composer Dmitri Tiomkin also used a theremin for The Thing From Another World (1951).

The Forbidden Planet (1956) was the first mainstream Hollywood film to have an entirely electronic soundtrack. It was created by musicians Louis Barron and his wife Bebe, using an instrument they invented based on a ring modulation circuit, allowing pitch and amplitude to be varied electronically. It was the forerunner of the synthesiser.

By the '60s the electronic soundtrack was becoming a sci-fi cliche, so composers experimented with other ways to represent the immensity of space or the oddities of alien life in musical form.

The theme music for Star Trek, composed by Alexander Courage, used some electronic sounds with elements of classical music such as horns and an ethereal choral line.

For the 1968 film Planet Of the Apes set in a future that has become more primitive, American composer Jerry Goldsmith drew inspiration from the modern orchestral composer Edgard Varese.

He used instruments such as mixing bowls that were beaten and a slide whistle, or had musicians play traditional instruments in unusual ways. The result is a heavily rhythmic, bestial soundtrack that was nominated for an Oscar.

The pilot and first episodes of Lost In Space, which premiered in 1965, recycled music from The Day The Earth Stood Still but used more traditional strings and brass with occasional electronic intrusions for its quirky theme music.

That theme was written by American composer John Williams who went on to write the grand orchestral scores for Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1979) among others.

Some of Williams' inspiration for his large orchestral sci-fi soundtracks was drawn from Stanley Kubrick's 1968 space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick had commissioned composer Alex North, who composed the music for Spartacus, to compose the score but ditched that in favour of the now familiar pieces by Richard and Johann Strauss as well as the jarring dischordancy of Gyorgi Ligeti. 

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  • APA 6th ed.: Lennon, Troy (2012-12-10). Sounds inspired by galaxies far, far away. The Daily Telegraph (Australia) p. 25.
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  • Chicago 15th ed.: Lennon, Troy. "Sounds inspired by galaxies far, far away." The Daily Telegraph (Australia), edition, sec., 2012-12-10
  • Turabian: Lennon, Troy. "Sounds inspired by galaxies far, far away." The Daily Telegraph (Australia), 2012-12-10, section, 25 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Sounds inspired by galaxies far, far away | url=,_far_away | work=The Daily Telegraph (Australia) | pages=25 | date=2012-12-10 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=21 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Sounds inspired by galaxies far, far away | url=,_far_away | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=21 July 2024}}</ref>